Country Music’s Sparkle King
Fashion designer Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew, gave country music its trademark rhinestone sparkle
The Nudie Suit was introduced to a whole new generation in 1969, when Gram Parsons and his band the Flying Burrito Brothers donned custom suits on the cover of their album The Gilded Palace of Sin. While it never achieved commercial success, the album picked up where Parsons left off as a member of the Byrds on their groundbreaking fusion of rock and country music, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Today, Gilded Palace is cited as one of the most important records in the sub-genre critics have dubbed alt-country. Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, and Beck have all named the record as a major influence, and a few years after its release, the Eagles sold millions of albums using the template created by Parsons and his contemporaries. But as iconic as the tracks on the album are, the image of the singer decked out in his white Nudie Suit with marijuana leaves and amphetamine pills made out of rhinestones is what remains most closely associated with the Parsons name. “Gram was a big aficionado of early country music,” said Parsons biographer Jessica Hundley. “He knew about Nudie through all the singing cowboys.”
Parsons’ impetus for working with Cohn was to celebrate everything he loved about both old-time singing cowboys and California culture, a look he dubbed “Cosmic Americana.” Hundley calls the look “an embrace of classic with a psychedelic edge,” which became part of the Gram Parsons legend. “Nudie,” she said, “was the embodiment of that presentation.”
Parsons’ influence on his friend Keith Richards is most noticeable on the Rolling Stones 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main Street, but a year after the record was released, Parsons died at 26 from an overdose of morphine and alcohol. As a tribute to his friend, Richards donned a custom Nudie Suit for numerous shows during the Rolling Stones’ 1973 European tour. The red suit was embroidered with sunsets, cactus flowers, snakes on the pant legs, and flying saucers—a reference to the 1947 UFO sightings in Roswell, N.M. In 2010, the suit sold at auction for $21,875.
Cohn passed away in 1984; Dale Evans gave the eulogy at his funeral. His store remained open until 1994, run by his widow and his granddaughter. Since then, Jamie Lee Nudie has kept her grandfather’s legacy alive by acting as the family historian and keeping the Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors website updated with information about opportunities for fans to see Cohn’s work.
Cohn’s suits remain cemented in country culture long after his death, even as styles have changed. By the 1980s and early ’90s, black became all the rage in country music, as singers like Garth Brooks and Brooks & Dunn sold millions of albums while clad in black cowboy hats and matching black shirts. But while mainstream country fashion got less flashy, the burgeoning alt-country scene preferred the look of Parsons, and Nudie Suits were a big part of that equation. In a 1993 interview, Jay Farrar of the band Uncle Tupelo (and later of Son Volt) mentioned that he loved Parsons’ Nudie Suits and thought he was a “snazzy dresser.” Eventually there’d even be a band called the Nudie Suits.
Cohn’s style endures as a family tradition, thanks in large part to Jamie Lee Nudie and Manuel Cuevas, Cohn’s onetime head tailor and former son-in-law. After divorcing Cohn’s daughter, Cuevas created the roses and skeletons insignia of the Grateful Dead and supplied the suits for the Beatles during their Sgt. Pepper phase. After the divorce, Cuevas moved to Memphis, created his own brand, and opened his own shop, and eventually his son (Cohn’s grandson), Manuel Cuevas Jr., got in on the act: In 2008, Wilco appeared on Saturday Night Live with lead singer Jeff Tweedy in a white suit covered in embroidered roses—designed by Cuevas Jr., in an obvious nod to his late grandfather, Nudie Cohn. Wilco, a band that has captivated contemporary alt-country fans and sold hundreds of thousands of records to date, paid homage to Cohn in front of millions of people on one of network television’s biggest stages.
Cohn’s legend and his suits haven’t become relics of another time; today, they’re valuable collectibles for some and inspiration for others. Just last year, American Idol contestant Paul McDonald wore a Cohn-inspired suit, created by none other than Cuevas Jr. The Nudie Suit has become a symbol for country’s past and an icon for contemporary musicians besotted with Americana and its history—all this from the work of a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who thought his cowboy heroes could use a little sparkle.
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