Of course, the first thing I noticed was that Jim was wearing a Dandy & Rose shirt that I made for him. But that suit! It was a suit in a great country music tradition: the Song Title Suit.
The heyday of embroidered, rhinestone-encrusted suits was in the 1950s and early 60s, when country stars used them as a kind of branding. They would use their pictorial embroidery to illustrate their name, or their nickname, or the title of a career-defining song.
Porter Wagoner had his suits with wagonwheels; Ray Price had his totem pole- and thunderbird-embroidered suits to remind us he was the Cherokee Cowboy; and Ernie Ashworth… well, Ernie Asworth had his Talk Back Trembling Lips suit, to honour his 1963 number 1 hit of the same name.
You can watch Ernie singing his signature song and wearing his signature suit – and his signature toupee – in this clip: Ernie Ashworth – Talk Back Trembling Lips Go on, click on it. You won’t regret it, I promise.
There have been many western tailors, some of them great – Nathan Turk and Rodeo Ben come to mind – but the architect of this style of suit branding was Nudie Cohn. Nudie was born Nutya Kotlyarenko in Kiev, in what is now Ukraine, in 1902. His family suffered unimaginable hardship during persecutions of Jews in Russia, so his parents paid traffickers to smuggle 11 year old Nudie and his brother Julius across the border into Poland and onwards to the USA. Familiar story? I guess the world was ever thus. Once in the USA, young Nudie battled poverty and worked at a range of careers, including professional boxing. But tailoring came out top and after a travelling life, he and his wife Bobbie settled in California, where in the mid 1940s they established the business that would become Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors .
The Nudie style went out of fashion, mostly, when country music went uptown in the Nashville Sound era of the 1960s; as the Nashville establishment reached to capture a suburban market, rhinestones were out and polyester leisure suits were in. Meanwhile, the more mainstream country rejected it, the cooler the rhinestone suit became. It was taken up by the countercultural artists of the hippy era – most famously, the Flying Burrito Brothers, who all wore Nudie suits on the cover of their 1969 album Gilded Palace of Sin. As the glam rock era approached, Nudie became the darling of rock artists like Elton John, too.
And then, in the late 1980s, the group of country artists then known as the New Traditionalists took up the rhinestone style. For them, it was a marker of their authenticity – a sign that they aspired to be the real deal – and their tailor of choice was the great Manuel Cuevas, who as Nudie’s son-in-law and head designer had worked with The Flying Burrito Brothers and many others. Dwight Yoakam, Marty Stuart and Jim Lauderdale are all New Traditionalists who began wearing rhinestones at the start of their careers and continue to this day. It’s part of their identity as artists.
And now, for Jim, Manuel has revived the tradition of the Song Title Suit. The suit he wore for the AMA Awards show had Manuel’s signature roses on the front. But look carefully at Amos Perrine’s photograph (below) and you will see that Jim is wearing his heart on his sleeve – in fact several hearts, each with a very definite crack across them. And do those hearts have moustaches, like the King in a pack of cards often does? I think they do. It’s The King of Broken Hearts Song Title Suit.
The King of Broken Hearts is just one of this prolific Grammy-winning singer songwriter’s ace – to carry on the playing card analogy – songs. When Jim introduces it – as he does at all of his shows, because it’s one song that is always in the set list – he explains that he wrote it when he lived in California in the 1980s, a move he had made to be close to the spirit of an artist he idolised, Gram Parsons. Reading a biography of Parsons, he came across an often told story: playing George Jones records to introduce his music to friends, Gram began to weep and through his tears, remarked, “Man, that’s the King of Broken Hearts!” To hear Jim tell the story and sing the song – while wearing the suit and a Dandy & Rose shirt – follow this link to YouTube:
Parsons and Jones were, of course, both customers of Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors themselves, and their style of dress has clearly been almost as big an inspiration as their music for Lauderdale. Parsons’ most famous Nudie suit was the one he wore on the cover of Gilded Palace of Sin, whose embroidery featured poppies, weed, pills, naked women, the flames of Hell and, on the back, a huge, sparkling redemptive cross. You can see it on display at The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Gram never had a Song Title Suit, although some people call the one above the Sin City suit, after a song on Gilded Palace of Sin; it clearly reflects themes that preoccupied him in his songwriting. But he wasn’t above a bit of literal representation, as you can see from this submarine suit. He commissioned it from Nudie’s in 1967, when he fronted International Submarine Band and later gave it away to Jon Corneal, who drummed with ISB and, in a long career, with many other bands. Mr Corneal still owns Gram’s jacket and kindly showed it to me when I spoke to him as part of my PhD research recently. That lining!
But George Jones, who very certainly was the King of Broken Hearts and indeed the greatest country vocalist ever, was also the King of the Song Title Suit. This White Ligthnin’ suit, with its moonshine jars surrounded by lightning flashes is on display at the George Jones Museum in Nashville.
My favourite ever Song Title Suit is the one that was made to illustrate George’s 1960 hit The Window Up Above. The song is the tragic story of a man who glances out of his bedroom window late one night, only to catch a glimpse of his wife canoodling with her lover. He approaches the situation with a mixture of self-excoriation and resigned acceptance: “You must have thought that I was sleeping” he keens “And I wish that I had been. But I guess it’s best to know you And the way your heart can sin.”
The lyric was translated into embroidery by Nudie with magnificent disregard for the art of subtlety. Once again, it can be seen today at the George Jones Museum.
There’s a house, there’s a window, there’s a man looking out of the window, down towards a woman whose head is at the bottom of the trouser leg. As story-telling, it’s not refined and it’s not sophisticated. But look at the skill with which it is made, and at that beautiful powder blue wool fabric. It’s not just the chainstitch embroidery, it’s the handstitching around the edges and those perfect arrowheads at the edge of the pockets. It has been made with all the skill that any well-trained tailor would lavish on an important client’s order. Ultimately, this is what I find so fascinating about Nudie suits: like country songs themselves, they send a simple message in an straightforward way. But they carry with them a hidden history of craft, talent and tradition.