Updated: Feb 15, 2021
In our previous installments, we explored the origins of honky tonk music, we identified the early pioneers, and important songs that shaped the genre. But one of the reasons honky tonk music was so popular was also because of the culture closely aligned with the music. It was a hard workin’, but also hard livin’ lifestyle originally enjoyed by small town southerners now living in the cities, and suburbs due to promising work prospects.But as other segments of the population entered the workforce, and some rural expats attained higher levels of success, the music also expanded in reach, and style
The honky tonk culture also had a very distinctive aesthetic that borrowed much from the Hollywood cowboys of the 40’s. Early on the rodeo cowboys wore bright shirts,and fringe for practical reasons. They wanted to be seen by their audience which were sitting several feet away. The colorful garb provided visibility, and intensified an already dramatic setting.
The Original Store Stock Cards made for Customers and Kept In The Store circa 1950 &1955 respectively
Thanks to Rodeo Ben who created a tougher jean with a higher rise for the circuit cowboys, western wear took a giant step forward. The denim pant was a looser fit, more comfortable.The bigger belt loops also allowed you to display trophy belt buckles more prominently. You'll recognize the pant Rodeo Ben created as the Cowboy cut jean.
Ben also made quite a stir designing audacious costumes for circus folk, and rodeo cowboys, so much so that Hollywood came knocking on his door.Soon he was outfitting Hollywood stars Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers among others. Rodeo Ben was so successful that he eventually signed on with Wrangler in the 1940's as they were intent on being the brand of choice for working cowboys.
But this was only the beginning as there were three designers waiting in the wings to take the bold cowboy stylings of Rodeo Ben to the next level. With this in mind, a discussion concerning country couture cannot realistically be had without mentioning Los Angeles based designer Nathan Turk. He also worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood: Gene Autry, Tex Williams, and Roy Rogers were just a few of the noted celebrities that donned his designs.
Soon a brash, young, and fearless Rose Maddox would take notice.The Maddox Brothers & Rose were a popular west coast group. Their story is quite remarkable, and I encourage you to read it. The Madoxes needed a clothing style that would underscore their rowdy, and entertaining stage show, and found the right fit with designer Nathan Turk. The outfits included large intricate flower embroidery, and other motif rich embellishments.
Thanks to Turk's creative risks, the Maddoxes became known as America's Most Colorful Band. Keep in mind that America had gone through a series of unfortunate events like WWI & WWII, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and so forth. The costumes were fun, and impelled a greater level of engagement from the fans that were now emulating their favorite artist's flair for bling.
Since we are "really" speaking about the honky tonk image it is important to note that the Maddoxes played up their celebrity presence by traveling in Cadillacs, and playing the finest instruments available. It is said that Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Elvis loved the Maddoxes. Their clothing, and music style was yet another way to differentiate Honky tonk artists from the overalls, and hayseed motifs that were pervasive in early country music..
But yet another adjustment was to be made to the accouterments of hillbilly chic that would define honky tonk cool for decades to come. At this juncture, I want to provide a reality check for the time period. We are now entering into the fifties. The economy is starting to snap back. Mandated rations were easing, and the construction, and auto industries were coming into their own with planned communities sprouting first in the northeast, and then to the southeast, and California..
California,now brimming with rural southern transplants was at the forefront of the honky tonk sound, attitude, and image. Enter Nudie Cohn, who started his career shining shoes outside of Carnegie Hall, and then sewing undergarments for burlesque show girls. Somehow he made it to Hollywood, and convinced an unknown struggling Texas Swing band leader Tex Williams to loan him $150 dollars for a sewing machine. In exchange, he would create stage clothes for him.
Tex Williams was a walking billboard for Nudie, and soon Nudie was able to move the business out of his garage and into a space in North Hollywood. The difference between Turk's designs, and Nudie's were significant. Firstly, Nudie didn't just chain stitch embroider his designs, Nudie created narratives on cloth.
The custom Nudie suits tell a story much like the songs sung by the singers that wore the suits. Porter Wagoner had big wagon wheels, and Hank William's suit featured music notes. And with honky tonk emerging as a major player on the music scene, a fresh updated look was needed. Nudie was able to fit the bill very nicely.
Hank Williams wearing his iconic Nudie Suit
In 1957, Lefty Frizzell had not charted a hit since 1955. He was slated to play the Grand Ole Opry where most country music's top stars performed. He approached Nudie to make something extra special. The result was sewn in rhinestones on his lapel, which had not been done before in country music..This predates Porter Wagoner, who is so closely identified with rhinestone encrusted Nudie suits. Lefty Frizzell was the first to wear a rhinestone nudie suit, and unwittingly set a trend that has stood the test of time. The popularity of bedazzled clothing this one proved to be a standard in nudie suits, and everyone wanted one..
Nudie & Lefty
And with the advent of rock, and roll Nudie found himself providing hillbilly chic to an expanded, and eager clientele. Some of the luminaries that darkened the doors at Nudie's Rodeo Tailors
included The Rolling Stones, The Monkees, John Lennon, Sonny And Cher, Elton John and even Elvis Presley. The latter played up the "King of Rock" moniker by appearing at his Las Vegas gig with a custom made rhinestone laden Nudie cape.
However with success comes harder work, and lots of it. Hiring capable hands that can add to your reputation, and legacy are key if you want to take advantage of the momentum..
Manuel Cuevas did just that for Nudie. Manuel came from a background of making clothing for actors such as the pair of jeans James Dean wore in Giant or suits for the Rat Pack.
The Rat Pack
As glamorous as this may sound, Manuel shares that he longed for an opportunity to work on more exciting wardrobes. Manuel got his wish when he met Nudie through Viola Grae, his employer at the time. Manuel was ultimately hired full-time, and worked with Nudie for 14 years! Manuel is responsible for crafting the look for many iconic brands in country music. One shining example is Johnny Cash, who had reached out to Nudie in 1956. He wanted nine suits before embarking on a tour.
Manuel took care of the order personally,and designed nine unique suits for Johnny.
When Johnny received the suits, he called Manuel, and shared a concern. All nine of the suits were black. Manuel explained that each creation was unique. Johnny was willing to give it a try, and it paid off. Can you imagine Johnny as anything other than The Man in Black?
Branding was an important differentiator. Nudie,and Manuel did not just design,and make clothing, they created brand identity, and presence.
One of the many suits Manuel created for Johnny Cash while working at Nudie's.
The 1950's was the golden age of Honky Tonk music. It was an unprecedented time in American history that brought prosperity, hope, and great music. Lefty Frizzell was a very important voice in that era. We must never forget that he brought the bling to country music. Long live the rhinestones!
In our next installment part V we will take a deep dive into the honky tonk queens
and their respective contributions.
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