Meeting Country Music's Superstars: Behind Each Portrait, A Story Nashville-based photographer Raeanne Rubenstein recalls working with charismatic stars like Johnny Cash. Jerry Lee Lewis, on the other hand, dodged her (and his audience) by leaping out a window.
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Meeting Country Music's Superstars: Behind Each Portrait, A Story

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Meeting Country Music's Superstars: Behind Each Portrait, A Story

Meeting Country Music's Superstars: Behind Each Portrait, A Story

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

How does a person go from being an ordinary human being to an icon? In the modern era, that transformation has relied on talented photographers like Raeanne Rubenstein. Rubenstein can capture those fleeting moments when it feels like you can see right into someone's soul. Whether it's Jimi Hendrix, Muhammad Ali, Rodney Dangerfield or her friend Andy Warhol, you feel like you know a person when you look at her work. Raeanne Rubenstein is based in Nashville and has an extensive portfolio of country music legends. Those photos are on display this weekend at the exhibit "Country: Portraits Of An American Sound" at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles. Rubenstein stumbled into the country music scene when she stumbled into the man in black.

RAEANNE RUBENSTEIN: My friend, whose name was Lita, she had become a celebrity writer. And she did interviews with a lot of the stars of the day. As one of her best friends, I became her photographic sidekick.

She got an assignment to go to Nashville, Tennessee to photograph Johnny Cash. So we got to the Ryman Auditorium. Lita decided to go look for him and left me standing below the stage.

As I was thinking how exciting it was, I suddenly felt the presence of someone standing behind me. It was such a powerful presence that I turned around quickly because I felt like somebody was like too close. And actually it was Johnny Cash squatting down on the stage. These were his exact words. He said hello, little lady. Can I help you?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY PORTER")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) Hey, porter. Hey, porter. What time did you say? How much longer will it be till I can see the light of day?

RUBENSTEIN: Lita came back. And she interviewed him and I photographed him. And I have those photos to this day. And I'm extremely proud of how they came out. He was dressed in black just like you would expect. He had a vest. He had slicked-back hair. He had a big guitar, big cowboy boots.

It was just the most amazing experience, because every picture would be perfect. Because it was Johnny Cash. There's nothing else you can say about that. I had many opportunities to shoot Waylon Jennings. He had a propensity to be very flirtatious.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME ON'RY AND MEAN")

WAYLON JENNINGS: On a greyhound bus, Lord, I'm travelin' this morning.

RUBENSTEIN: I had an assignment to photograph him during rehearsal. But since I was taking pictures, he started to preen for the camera, self-producing these unbelievable poses and faces and flirtatious faces. I remember even standing there taking them and thinking these are going to be known for years to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONESOME ON'RY AND MEAN")

JENNINGS: It's been making me lonesome, on'ry and mean.

RUBENSTEIN: Now these stories sound fun, but they're somewhat very difficult. I was supposed to do a shoot of Jerry Lee Lewis performing at this club. So I was there and he was there. And the audience was there. I was going to shoot the show. And the next thing I know, he was walking across the room. And he opened the window and he jumped out. And he left. And he never came back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEWIS BOOGIE")

JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) My name is Jerry Lee Lewis, come from Louisiana. I'm gonna do you a little boogie on this here piano.

RUBENSTEIN: If I was going to venture a guess, I would say he had a girl somewhere waiting for him. But I think I appreciate it now. I think it's amazing what it really felt like to be near them, what it felt like to understand them.

My entree was not because I was so charming or so talented, but it was because they liked me. They knew me. They didn't want a stranger on their bus or at the show. So they would rather have me. You know, it was just pure luck. It could've been somebody else.

RATH: Photographer Raeanne Rubenstein. Her photos are on display for the rest of this weekend at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

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