The most important photographer in the history of country music has passed away.
Les Leverett died in Nashville on Friday (June 2) at age 96. He was the staff photographer at the Grand Ole Opry for 32 years, archiving country music’s “golden age” on film. He was the man behind iconic images of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Bill Monroe, Vince Gill and a myriad of their peers.
His work has earned him a Grammy Award, prestigious exhibitions and distinction as a major provider of photos for such documentaries as Ken Burns’ PBS opus Country Music. His images have appeared in American Heritage, Country Weekly and many other periodicals, not to mention in annual Opry souvenir books for decades.
Born in 1927, Leverett grew up in Alabama. He served aboard a troop ship during World War II. After the war, he went to photography school in San Antonio on the G.I. Bill. This is when he became infatuated with country music. His wife Dot Vandiver was a Nashville native, and the couple moved to her hometown in 1950.
He initially worked as an advertising and portrait photographer in Music City. Between 1960 and 1992, he was the official photographer for the National Life insurance company and its affiliates WSM Radio, WSMV-TV and the Opry. He also rescued and preserved the photographic record of WSM’s founding years, 1925-50, after he discovered the company was throwing those images away. In addition, Leverett did stars’ publicity portraits, created album covers and documented celebrities at home.
His album covers include the theatrical image of Porter Wagoner on the jacket of 1966’s Confessions of a Broken Man. It earned him a Grammy Award. His 1972 cover for Dolly Parton’s LP Bubbling Over won him Billboard magazine’s award as its Country Album Cover of the Year. Leverett’s vivid photographs appear on more than 200 albums.
Garth Brooks, Kitty Wells, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Ernest Tubb, Conway Twitty, Maybelle Carter, Emmylou Harris, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, k.d. lang, Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl, Tex Ritter – it would be easier to name a country star he hasn’t photographed than those he has. Les Leverett was the official photographer for the TV series of both Johnny Cash and Marty Stuart.
A charming raconteur and lovably humble personality, Leverett was especially fond of bluegrass music. His archive includes many images of Flatt & Scruggs, The Whites, Jim & Jesse, Ralph Stanley and the like. In 2001, he was honored with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
Les Leverett’s work is preserved in two books, Blue Moon of Kentucky (1996) and American Music Legends (2005). Daughter Libby Leverett-Crew published her memoir Saturday Nights with Daddy at the Opry in 2003, which also featured many of his images.
He was a writer of limericks and a talented artist who had a knack for drawing caricatures. He also had the lesser-known gifts of being able to write backwards and upside down. Les Leverett’s photo archive now resides at the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum.
He is survived by his son, Gary Leverett, his daughter, Libby Leverett-Crew, son-in-law, Larry Crew, nine grandchildren and numerous great and great-great grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are being handled by Spring Hill Funeral Home & Cemetery, 5110 Gallatin Pike South. Visitation will be on June 7 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. followed by a Celebration of Life service.