Meet the Opry Archivists Who Helped with Ken Burns’ ‘Country Music’
You won’t find them on stage, but the Opry’s in-house team of archivists are superstars in their own right. While Opry Entertainment was the largest contributor of photos to Ken Burns’ latest film, Country Music, the archive team’s work isn’t finished there. We sat down with Opry archivists Jen Larson, Tim Davis, and Denny Adcock to chat about their never-ending quest to preserve country music’s enduring legacy.
By Matthew McCloy • September 24, 2019
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The archive team plays an important role at the Opry, even if your work isn’t something audiences typically see on stage each night. Describe what you do.
Jen Larson: I see our department’s role in the archive as being the stewards and caretakers of our administrative, visual and material culture history.
We have a huge visual record that dates back to our earliest days of National Life and Accident Insurance Company, WSM and the Grand Ole Opry, with photographs that span from 1925 to the present day. We also have a trove of audiovisual materials dating back to the mid-1950s- this includes Opry broadcasts and television programming. Additionally, we have historic musical instruments and stage wear from Opry members and guest artists. Another really special aspect of our holdings is that we have handwritten lyric sheets from iconic artists such as Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Dickens and Tammy Wynette.
Another unique aspect of our holdings is that we also have personal effects of the artists. Tim was just sifting through some Hank Williams materials and found some small but wonderful personal items.
Tim Davis: Yes, I came across his shaving razor, pocketknives, and fishing lures.
Jen: On that note, we have probably close to a hundred suits including many by Nudie Cohn, Manuel Cuevas, and Jaime Castaneda. It always strikes me whenever I handle one of those rhinestone suits just how heavy they actually are. In many cases they’re wool gabardine coats and pants that are embroidered and embellished with hundreds of rhinestones attached to them. And I keep thinking back to those days at Ryman Auditorium, which wasn’t even air conditioned, and these artists are putting on these gorgeous but very heavy suits that hit the back of the room with their sparkle and color. Now that’s show business!
“I often tell people that I never feel alone when I am in the archive. I feel surrounded by people, the artists, whether it’s their clothing, their shoes, their hats, pictures of these people. The Opry Archives is actually very populated and lively place.”
With the artists’ wardrobes, you also just get a sense of the person, the size and shape of the person. We have a wonderful pair of Minnie Pearl’s Mary Jane shoes and you can practically see every mile she must have walked on the Opry stages over the years. We also have one of Johnny Cash’s jackets from 1956 where his mother had sewed on silver lamé trim to make it a little jazzier. There’s a subtle impression of the guitar strap on the left shoulder pad and you can see the way that the suit draped on Cash’s form. I often tell people that I never feel alone when I am in the archive. I feel surrounded by people, the artists, whether it’s their clothing, their shoes, their hats, pictures of these people. The Opry Archives is actually very populated and lively place.
Why is it important that an institution like the Opry have in-house archivists?
Jen: That’s a good question because a lot of companies don’t preserve their institutional history. It’s pretty special that we do have this archive. Although it’s taken some hard bumps and bruises along the way, it’s amazing to see how much has survived over time. The collection was involved in two floods- the most recent being the 2010 flood that devastated not only the collection but also the Opry House and surrounding property, but in 1975, a year after the Opry House opened, there was also a flood. Our predecessor, Brenda Colladay did a remarkable job of shepherding the collections through and beyond the 2010 flood where parts of the collections were particularly hard hit. Thanks to her and other staff efforts, we still retain a lot of our most precious and valuable holdings.
Denny Adcock: And the fact that we have historical and technical knowledge. If you just had a bunch of boxes of stuff, anybody could do that, but we understand how things are made and how photographs are done and how they should be handled in terms of preservation. We have a number of Kodachrome slides which seem to last forever, but then Ektachrome slides will fade to blue quite rapidly. They need to be kept in colder storage than Kodachrome. It’s the minutiae [that is] necessary if we’re going to maintain a history of any institution.
Tim: Nashville tourism is so big right now. I think people come here to visit the history … One hundred plus years of history [is] going to go away if you don’t have people taking care of it.
Jen: I definitely look at the Opry and this company as really central to the story of country music in a lot of ways, and that’s a huge responsibility and honor to hold our stewardship position.
Denny: We are quite unique. No other music genre, with perhaps the exception of some classical music, has a linear collection of artifacts and photographs. Because so much of country music has taken place in Nashville it’s really special that the Opry Archives contains much of that story.
Country Music, a film by Ken Burns that explores the genre’s long history, recently premiered on PBS. How did the Opry archive team get involved with the docuseries?
Jen: They approached the archive before 2010, so the Opry Archives has been connected to the Florentine Films project for quite some time. Interestingly, we licensed a lot of photographs before the flood that did not make it through the flood. In some instances, the JPEGs that we scanned way back then are the only things left for some of the images. All told, we licensed hundreds of images and some clips as well.
Denny: [The documentary team says] they have utilized more of our images and artifacts than [those of] any other company.
How did you work with the documentary team to select photos for the film?
Jen: We both fielded a lot of emails back and forth. Hey, do you have this, or if you don’t have this person, can you give us something else? We were just sort of happily at their beck and call. They would come here with their crew, plant themselves down, and do big rounds of digitizing photos. Our job was to pull things for them and also to guide them through our history as well.
What are some of our oldest photos used in the film?
Jen: The live broadcast images from the National Life building, before we ever got to Ryman Auditorium in 1943. The Opry has nearly two decades of history before that and we have some wonderful images of early string band performances captured in photographs in the WSM Studio with the black-and-white checkerboard floor and the old mics. It was a live studio audience just sitting in folding chairs watching these people broadcast a radio program. I like those photos.
Denny: We have some shots of [what is perhaps] one of the first live remote trucks ever out there. There is a guy sitting in the back of the truck with the dials. In the Hank Snow collection, we have photos of him as a boy. There are shots of Minnie, of course — Sarah Cannon — when she was a small child, her family, when she was a student at a dance facility. It’s very formal, not who you think of when you think of Minnie Pearl.
Jen: Some of the Hank Williams photos that we have are spectacular, like the family photos, him as a young man, as a teenager. I like the picture of him on the street performing. He’s wearing glasses and he’s got his guitar, essentially busking on the street in Montgomery. It’s those little moments that can tell a story.
Was there a specific photo that you were most surprised to find in the archive?
Jen: We have so much gold, we have so much gold. We could talk about [longtime Opry photographer] Les Leverett all day, every day. There are so many iconic shots that he captured. Talk about being at the right place at the right time!
One of my favorite photos of Les’ is a performance picture of George Jones and Tammy Wynette from the early 1970s. They are essentially nose-to-nose with the microphone in between them, and Les is looking right in between them. I just think about what his perspective was standing just right behind them, probably not too far, and he captured this beautiful, symmetrical moment between this very volatile but incredibly talented couple.
Denny: We own two of the three known color images of Hank Williams.
What is the process of archiving material after it has been acquired by the Opry?
Tim: It’s literally just a lot of opening boxes, putting a number on something, describing it as best as you can, putting it on a shelf, and writing in a database where it is. Just do that for thousands of things until you have it all on the shelf where you want it.
Jen: It takes a lot of focus, mental and physical stamina, and being methodical. In some cases our job is to really unjumble boxes of mixed materials that maybe had some arrangement in the past but all ended up piled together without rhyme or reason. Sometimes the collections come out of people’s houses or from other storage places. Documents and artifacts don’t always come neatly delivered. But by the time we finish with them, our goal is to make everything findable, usable, and physically stable for years to come.
Denny: A lot of it is kind of detective work. You kind of have to back up and think why they did it that particular way. One of the things I discovered in the Les Leverett collection, I saw he would [have an “R” or a “T” at the end of his notations for his negatives]. Since he shot for WSM Television, the ‘T’ was for television and the ‘R’ was for radio. He had his own organization.
What’s one piece in the archive that amazes you?
Tim: The Johnny Cash Martin D-28 [guitar] that he played on “I Walk the Line.” Even if he hadn’t played it, it’s an amazing guitar.
Jen: We have a chair and a banjo owned by Uncle Dave Macon. He sat in that chair at Ryman Auditorium and played that banjo the last time he performed in public on the Opry, Saturday March 1, 1952. He was so physically weak after that performance his family came out on stage and lifted him, the chair, and the banjo off stage. That’s real deal show business right there and it’s important to remember that Uncle Dave Macon was one of the cornerstone artists of the Grand Ole Opry.
What impact will Ken Burns’ Country Music have on the archive?
Jen: I’m expecting that we’re going to get an increase in photo requests. I hope people come to us with research questions and stories to share. We don’t want to be a hidden collection. We definitely want to license our photos and clips and also continue to create exhibits that integrate our amazing artifacts and tell the stories of country music and the Opry—the great news is that we certainly have a wealth of material to choose from for all of that activity! Ken Burns’ projects always shed a really amazing light on the importance of archives and by association the people that take care of the archives. We hope that bodes well for other companies and organizations to invest in ways to organize, preserve and present their histories.
We’re open by appointment for researchers to come in for study visits. We want to be involved with scholarly and commercial projects that spotlight country music and the Grand Ole Opry.
What excites you most about the documentary?
Jen: It will shed a lot of well-deserved light on a really beautiful, complicated, poetic form of music that is absolutely on par with blues and jazz as one of our bedrock American art forms. I look forward to digitizing additional photos so that we can discover even more history yet to be told. I think that will be very exciting.
Tim: The film will be a very good overview of country music history, but it will be really cool to have new students whose interests are piqued and are taking country music more seriously.
Denny: In order to make good music that is meaningful, you really need to know where you came from as well as where you are going.
Essential Country Duo
Go behind the scenes of country music’s most revered venues, the Grand Ole Opry and Ryman Auditorium, with this special tour package.