McGuire’s images captured a youthful and magic time in country music.
The country music era of the 1970s and 80s launched the careers of some of the genre’s most beloved artists. Photographer Jim McGuire was there during that raucous and creative time and captured many of the most legendary performers and singer/songwriters of the era. Ironically he never considered photography as a living while serving in Vietnam.
“In 1963 I was a weatherman in the Air Force having fun chasing tornados around Oklahoma,” he remembers. “I had one more year to serve and was given a choice to spend it there in Midwest City or volunteer to help set up landing strips in some remote jungle country that I had never heard of. So at age 22, I volunteered for duty in Vietnam to get out of Oklahoma. I was soon made the camp photographer because I was the only SOB who knew how to use camera. I developed my first rolls of B&W film in an old Army tent at night, mentored by a 75-year-old Vietnamese photographer who ran one of the only family portrait studios in the Mekong Delta. So I went over a weatherman and came back a photographer.”
When McGuire returned home from Vietnam, still intrigued with his new found skill, he moved to New York City and worked, as he describes it, “as a darkroom slave for three years at $65 a week.”
But it would prove to be a smart decision as the late 1960s was a creatively amazing time to be in New York. Beyond the evolving folk and pop music scene, many of the great black & white photographers were working there and in their prime: Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Wingate Paine, and Bert Stern, among others.
“I had always been drawn to black & white images from LIFE magazine and the great 50s black & white films … but it was Irving Penn’s small trades black & white portraits that stopped me in my tracks. He took trades people off the street, plumbers, electricians, butchers, and photographed them with the tools of their trade. So simple and elegant and so powerful. It made me realize that photographing something so seemingly ordinary in black & white made it seem more important somehow … and I liked that. It was a revelation and I wanted to do that with country music and photograph performers and songwriters. I fell in love with country music in 1953 and I can remember the exact moment.
“I was a 12-year-old Boy Scout delivering beer to my camp counselors when I first heard Hank Snow singing ‘Spanish Fireball’ — his hypnotic guitar rhythms, and velvety voice coming out of a ratty loudspeaker that night in the counselor’s lounge. My love of country music started that day and has never left.”
Seeing Penn’s black & white portraits of working people standing in front of a hand-painted canvas background in their “work clothes” and “tools” opened up a whole new way of looking at people for the young photographer.
“I was so taken by the power of those plain images that I had to try it myself. So I spent days hand painting a canvas that looked like Penn’s backdrop and invited a local teenage bicycle gang that terrorized my neighborhood on 22nd Street and Third Avenue, to come in for a portrait. They were like the Hells Angels except a generation younger and rode ‘chopper’ bicycles instead of Harleys. I copied Penn’s famous portrait of the Hells Angles exactly … except with this teenage gang and sent him a black & white print explaining how his work had so influenced me. I still have the hand written note he sent saying how ‘amusing’ the image was.”
This was the beginning of what would become Jim McGuire’s iconic Nashville Portraits, all against that hand-painted canvas. The very first ones were of singer-songwriter John Hartford and his Areo Plane Band. It was shot about 2 a.m. after a gig at a club in the Village. In the darkroom as he printed his first images of Hartford, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor and Normal Blake, he knew he was on to something.
In 1972 he moved to Nashville to be surrounded by the music he loved. The result is almost 700 album covers for the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Doc Watson, Dolly Parton, Carole King, Townes Van Zandt, John Hartford, Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire to name a few, plus his extensive B&W Nashville Portraits series. Here are a handful of some of his most revered images along with his own thoughts and remembrances.
Bill Reynolds is a writer/publisher having worked in the Western lifestyle industry for more than 30 years. He has written five books and published several award winning magazines. He is principal at Alamar Media and oldcowdogs.com.