If you follow my Instagram, then you know that we went to Nashville last week. It’s only a four hour drive, but not being fans of current country music we had never made the trip. When the liquidation of the inventory of a huge vintage clothing shop was announced, I decided we now had reason enough to cross the mountains into Tennessee.
But a trip is never just about shopping when there are museums to be seen. When in Nashville, one must pay homage to the Country gods at the Country Music Hall of Fame. The place is huge, with permanent exhibits and temporary exhibitions. It’s a lot to take in, but I thought the story of the development of country music was well told. I’m not a fan of current country music, but the history of the genre was fascinating. Simply put, country began as a mix of Appalachian folk, Black gospel, and cowboy tunes.
I had forgotten how much a part of my life country music has been until this visit. My father was a big fan of both country and folk music, and by the time I was ten I knew every Johnny Cash song by heart. As kids we thought it was pretty corny.
Country music is often referred to as Country and Western, and the “western” influences are many, especially in the way country performers have dressed over the years. There were cowboy boots galore in the museum, all of them ornately decorated. Above are pairs that belonged to Roy Rogers (yellow) and Dale Evans (blue).
There were quite a few items from the famous “singing cowboys” from the movies of the 1930s and 40s. Early items, like the Roy Rogers shirt above, were quite plain, but as time went on performance costumes got more and more ornate as the stars took their cues from rodeo stars who had been influenced by the look of the Mexican vaqueros. All this evolution of style would make a fascinating study!
By the late 1940s, many country stars were buying from Nudie Cohn, the Rodeo Tailor. Nudie (born in Russia as Nuta Kotlyarenko!) gained a reputation for customized suits and boots and his influence cannot be understated. He was as much a star as the men and women he dressed.
Here is Nudie’s sewing machine.
While Nudie became famous for his highly embroidered and bespangled suits, one of the most familiar suits on display is this one he made for Hank Williams. The music notes are applique, and look carefully to see that they extend down the sides of the legs.
And don’t miss the Roy Acuff cloth flour sack. Acuff was from East Tennessee and was instrumental in the popularization of Appalachian folk melodies as a part of country music.
Many performers used their professional clothing to capitalize on the popularity of a particular song. Nudie made this suit for singer Hank Snow after his big 1952 hit, “The Golden Rocket.” I assume the song was about a train.
This Nudie jacket was made for Ray Price, who was billed as “The Cherokee Cowboy.” Price did grow up on a Texas farm, but I could not find any reference to him actually being Cherokee.
These blue suede shoes belonged, not to Elvis, but to Carl Perkins, the writer and original singer of the song.
If you were ever lucky enough to attend an Elvis concert, you know about the scarves. Elvis’s manager, Col. Parker came up with the idea of Elvis handing out printed scarves to crazed fans during his performances. When I saw him in Asheville in 1975 (the time when he put a bullet through the TV at the motel where he was staying) he must have given away over a hundred of them. Stupid and shy me missed out.
One of my favorite pieces was this Mel Tillis jacket, which was made by another famous tailor to the stars, Manuel Cuevas.
There weren’t as many costumes from women singers, and I was, frankly, disappointed in what the museum chose to represent Patsy Cline. Many photos of her performing show her in full-out cowgirl with fringe costumes, though she also performed in rather ordinary dresses of the day. Cline died in 1963, so it is interesting that she was performing in slacks, even if they were gold lamé with matching boots.
The guitar suit belonged to singer Don Gibson, a Western North Carolina native, and singer of “Oh, Lonesome Me.”
This costume puts me in mind of a cowboy super-hero, but it is actually another song-inspired suit. Nudie made this ensemble for Hank Garland, who wrote the Red Foley hit, “Sugarfoot Rag.”
The museum has a special section to celebrate Merle Haggard, who died back in April. Haggard had a very troubled childhood, and was in and out of juvenile detention centers, and later, prison for a variety of offences. He was actually in San Quentin in 1958 when Johnny Cash performed there. Hag managed to get his life on track, and by the mid 1960s was a moderate star. He had a string of major hits in the late 60s including “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee” (one of the all time hilariously ironic recordings ever).
To me, Merle’s best years were the “Outlaw Country” 1980s when he performed with Willie Nelson and others. He played in Asheville in 1983 was was arrested after the show for consuming alcohol on the stage. I still have the tee shirt I got at the concert. During his induction into the Hall of Fame, he quipped, ” I thought you had to be dead to get in here.” I do love Hag.
Dottie West’s outfit above was designed by that master of bling, Bob Mackie. The boots were made by Di Fabrizio, the bootmaker who made boots for the rock group, Kiss.
And of course, there was a black suit from Johnny Cash. We also visited the Johnny Cash museum where we saw even more black suits.
In the 1960s, the lines between country and rock continued to be blurred, a process that began with Elvis and Carl Perkins in the 50s. By the mid 60s, rock singers were going to Nashville, and there is a special exhibition called “Nashville Cats” that focuses on the give and take nature of rock and country at that time. Many songs of that period just cannot be put into a special box labeled “country.”
A good example is Gram Parsons. Here is the Nudie suit he had made for the cover of the album The Gilded Palace of Sin in 1969. Those are pills, poppies, and marijuana plants. I guess Gram was into drugs. (Thanks to Janey Atomic Redhead for identifying the poppies.)
By the late 1970s, old style country music was out of style. Country singers were less flashy, and a lot less “folky”. Dwight Yoakum , with his nouveau honky tonk style was making no headway in Nashville in the established country music industry, so he went to California where he released his first album in 1986.
What really makes Yoakum interesting is his look. He went to Manuel Cuevas for his jackets which he paired with torn and repaired jeans decorated with Mexican silver conchos and a tuxedo shirt left hanging out. It was a throw back to the spangled costumes of a few decades earlier, but at the same time, seems to predate the torn jeans look by quite a few years. In fact, Kanye West wore a similar look to the Met Gala this year.
And finally, I really loved that the Country Music Hall of Fame had a little area where kids (of all ages) could design their own country outfit.