Sparkle, Twang and Two-step
Doctoral student Janet Aspley reports back from a productive research trip to USA
This year I was honoured to be the recipient of the British Association of American Studies’ 2017 Marcus Cunliffe Award, which funds short-term research trips to the USA. I took my trip in June 2017, dividing my time between attendance at the International Country Music Conference at Belmont University, Nashville and the archive of Nudie’s Rodeo tailors at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles. The late Nudie Cohn is the major designer in my field of doctoral research; my PhD project is titled ‘Hillbilly Deluxe: Male Performance Wear and Authenticity in Country Music 1947 – 1994’.
At the conference, I gave a paper entitled ‘Clothed in Sin: Gram Parsons, his Gilded Palace of Sin Nudie Suit and the Conundrum of Authenticity’. This was the first time I had spoken on my subject to an audience of country music specialists and I was delighted by the reception that my paper received; it was an interesting experience to be the only dress historian in the room, rather than – as I often am – the only country music historian. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing the papers that fellow scholars presented on a wide range of topics, from the earliest days of commercial country music in the 1920s, through the post-war boom and the rockabilly of the 1950s, right up to the present day phenomenon of ‘hick hop’. Gender was a recurring theme, as were constructs of authenticity in country music; these are both themes of my own research, so I was fascinated to hear how they were reflected in the work of others. The conference was welcoming and relaxed. Participants were invited to bring their instruments and ‘pick’, so breaks were often accompanied by impromptu acoustic groups of musicians; it ended with a singalong of the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans classic Happy Trails.
My own trail then led happily to The Autry Museum of The American West in Burbank, CA. The Archive has recently moved and I was the first researcher to use the comfortable new reading room. During my five days in the library, I researched a range of customer files, billing ledgers and press cuttings and was able to read an unpublished biography of Nudie Cohn that is held there informally, having sought permission from the author to do so. It contained fascinating insights into Nudie’s journey from his birthplace, Kiev, as a refugee from attacks on the Jewish community to which he belonged, as well as many glimpses into his life as the tailor of choice for the stars of country music. At the weekend, I was able to visit the Grammy Museum, which fortuitously had an exhibition of memorabilia owned by the country singer, songwriter and guitar/mandolin virtuoso Marty Stuart, whom I recently interviewed for my project. The display included some exceptional suits made by Nathan Turk for the Maddox Family, known in their day as ‘The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band in America’.
On my return to Nashville, I was able to view garments made for Hank Thompson in the archive of The Country Music Hall of Fame Museum; I had found Thompson’s file in the Nudie archive to be very rich. While at the ‘Hall’, I visited the display of a shirt that I made for the singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, for my clothing label Dandy & Rose, in their ‘Featured Western Wear Designer’ exhibition. Of course I posed in front of it for a photograph! I also saw Lauderdale play with a smokin’ country band at The American Legion Post 82’s ‘Honky Tonk Tuesdays’ evening. Not only did the support band turn out to be led by Casey James Prestwood, whom I had been trying to contact to request an interview about a particular suit he has had made by the tailor/ designer, Manuel, but he was also wearing the suit; it is inspired by the one that, as Nudie’s head tailor, Manuel designed for Gram Parsons in 1968, which had been the subject of my conference paper two weeks previously. Manuel, otherwise known as ‘The Rhinestone Rembrandt, was also present – and dancing. I approached Prestwood personally and he declared himself delighted to be involved in my project. I also fulfilled a long-held ambition by dancing the two-step for the first time; not necessary for my research, perhaps, but great fun nonetheless.
I would like to thank the British Association of American Studies and University of Brighton’s Centre for Research and Development for giving me the opportunity to make this trip. I am sure that the contacts I made at the International Country Music Conference will enrich my future work; the results of my archival research will enhance my PhD thesis considerably.