What follows is a guest post by Evan Malone (Lone Star College).
If there is one thing that country music fans love to debate, it’s what songs, artists, and subgenres count as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ country. Whether it’s ‘countrypolitan’, ‘bro-country’, or ‘boyfriend country’, whatever is popular on mainstream country radio and CMT is liable to be met with accusations of killing country music, and the verdict is always the same: It’s inauthentic.
The problem is that it’s actually pretty hard to tell what is authentic. For instance, we might assume that the bedazzled suits worn by rhinestone cowboys are obviously inauthentic. These so-called ‘Nudie suits’ (named after the designer Nudie Cohn) are so far removed from anything rural and working class that talking about authenticity in county music just sounds like a bunch of hogwash. Tyler Mahan Coe, host of the country podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones and son of country legend David Allan Coe, has argued this very thing. He asks, “[has] anyone ever seen a sharecropper work a field while wearing a rhinestone suit? Seems like, if this authenticity thing mattered so much, everyone who makes country music would be dressed in tattered overalls and have a couple of teeth blacked out.”
Behind the problem Coe raises is an assumption about what it would even mean to be authentic. Playing authentic country music is a matter of having the right resume, and this typically means being rural and working class. Notice, though, that the rural working class can’t afford a Nudie suit’s $10,000-$18,000 price tag. If country fans are willing to call the artists who wear them authentic, and the folk don’t wear them, then maybe authenticity doesn’t matter in the first place. The question country music fans are left with is how we can reconcile country music’s obsession with authenticity with these gussied up suits.
Why don’t country singers don’t dress like sharecroppers? That’s the real question. But the fact is that country singers did dress like sharecroppers back when the genre was known as ‘hillbilly music’. The hillbilly bands of the 1920s were called things like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, and they would perform in overalls and with corncob pipes in their mouths. Before this, it was called ‘old-time’ music and had corresponding old-time costumes. The 1920s saw bands like Dr. Bate and his Augmented Orchestra (old-time) become the Possum Hunters (hillbilly), and Binkley Brothers Barn Dance Orchestra (old-time) become the Dixie Clod Hoppers (hillbilly). According to the country music sociologist Richard A. Peterson, this change was part of a broad rebranding effort across the country music industry. Labels wanted to move away from the outdated old-time image and towards the more fun image of the hillbilly, which might do better at attracting younger audiences. Unfortunately, by the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, most Americans didn’t want to be associated with the public image of the hillbilly. Sure, the hillbilly persona opened doors in the entertainment industry for the rural poor of Appalachia, but it also carried a significant stigma. For instance, in their 1926 cover story on the hillbilly, Variety tells their readers that,
“The ‘hillbilly’ is a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white… of ‘poor white trash’ genera. The great majority, probably 95 percent, can neither read nor write English… [They are] illiterate and ignorant, with the intelligence of morons.”
The labels addressed this problem by shifting toward the cowboy look, gaining popularity in Hollywood westerns, but this was still just a costume. Yet, behind the scenes, artists were starting to take ownership of their image. Designers and artists began working together to add ever more embroidery, fringe, and rhinestones, and the Nudie suit was born.
A costume is fundamentally a working uniform for a stage performer, the same way that overalls are for a fieldhand. Country musicians and their rural, working-class fans are at least united in the fact that their job determines what they wear; they just have different jobs. Contrast this with the degree of self-expression we see in pop music fashion. The redneck musicians hired to play country music were hired to fill a role that was generic by its nature, and they knew it. The country singer is, first and foremost, here to work. The original wearers of Nudie suits knew the value of hard work and they knew their fans did too. My claim is that country music authenticity isn’t about having the right biography at all, but about embodying the values that country music represents. In this way, the Nudie suit is a way for artists to show their commitment to the value of hard work and the value of identifying with your labor.
Despite its outlandish appearance, the Nudie suit is built with functionality in mind. Pearl snaps became a part of western wear when the designer Bernard ‘Rodeo Ben’ Lichtenstein saw a bull rider get gored after the bull’s horn became stuck between the buttons of the rider’s shirt. In response, Rodeo Ben replaced the buttons on his shirts with metal fasteners that quickly uncouple when pulled. These fasteners eventually came to be embellished with mother of pearl and the pearl snap was born. The same goes for fringe, which was derived from the practice of trimming buckskin garments so that water would be wicked away from the body, and so that the human silhouette could be broken up against a natural backdrop as a form of camouflage. However, once the country music industry decided on the cowboy suit as the image for the genre, its functionality turned toward its role within the music industry.
Here, bright colors and embroidery help the artist stand out, whether on stage or against the desert backdrops of Hollywood westerns. This function was more fully realized when Nudie Cohn, a former cabaret costume designer, pioneered the addition of rhinestones. Rhinestones in cabaret costumes reflect the stage lights and make the performer easier to see from the cheap seats. Being visible on stage is important in all musical performances, but early country artists were especially concerned for those in the back of the room, given how difficult it was for their working-class attendees to afford a ticket. One country fan recounts that “the rhinestone suits symbolized a form of respect the performers had for their audiences.” That respect was also reflected in the artists’ decision to wear costumes rather than their everyday clothes. If the audience could motivate themselves to get dressed for work, then the country singer owed them the same respect. As Nudie Cohn said, “[the entertainer] should wear a flashy outfit to be fair to the public… he shouldn’t be wearing a sport coat like the people in the audience.”
Beyond its role on stage, the Nudie suit can also serve as a promotional item. One of the most popular varieties of Nudie suit was the once-popular ‘song-suit’. Here, embroidery was used to depict imagery of a hit song. For instance, T. Texas Tyler commissioned a double-breasted jacket embroidered with playing cards to represent his 1948 single “Deck of Cards”. Meanwhile, Webb Pierce’s song-suit for “In the Jailhouse Now” features a depiction of a cowboy behind bars. This can extend down to the boots, as seen in Hank Thompson’s matching boots for his 1948 “Humpty Dumpty Heart” song-suit, designed by Viola Grae. These suits were bought with the royalties from a hit song and worn as a promotional item while the song remained on the charts. The pressure for the country artist was to make a new hit so they could afford a new suit (and have an occasion for one) or else risk the embarrassment of either a suit from days past or a suit with no rhinestones at all. Across its roots in western wear and its uses on the stage and in promotion, the Nudie suit was, and still is, a functional uniform for a working musician.
Beyond fulfilling these functions, the Nudie suit retains a more important role in communicating authenticity to country fans. Country artists and fans love tradition. This love underpins the importance placed on work ethic we saw earlier, but it is also reflected in the nostalgia that runs through the genre. Country music often endorses traditional ways of life and tends to romanticize the past (whether historical or personal). The country singer reminisces about the way their town used to be before the coal industry moved in, the love they once had, the way country music itself used to sound, or the family that raised them. However, for this to come across as a value commitment we need to know that artists are truly choosing to embrace tradition. This sets up a very common three-act structure in country music. First, the singer describes their idyllic domestic situation (whether that is in childhood, in the environment, in honest work, or in a faithful marriage). Next, they venture out on their own, experimenting with city life, drugs, crime, or infidelity. Finally, they realize the error of their ways, and “scat right back to [their] pappy’s farm.” This story reflects the genre’s general sense that the traditional way of doing things is good, but that this is something that one should learn for oneself by making choices and taking responsibility for them. This story, at the heart of country music’s three-act structure, is written all over the Nudie suit.
Imagine someone who never leaves the farm, who never longs to escape the bright lights of the big city, and who doesn’t need to go back to Luckenbach, Texas because they never left. This person would have no need for the expensive and restrictive Nudie suit while working on the farm (nor could they afford one). Meanwhile, someone who didn’t come to the city from a simple, poor farm life might “know better” than to buy anything so gaudy. The Nudie suit has an old money price and a no-money taste. The rhinestone suit is a testament to the particular experience of the newly rich and newly urban. It represents the rural, working-class idea of success in the city. In philosophical terms, it serves as an ‘epistemic signifier’ (that is, a sign that expresses some expertise on the part of the wearer). In this case, it signals that the artist has completed the first two acts of the country music story by demonstrating their status as a simple country kid who came into money. In light of this, we might be more inclined to believe them and assign weight to their endorsement of tradition in the third act. When the wearer tells us that the money and pleasure-seeking of modern urban success didn’t make them any happier, we at least believe that they have some experience with it and the alternative.
When it comes to telling this particular story, a cornerstone of country music, the Nudie suit is a testament to the singer’s authenticity, not an obstacle to it. In this case, the country community isn’t defined by a particular class, ethnicity, or geographic location, but by their conscious endorsement of the genre’s values. Hillbilly music fans were stigmatized by their association with the 1920’s hillbilly image. Those fans went on to form the country music community, and that community wants artists who are dedicated to representing their values accurately. What better way to show your commitment to those fans and their traditions than to don an outfit that outsiders think is ugly as sin?