About a decade ago, Sandlin Gaither was tending bar during one of his first shifts at The Grey Eagle. A country act performed. Afterward, the musicians hung out with the venue’s staff. “Six months later, they were on stage with Bon Jovi, playing the Texas Stadium,” says Gaither. The band in question was Sugarland. They’d blown up. “I was like, man, I should get a camera so I can document these people,” Gaither says.
He wasn’t a photographer at the time. Gaither had some darkroom experience from a film class in high school. But, as he points out, “I work at the Grey Eagle not because I like beer but because I like music.” So, what started as a personal mission to chronicle the artists passing through that performance space turned into an evolving photography exhibit in the Grey Eagle’s lobby, hallway and bar (between 75 and 80 are on display, the complete collection contains around 175). Not only do those images showcase the progression of a self-taught photographer — Gaither has gone on to shoot for Rolling Stone, Filter and Sony Music Australia — but they also tell the Grey Eagle’s story.
The Civil Wars
“The reason I ended up putting the photos on the wall is not to say, ‘Look what I’ve done,’” says Gaither. “It’s so you see all these great people who’ve played here and what they looked like on the day they were here.” Some of the bands, like Fleet Foxes, went from virtual unknowns to international sensations almost overnight. “Thirty seconds into it, I was like, these dudes are gonna be huge,” says Gaither of what was an opening set in March 2008. “I grabbed them on the way out the door.”
Others had a less happy trajectory. “To me, [all of the photos] are special, but it makes it more sentimental when someone has died,” says Gaither. There’s an especially poignant image of singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who took his own life in late ’09. A few months before Chesnutt died, he played the Grey Eagle. At the suggestion of the venue’s owner, Jeff Whitworth, Gaither climbed onto the roof to photograph the wheelchair-bound musician surrounded by a sea of gold and brown autumn leaves. After Chesnutt’s passing, the photo went viral. It showed up on blogs and magazine websites, at the Grammy Award ceremony and for sale on eBay.
Gaither drew a line at the latter, but he does allow the performers he photographs to use his images for promotion. And the musicians — except for a camera-shy (or maybe just grouchy) Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy — have been obliging. “Chris Barron from the Spin Doctors was all about taking photos,” says Gaither. “He was very friendly, very cool, and this is somebody who’s sold millions of records.” Gaither describes reggae guitarist Tuff Lion as “very spiritual.” Dr. Dog’s members stood outside wearing blindfolds while Gaither got the lighting just right. “I had 50 people waiting for me at the bar, and I was like, ‘I gotta go do this!’” he remembers.
Justin Townes Earle
The late country artist Charlie Louvin chatted with Gaither about their shared love of photography — Louvin, a Country Music Hall of Famer and ladykiller, used his digital camera to capture the women he met at his shows.
Because he’s behind the bar during concerts, Gaither usually lines up his portraits in the quiet minutes before the music starts. Some are inspired in the moment. Others are concepts first, like that of a rocker being pulled into the women’s restroom. “We don’t see many people at the Grey Eagle with groupies,” says the photographer. “The idea came to me, and then I thought of who I could put in the photo.” Pop-rocker Will Hoge proved a willing participant.
Gaither wanted to take a portrait of Bobby Bare Jr. shooting the bird, but the roots rocker (known for being pretty wild) wouldn’t give the one-finger salute. A couple of days later, outlaw country heir Shooter Jennings made that exact gesture without even being prompted, “as if he had overheard the conversation,” says the photographer.
Do Make Say Think
But even as Gaither closes in on his 10-year anniversary at the music hall and behind the lens, he’s still often star-struck. He says, “The only time that I’m not a little bit intimidated is when [bands] approach me and say, ‘We love all of your photos — will you take our photo?’”
Gaither adds, “You have this person who’s about to play a sold-out show, and you ask them to take a photo, and they’re like, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’” It’s a kind of turning of the tables, but the photographer says he holds musicians in high regard, and he thinks they sense that. “They let their guard down, and I can get the shot,” he says.
Every night, people ask him if they can buy one of his portraits. The images are not for sale, probably in part because they belong to the venue as much as they belong to Gaither. He calls the listening room a house of memories.
Some of those mental images can’t be captured by the camera. At least not yet. Roots artists David Rawlings and Gillian Welch have played the Grey Eagle a number of times, but the stars never seem to align for Gaither to take their picture. “But the other day Gillian Welch was sound-checking, and no one else was in the room,” he says. “I thought, ‘how lucky am I?’”
All photos by Sandlin Gaither. For more info and to view his work, go to sandlingaither.com.