Portraits of country music, from the Hillbilly Ranch to Grand Ole Opry, grace the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design.

After looking at Henry Horenstein's evocative photographs of honky tonks, close your eyes and open your pores. Inhale the King Size Kools and taste the sudsy Schlitz.


If you can't hear Hank Snow's singing, "It don't hurt any more," you're spending too much time watching "American Idol."


In 40 gritty, gorgeous black-and-white images, Horenstein has transformed the grand Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design into the long-gone Hillbilly Ranch in Boston and every smoky honky tonk where country music soothed the aching hearts of long haul cowboys and truck stop goddesses.


Fingers blurring across the keyboard, Mother Maybelle Carter picks a tune at the Grand Ole Opry. A frowsy woman beams like a prom queen as she slow dances with Webb Pierce. A skinny guy with a scorpion belt buckle plays harmonica in a graffiti-scarred booth in Nashville.


In "Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981," Horenstein does lots more than document a vanishing scene like a slumming photo-anthropologist.


Part barfly, part historian, he has captured in rich gelatin silver images a seminal decade when country music expanded from its local roots to a national phenomenon.


For viewers, Horenstein's photos are the country music equivalent of a backstage pass into Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville and the Lone Star Ranch in Reeds Ferry, N.H. They can see Jerry Lee Lewis relax with a stogie between shows at the Ramada Inn in Boston or hear Dolly Parton at the Grand Ole Opry beg "Jolene" with "the flaming locks of auburn hair" to leave her man alone.


Horenstein is like the fan who brings an instamatic to a concert and snaps fantastic pictures of everything that grabs him: Dolly Parton in a white gown with puffy sleeves, fans rushing Ernest Tubbs' trailer and a backstage stack of cases of Pabst, Budweiser and Schlitz.


He shot most of the photos with a now-obsolete Rolliflex Wide twin lens reflex that used 2-1/4-inch negatives and provided clear, sharp images.


To add atmosphere, taped recordings of country musicians from Marty Robbins to Jeannie C. Riley serenade visitors with hits from "Devil Woman" to "Harper Valley PTA." "Honky Tonk" runs through Oct. 7.


Horenstein's exhibit provides a perfect excuse to visit RISD's refurbished Radeke building which houses one of the nation's greatest collegiate collections of art.


Established in 1877, the museum now holds 84,000 objects including paintings, sculpture, furniture and decorative arts from every part of the world, and ranging from ancient Egypt to the latest in contemporary art.


Reminiscent of a French or English salon, the spectacular Grand Gallery is the museum's visual high point. Brilliantly lit through a skylight, its walls are covered with 125 European masterpieces from the Renaissance through the 19th century.


The college is midway through completing its spectacular two-story Chase Center which will include galleries, studios, classrooms and conservation areas.


A New Bedford native who is now a professor of photography at RISD, Horenstein captures country singers who played the clubs and campgrounds where fans gathered to hear songs about their own hard lives.


He is just as interested in eyeliner as headliners. Whether it is the Cates Sisters in matching outfits or two gussied-up fans in "Waiting Backstage," heartfelt beauty shines through their mascara. For every big name star like Parton and Emmylou Harris, this show equally honors pioneers and has-beens like old-time banjo comedian Stringbean, the Holy Modal Rounders who rode their guitars from Greenwich Village to "Easy Rider" and DeFord "the Harmonica Wizard" Bailey who ended up shining shoes.


In the introduction to the exhibit, Horenstein cites songwriter Harlan Howard's definition of a great country song: "three chords and the truth."


His photos achieve that standard by recording a slice of disappearing American life with an sharp and respectful eye.


Peering through his lens, he looks beyond the overalls and beehive hairdos to find everyday people too often ignored or caricatured in the name of self-conscious art.


While others would mock the string ties and jailhouse tattoos, spangly shirts and gummy smiles, Horenstein finds enduring humanity in the unlovely.


Rather than focus, like Diane Arbus, on grotesques or poverty's recognizable types, Horenstein sees ex-servicemen with funky sideburns or the tired waitress who manages a smile.


In "Last Call," a drowsy patron in a fringed vest hoists her Pabst Blue Ribbon like a crystal flute of fine champagne. Fiddlin' Sid Harkreader might dress like an undertaker with ears like Dumbo but he's got a smile that would light up a funeral parlor.


No matter how weary or wasted, Horenstein discovers a recognizable humanity in their lumpy bodies and lined faces.


The exhibit's single most memorable photo, "Lovers," shows a beefy man with a bulldog face planting a kiss so tender on his lady's cheek that it sets her eyes alight.


In an era that worships instant celebrity and the buff narcissists of reality TV, it is too easy to ignore Lester Flatt's jowly appeal or Waylon Jennings' outlaw charm.


Barely stepping inside the gallery, a wholesome young man rolled his eyes and whined to his parents, "Let's split. Who needs reruns of 'Hee Haw'?"


That's right, Kid. Go home and catch Eminem and Avril Lavigne on MTV. You deserve each other.


But for anyone who has ever looked for love in all the wrong places or felt so lonesome they could cry, this "Honky Tonk" is for you.


THE ESSENTIALS:


The Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art is located at 224 Benefit St., Providence, R.I.


It is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; the third Thursday of the month until 9 p.m.


Admission is $8 for adults; $5 for senior citizens; $2 for ages 5-18; $3 for college students with a valid ID. Admission is free Friday noon to 1:30 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; the third Thursday of the month 5 to 9 p.m.; and on Free for All Saturday (last Saturday of the month).


The museum is wheelchair accessible.


On Sunday, Aug. 12, at 2:30 p.m. there will be a guided tour of "Honky Tonk." Afterward there will be a special screening of "Sweet Dreams Still," a 50-minute film about Patsy Cline.


For more information, call 401-454-6500 or visit www.risdmuseum.org.


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"There'll always be a honky tonk


With a jukebox in the corner


And someone crying in their beer


And one old hanger-oner


Someone looking lonely


From a losing love affair


Yes, there'll always be a honky tonk somewhere."


From "There'll Always Be A Honky Tonk Somewhere"


By Johnny McRae and Steve Clark