Hank, Nudie, and The Truth About Stories

13 06 2012

The Truth About Stories is a book made from a series of five lectures by Thomas King. He wrote a radio serial for CBC called The Dead Dog Cafe Comedy Hour I enjoyed, too. King’s work addresses First Nations issues using humour, mythology, political and historical facts, academic discourse and native storytelling, and irony that often sends up the overused practice of being ironic.

Sometimes, when I see a situation involving a story or history being skewed to suit the purposes of the teller, I think back to those talks. Of course that sort of manipulation happens constantly, and always has. Fighting it is no small task. In spite of  this blog’s mandate to be about westernwear and country music history, and my mandate to make the clothes to go with it, I sometimes can’t resist opinionating on politics and challenging the status quo, like in my “free at last?” post.

Writing about Hank Snow as I often do, I try to stay objective. I’ve never said (until now) how one of the things that initially propelled me to find out more about Snow was hearing people say disparaging things about him. I soon discovered some of those comments were fuelled by a “documentary” about Hank, released shortly after his death in 1999, which was a very unflattering portrayal thanks in large part to the contribution of his son Jimmie. (who did not inherit the bulk of The Singing Ranger’s estate)


During his lifetime, Snow sought to control his own biography, telling what he wanted to tell in interviews and on his 1966 double LP This Is My Story. He expanded in 1994 with a 500 page  book, The Hank Snow Story. It’s common for fans to want additional information about a star’s life, and after that, not much more about Hank’s was told publicly until Hank and Jimmy: A Story of Country, which is a biased, compromised, and manipulated account that could have been interesting if it wasn’t so clearly intended to be a wholesale trashing.

The movie is a perfect example of what Thomas King says he knew of writing’s medicinal qualities:

…that a story told one way could cure, that the same story told another way could injure.

During my short stint as curator at the Hank Snow Museum, I fought to prevent Hank and Jimmy from being shown to visitors. Before my arrival, the last place people were guided on the museum ‘tour’ was to a TV to watch it, with the worst parts chopped out. Many left in what looked like a confused daze. During my own independent research, I met local country music historians who had been interviewed by the filmmakers. They told me how they had been put on camera and encouraged (to the point of harrassment) to “dish the dirt” on Hank, who at that moment was on his deathbed.

Hank’s Funeral on The Opry Stage

As I continued to dig around, I found out that at the beginning of their project, the filmmakers had been refused the interview they wanted from Hank. So instead, they made their movie without him, with money from different levels of Canadian government funding given on the condition a finished product be issued. I also heard they claimed, after the film came out, (and many people left the Halifax “world premiere” in disgust) they didn’t mean for Hank and Jimmy to paint Hank in a bad light, rather it “just turned out that way”. It is not surprising that the film was never widely circulated and is now almost impossible to find.  As an historical document, it became a victim of its own flaws, and the transparency of its misguided motivation.

Thinking that a sensationalized hatchet job was a better bet than honest storytelling, these guys missed out on the many cool things they could have told about Hank, who grew up in such rotten circumstances that in the 1970s he sank a lot of his own money into creating The Hank Snow Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. There are plenty of obscure music industry tales involving Hank, too. Snow says in his book how Hank Williams wrote “Jambalaya” especially for him, but he rejected it. (which some Williams fans would say is pure invention) And then there was the time Hank and Hank were in a Mexican jail……

The Hank Snow Story also sets the record straight on how Snow brokered Elvis’s 1957 signing to RCA and was cheated out of his cut by Tom Parker (whom he refuses to call “Colonel”) in the process. Some say that story is a stretch, of the opinion it’s just the bitter rantings of a man who lost out on a potential gold mine.

Whether a sore loser or unfairly defrauded business partner, the fact remains that Elvis sang Hank’s hit “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such as I” with a lot of conviction, hitting number one in the UK and number two on the US pop charts. It’s included on 50,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, the 1959 LP with Elvis wearing the famous gold lame Nudie suit on the cover.

A book I came across recently got me thinking a lot about Nudie Cohn’s story, and how Nudie is faring with historians and his growing legions of fans. Dream Suits: The Wonderful World of Nudie Cohn contains a more often-seen picture than this one of Nudie and Elvis in the ten thousand dollar suit, (which looks like it needs a good ironing) and a lot of talk about Gram Parsons’ poppy-pot leaf suit, which in spite of being the most famous Nudie suit of them all, was actually designed by Manuel, who was working for Nudie at the time. The book also reproduces the original order notes and sketch for Parsons, done by Manuel.

photo by Heidi Jewell

Written by fashion historian Mairi MacKenzie, Dream Suits was part of a project she initiated that included a show at Antwerp fashion museum MoMu last winter. The book contains some other interesting documents about Nudie clothes not commonly seen, like an order from Patsy Cline, and pictures of the label in Johnny Cash’s suit.

The museum show, and the book, revolve around a collection of Nudie clothes that belonged to a Belgian entertainer named Bobbejaan Schoepen, whose unfamiliarity limits the discussion and disconnects readers (like me) who don’t know who he is. Beyond that, there is still plenty of information about Nudie in Dream Suits, but another distraction is stiff academic language, which doesn’t suit the subject at all. The research feels hurried, more like a term paper assignment than a labour of love. Some of the content decisions are baffling in spite of being able to guess the intention behind them. For example, why devote space to Johnny Cash, not known for wearing Nudie suits, yet not even mention Hank Snow or Webb Pierce?

Dream Suits also neglects, in spectacular fashion, an issue that has always bothered me about westernwear. Picture after picture of Nudie clothes with Native American motifs appear without mention of how problematic such things are, particularly today.

A 2001 book MacKenzie quotes from liberally, How the West Was Worn by Holly George-Warren and Michelle Freedman, is very good in many ways but another culprit in this problem, writing a one-sided history of western-style clothing that gives all the credit to colonial men, mostly army figures, including Buffalo Bill Cody, whose primary purpose was to kill, enslave, and displace Native people. HTWWW even goes so far as to say, “Wild West shows introduced Indians and their dress….but they had no strong impact on clothing style”.

The denial of Native American influence is quite clearly untrue. Their motifs, image, designs, materials and even construction and decorative methods all have direct connections to westernwear. Right from the beginning of expansion into the “Old West”, Europeans were wearing clothes influenced by, and often made by, Native Americans. As far as the view some hold that their inclusion in Wild West shows was a great offer Indians took voluntarily, King reminds us that Sitting Bull (who fled to exile in Canada after quitting the job with Cody) and Metis resistor Gabriel Dumont, who also did a stint with Buffalo Bill, did have a choice: go on tour or go to jail.

Like Hank Snow, during his lifetime Nudie was determined to be the arbiter of his own story. As his use of Native American motifs demonstrates, he was also a great borrower. I heard Malcolm Gladwell say the other day, people who are ‘first’ with an idea are rarely the ones who do best with it. For instance, Nudie claimed to be the first to put rhinestones on westernwear. I’ve also written that here, and a friend sent me a recent article where Nudie’s granddaughter Jaime says it too. MacKenzie disputes that, saying it was Nathan Turk. A few months ago I’d also figured Nudie wasn’t the first, after seeing a 1940s outfit by Rodeo Ben, for sale at DollyPython Vintage in Dallas. I do agree, of course, that Nudie mastered the use of rhinestones and was unmatched when it came to using them on westernwear. But he was not the first to use rhinestones on country music clothing. Both Nathan Turk and Rodeo Ben beat him to it.

Rodeo Ben 1940s gabardine shirt

There isn’t much accessible information about Rodeo Ben, but his clothes were incredible, too. Quite significantly, some of his designs are still being made today (and not just the “Big Red” shirt I copied off a Gene Autry comic book cover)—I see many straight copies of his embroidery designs on mass produced shirts. Ben could easily be called the original Rodeo tailor. He was the first to put pearl snaps on Western shirts. He was the first with wide brand recognition, the first to really popularize prominent embroidery, and in 1947, he designed the iconic Wrangler 13MWZ cowboy cut jeans, still their biggest selling style.

Unfortunately, there’s no book dedicated to Rodeo Ben’s clothes, and he wasn’t much of a self-promoter. Nudie, who clearly was, did a memoir in the late 70s with a woman named Petrine Day Mitchum, and Mackenzie quotes passages from it in Dream Suits. One is about how 17 year old Nudie was jailed for transporting cocaine, because (according to MacKenzie’s version) Nudie was“duped” and “framed” into bringing it to a hotel room. The Tablet article that interviewed Jaime Nudie recounts the same story but doesn’t refer to a frame, but says the experience put young Nudie “on the straight and narrow”. Jaime, with Mary Lynn Cabrall, put together the 2004 Nudie book many of his fans have seen, which has a scrapbook quality, warmer writing, and more pictures of Nudie, his wife Bobby, and many of their famous clients.


Written while Bobby was still alive, Nudie, The Rodeo Tailor: The Life and Times of the Original Rhinestone Cowboy highlights her along with Nudie. Bobby was as much a part of the business as he was, a fact largely left out of Dream Suits.

Bobby Cohn in the Nudie’s travelling store in the 1950s

Another fact in the first Nudie book overlooked in Dream Suits is the contention that Elvis’s $10,000 suit may have only cost $2500. But there, it says he wore it only once, for the 50,000 Fans photo shoot, which is incorrect. There’s footage and pictures of him wearing it in concert but he doesn’t look very comfortable. I read on several sites that he wore it on stage three times, the last being on April 2, 1957, at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.


I also read, which supports what I already suspected, that Elvis didn’t like the suit. Nudie did make many fine-looking lame suits, (like the one Phil Ochs got in 1969) but in my opinion, Elvis’s wasn’t one of them.


The original Nudie book, as great as it is, has its own omissions and errors. I don’t want to imply that a new one should have taken the same approach. There is definitely more to be said about Nudie. But Dream Suits is guided most clearly by an apparent mandate to flatter Bobbejaan, whose clothes were procured on loan for the museum show. While it is not uncommon to honour the profiles of donors and lenders, in this case, with more time and care, it could have been done with a lot more finesse.


One question I had that isn’t answered amid all the quotes and references to academic articles is why Nudie’s memoir wasn’t published. I was surprised, too. when MacKenzie contends  that Nudie’s copyright needs stewardship and protection. I wonder exactly what she means by that. Is she on board with the people currently lobbying for the ability to copyright clothes? Would, or should, that apply retroactively to Nudie? It gets kind of complicated, doesn’t it, when considering the copyright of the photographers or those who own the images of the Nudie clothes, along with the question of ownership of the designs themselves. And what about advocating for copyright on Native American designs too? In The Truth About Stories, King talks about the representation of the “imaginary Indian”, and gives a long list of corporate brands who use it to sell products, which questions the line between legality and morality.

For MacKenzie, the copyright issue doesn’t seem to apply to Gram’s suit either, or Manuel’s right to own the design. There is a section devoted to a couple of British musicians and their dreams to be married in a replica of it where design ownership is left unquestioned.


photo in Dream Suits

While the desire to wear Gram’s suit at your church wedding is odd to me personally, as is the neglect by an academic to point out the tremendous difficulty contained in a suit with a giant headdress on it, one thing this book proves quite well is that all bets are off when it comes to Nudie love and reverence. I love Nudie clothes too. So does that mean I am supposed to lighten up a little?


Something quite new happened when Urban Outfitters was vilified last year for their “Navajo” line of underwear and other clothes. With the media exposure generated by Navajo groups, the company was pressured into changing the name of the products that were already on the shelf. There were probably some people who thought the clothes and labels should have been left as they were. I wasn’t one of them.

I wonder, if Nudie were working today, would he claim the American Indian motifs he so often used with the same conviction MacKenzie asserts when saying his work should be copyright protected:

“Nudie has of course, what might be termed, official guardians of his legacy; those whose job it is to preserve his body of work or to ensure that his copyright is not infringed. The museums entrusted with caring for and interpreting his body of work and the guardians of his estate are but two. However the thrust of this chapter is directed toward the more amorphous aspects of Nudie culture, those parts that have taken on a life of their own.”

Along with pictures of things like this jacket, and the groom wearing a replica of Gram’s suit, MacKenzie’s seemingly contradictory passage is followed by a discussion about the Nudie business archives Bobby donated to The Autry National Centre of the American West in 1995, where many of the users are that most compelling section of westernwear fans: PhD students. She leaves us hanging on the identity of the other of the “but two” guardians. I presume it must be The Country Music Hall of Fame, a museum not mentioned in the book, where Nudie outfits line the display cases and even his sewing machine has its own place.

Hank Williams Jr’s first Nudie outfit at the Country Music Hall of Fame

 


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