It all started one Sunday morning several years ago at the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, California. There, among the mission furniture, the Fiesta ware and the art pottery, I came across a vintage color publicity photograph of Gene Autry. He was wearing a white Stetson and a Pendleton blanket-style coat, and he was leaning up against a wooden fence, over which he had draped a leather holster containing his Colt six-shooter. Beneath the photo were these words: “In person: GENE AUTRY, Champ and Little Champ and the Melody Ranch Stars in BIG STAGE SHOW. Tuesday, January 17, 4 and 8:30 p.m. Central School Auditorium, Wausau.” The photograph wasn’t dated, but it appeared to be from the 1950s.
Now, it’s not that I’m a big Gene Autry fan, though I have fond memories of listening to “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” when I was young. Still, I just had to have the picture. I plunked down $25 — a bargain, I thought — and brought home my little piece of musical history.
It was the beginning of a magnificent obsession.
At an antique store in Minneapolis, I was delighted to discover a framed black-and-white publicity shot of Hank Williams for just $5. (The owner obviously didn’t know who it was in the picture, since the tag said simply, “Cowboy.”) At a vintage guitar show in Denver, where I live, I came across wonderful 1950s-era photo of pedal steel legend Speedy West, nattily dressed and sitting behind his gleaming double-neck Fender guitar. Even better, it was signed, “To Bill & Julie. Thanks. Speedy West.” Now I was getting somewhere.
My next purchase was a vintage shot of Wanda Jackson wearing a sexy little fringed cowgirl number. This one even came with an “Official Wanda Jackson Fan Club” card, signed by fan club president Gladys Wadsworth and certifying that Darlene Surratt would be a member in good standing until August 1958. (The very month and year I was born — cosmic!)
And there my collection might have ended — Denver isn’t exactly brimming with this kind of stuff — if I hadn’t discovered that mother of all marketplaces, eBay. All I had to do was plug in the name of one of my favorite country singers — Webb Pierce, say, or Ernest Tubb — and chances were good that one or two vintage publicity shots would appear.
In fact, one of my first eBay purchases was a classic early-1950s shot of Tubb taken by the late Walden Fabry, one of Nashville’s finest studio photographers. (“He made us look glamorous,” Minnie Pearl once said of Fabry.) In it, Tubb is wearing a beautifully tailored white suit and his trademark wide-brimmed white cowboy hat, and he’s strumming a scratched-up Martin D-28 guitar. Smiling from ear to ear, he looks as if he’s sitting on top of the world. When I got the photograph for just $9.99 — no one else bid on it — I was, too.
There also were no other bidders on many more vintage photographs that now reside in my collection, including shots of Hank Williams (“Exclusively on MGM Records”), Faron Young (“Exclusive Management, Hubert Long, 616 Exchange Bldg.”), Roy Acuff (“WSM, Grand Ole Opry”), Webb Pierce (“To Stanley Slata, Sincerely, Webb Pierce”), and Rose Maddox (“America’s Most Colorful Entertainer”).
But I had to fight hard for some other pictures, including an otherworldly color shot, printed in the 1970s by Epic Records, of George Jones — dressed in a white shirt with enormous collar tips and what appears to be a red Naugahyde vest — and Tammy Wynette, her hair big and blond, raccoon makeup around her eyes, and wearing a white dress with two vertical rhinestone stripes down the middle. The opening price was $5, but I ended up paying $27.50 after fending off several other bidders. An early Sun Records head shot of Johnny Cash, looking implausibly young, was too good to pass up, so I hung in there and got it for $45. (Recently, a similar shot of Jerry Lee Lewis went for $150 on eBay.)
Why am I so captivated by these photographs? To me, they are windows into an era when country music was at its most vital, when songs were about love and devotion and pain and suffering, when guitars were twangy, and when performers wore the most outrageous stage outfits they could afford. They were stars, and their glossy publicity photographs reflected their elevated status. Never mind that reality was far less glamorous: the long bus trips on bad roads, the greasy diner food, the obligatory mingling with fans after the shows.
For Ernest Tubb, the grind never ended. Well into his 60s, he was still traveling 120,000 miles a year in his customized Silver Eagle tour bus. He would hit the road every Saturday night after playing the Opry and head off to some small town, where, the following night, he would perform at the local high school auditorium. Then it was on to the next show. When he died in 1984, two years after emphysema forced him into retirement, he was deeply in debt, and his gravestone was left unmarked for years.
In Fabry’s photograph, however, he looks like a million dollars.