(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
He puts music across human bodies, he makes music visual and he can transform needle and thread and cloth into a dynamic art form. You can see music walking in his creations.
Now, Manuel has an exhibition of his work at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Manuel is the master tailor Manuel, who creates intricate, symbolic and often spectacular outfits for singers ranging from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton, from Z.Z. Top to Bob Dylan. Embroidered flowers, glittering rhinestones and flashy sequins make the music stars truly shine.
Songs can come alive with the themed suits and dresses. Before there were music videos, there were Manuel’s music fashions and those of his teacher Nudie and of the earlier pioneer tailors Turk and Rodeo Ben.
Cowboy and western outfits have been popular with entertainers going back to Buffalo Bill’s traveling show and early cowboy bands in the late 19th century. They became formally popularized in cowboy movies by a tailor known as Turk. Born in Poland as Nathan Teig, he was apprenticed as a child to a shop in Warsaw, where he learned to sew. He moved to New York and sewed in a sweatshop on the Lower East side. Then he left for Los Angeles in the 1920s and made suits and western apparel for actors. Roy Rogers and Gene Autry discovered his outfits and made him famous. Country singing stars such as Hank Thompson and Ernest Tubb favored his tasteful outfits.
The other early cowboy couture tailor was Bernard Lichtenstein, who was also born in Poland. He immigrated to Philadelphia where he worked as a tailor and discovered his true calling when a traveling rodeo and circus needed fabric for bolero outfits and he ended up sewing the uniforms himself. Calling himself Rodeo Ben, he became famous for outfitting rodeo stars, actors and country stars. He was the first to use snap-button closures on cowboy shirts, which he designed as breakaway shirts for rodeo riders who might get caught on a steer horn or bronco rigging.
It was Nudie, though, who made cowboy couture truly famous with his “Nudie suits” which added the spangle and the sparkle, the rhinestones and the sequins to the fashion. Nudie Cohn was born as Nutya Kotlyrenko in Kiev, Russia. He was a tailor’s apprentice as a child. When he was 11, his parents sent him to live with relatives in Brooklyn who had changed their name to Cohn. “Nudie” came from an immigrations officer who couldn’t understand “Nutya.” Nudie was a hustler and jack-of-all-trades in New York and bounced around the country, trying to act in Hollywood. After serving a term in Leavenworth for a cocaine smuggling conviction, he sewed sparkling costumes and sequin-spangled G-strings for strippers in Times Square. He eventually returned to L.A. and opened a little tailor shop. He made his first fancy country star suits for Tex Williams and his band and they were a hit at the Riverside Rancho, where Williams played – and which gave Nudie an exhibit of his creations. His free-hand designs drew the attention of the young Hank Williams, who introduced Nudie suits to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. His fashions took off from there in the country world. Porter Wagoner and Little Jimmy Dickens and many others wanted custom-made suits. And Elvis called on him for his famous $10,000 gold suit.
He also designed the outrageous Nudie cars, an example of which you can still view in the form of the extravagant Webb Pierce Pontiac convertible with its embedded silver dollars and six-shooters, on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
And then came Manuel to carry on the great tradition. Born Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martinez in Coalcomán in Michoacán, Mexico, he learned how to sew early on and was making imaginative clothes by age 8. He also learned leather-working, silver-smithing and both hat- and boot-making before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his craft. He worked with tailors-to-the-stars Sy Devore and Viola Grae before graduating to Nudie’s shop.
There, he carried on and furthered Nudie’s traditions in fashion and branched out to the Grateful Dead and Gram Parsons, while country fans Dwight Yoakam, Bill Anderson and Marty Stuart swore by him.
He eventually opened his own shop in L.A. and later moved his business to Nashville, where his showroom is today a magnet for stars and would-be stars and where he and his coterie of beautiful young women are a staple at fine restaurants around town.
The Frist exhibit, titled Star-Spangled Couture, features a number of his works, including Johnny Cash outfits, Aerosmith’s Joe Perry suits, and costumes for Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. But the core of the exhibit is a spectacular display of 50 state jackets, specifically and minutely designed for each state. Each has a major theme across the back – Kentucky has a Churchill Downs with a Kentucky Derby race underway, Utah sports colorful dinosaurs, Hawaii has a spectacular erupting volcano – plus many clever and telling symbols and icons of each state. You need to see them in person to absorb all of the detail and intricate work.
Star-Spangled Couture is at the Frist until May 22. On Feb. 3, at 6 p.m., a seminar on the exhibit will be conducted by Manuel, writer Holly George-Warren, who has written extensively on the subject, and faithful Manuel client Marty Stuart. As Stuart has written about the first time he saw Ernest Tubb & the Texas Troubadours in full cowboy plumage, “The costumes had a power that utterly transformed the musicians into larger-than-life characters. They dripped with attitude and style. They had an aura about them that gave me the feeling I was in the presence of royalty.”
Imagine all that. Four immigrant tailors from Poland, Russia and Mexico came here in search of the American dream and discovered how to put that dream on cowboys’ and cowgirls’ backs and make it come alive. What a great country this still is.