Les Leverett passes  

Retired WSM Grand Ole Opry photographer extraordinaire Les Leverett passed away on June 2, 2023. He was 96 years old. 

Leverett took some of the most historical images in country music history, with his photographs adorning over 200 album covers, winning a Grammy award in 1966 for the cover of Porter Wagoner’s album, Confessions of a Broken Man, and a Billboard award for Country Album Cover of the Year in 1973 for Dolly Parton’s LP, Bubbling Over.  

Laslie “Les” Leverett was born on April 23, 1927, in Montgomery, Alabama.

He started dabbling in photography while serving aboard a troop ship as a surgical technician in the Army Medical Corps in 1945, during World War II. He didn’t become a devoted country music fan until, after leaving the service and under the G.I. Bill, he attended the Texas College of Photographic Art in San Antonio, Texas. 

He fell in love with Nashville native Dorothy Vandiver and they married in 1949 and, not long afterwards, they moved to Tennessee, where Leverett had his first professional job at Associated Photographers. This continued until late 1956, when began working for Frederick’s Studio. 

He started the photographic department at The National Life Company, and became the staff photographer for the Grand Ole Opry in 1960. 

Leverett spent the next 32 years – what many consider to be what many consider to be the “golden age of country” – capturing images of nearly every country music star of note as the visual historian for WSM-TV (now WSMV) and WSM radio. 

Also, he photographed the Johnny Cash Show, and did extensive freelance work with various publications, as well as record companies.  

17 years after retiring from WSM, Leverett came out of retirement in 2009 to serve as the official photographer for the weekly RFD-TV program, The Marty Stuart Show

Leverett was presented with the Distinguished Achievement Award by the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2001, and the first Distinguished Achievement Award by the California Bluegrass Association in 2006.

Leverett’s works have been seen during numerous television shows – with over 80 photographs – some never seen before – of Opry moments and legends by Leverett appearing in Ken Burns’ eight-part, 16-hour PBS documentary film Country Music – and have been published internationally in various publications and books, including his own Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bluegrass Chronicles of Les Leverett and American Music Legends (Empire Publishing, Inc., October 1996). 

A page in this photo journal, which contains images of bluegrass artists at Bean Blossom, on the road, on stage, and on TV and radio sets, as well as bluegrass fans, was dedicated to Bill Monroe who passed away just prior to the book going into the final stages of printing. 

Also, his photographs have been exhibited at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky; Nashville’s Cheekwood Fine Arts Center, and in the city’s International Airport; and the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, California. 

Les Leverett’s extensive archives – which includes thousands of slides, prints, and negatives accompanied by meticulous notes – reveal both changes and continuities in country music, and are a testament to the genre’s importance in shaping American culture. 

The Opry acquired this collection for their archives in February 2017. 

The following year some of his pictures were displayed at an exhibition called Family Reunion: The Opry Family Photo Album at Acuff House, next to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry House.  

Penny Parsons documented some highlights from Leverett’s time on the road with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in an article for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine (June 2020) .. 

“Les was very kind to me when I was working on my book about Curly Seckler, and he shared some wonderful stories and photos from his travels and interactions with the Foggy Mountain Boys. He was not only a first-rate photographer, he was a true fan of the music.  

He was an amazing photographer and a sweet, kind, generous, feisty, funny person. I am honored and fortunate to have known him and called him a friend.

Les’s contributions to the Ken Burns Country Music series were invaluable. Anyone who is not familiar with Les should watch the 18-minute interview with him that can be found on the PBS website.  

RIP and love always, Les.”

R.I.P. Les Leverett.  

Services will take place on Wednesday, June 7, 2023, with visitation in the Chapel of Spring Hill Funeral Home in Nashville from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and a Celebration of Life Service beginning at 1:00 p.m.

A livestream of the service will be available online.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.