LA Honky-Tonk

August 18, 2016

 Nudie Cohn & Gram Parsons in North Hollywood in 1969. 

 

If you turn on a popular country station today what you are going to hear mostly sounds like rock music with 'country' themes. Conversely if you tune into a 'progressive' rock station a lot of what you will hear can be classified as 'Roots', or 'Alt - Country'. What happened? How did this come about?

 

The 'rockification' of country music and the 'contrification' of rock are two ongoing themes in American pop culture that have been unfolding over the past 40 years. As a child of the counterculture (I was in middle school 1967 - 1970) and a lover of country music, I have had a front row seat.

 

If you want to understand where all of this comes from, a good place to start is Los Angeles in the late 60's - early 70's and a guy named Gram Parsons.

Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass, & David Geffen getting down with that mellow sound - The Laurel Canyon scene

 

In 1967 when Gram and his International Submarine Band moved from NY to LA to make it in the record business, there were two very different and vital scenes going on. Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood hills was home turf and nexus of the west coast rock scene: Frank Zappa, The Doors, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield.. meanwhile less than 10 miles away on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood an equally dynamic scene existed that was 180 degrees culturally from the long haired hippies in Laurel Canyon.

 

West coast country music was alive and kicking with the hard driving 'Bakersfield' sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard and at clubs like the Palomino, and the Bandera on Ventura Blvd., great live country music could be heard nightly. At Lankershim and Morrison, Nudie's Rodeo Tailors outfitted Buck and Merle in their over-the-top country star stage outfits. Both scenes were 'show business' but they were at opposite ends of it. That is until Gram Parsons arrived.

 

See, as a long-haired privileged son of the South, Gram (from the Snively Orange orchard fortune) could walk in both worlds and had the talent and means to do so. 

 

The Palomino Club So-Cal's premiere country music club in the 50's, 60's, and 70's. Closed in '95. Tuesdays were open mike and Gram made his bones playing there in stage outfits provided by Nudie. His talent, the only thing keeping the rednecks from kicking his ass.

The young hippy cowboy performing live at a california Honky-Tonk in a pre Burrito Brothers Nudie suit

Beardless outlaws - Wille Nelson & Waylon Jennings in their younger days performing live at the Palomino club

 

 

Nudie opened his shop in North Hollywood (the valley) in 1947 and along with his wife and master fitter Manuel, helped define the look of American pop culture in the postwar years. He created signature looks first for Hank Williams, and then for Elvis.

 Hank Williams in his custom 'notes' nudie suit

 

 Elvis performing in his $10,000 gold lame nudie suit ( a colorized B&W photo)

 Merle Haggard getting outfitted at Nudies

 

Gram Parsons was on a mission to turn his generation - the counter culture rockers, who had already channeled black blues and R&B, onto white soul - i.e. real country music. And to bring the rock & roll spirit and attitude to country.

 

The ironic thing is he didn't live to see his idea vindicated and never became a star in his lifetime. In the immortal words of Tom Wolf, " he died about ten minutes before being proved right" of an overdose in 1973 at the age of 26. What followed: Linda Ronstadt popularizing 'country rock', The Eagles selling more records than any other rock band, Emmylou Harris becoming the queen of a new category called Alt-Country he paved the way for, with his International Submarine Band, Byrds Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and Flying Burrito Brothers records none of which were hits in his lifetime.

 

Here is a look at his scene, the people & the style that seems as relevant today as it seemed unexpected fifty years ago:

 

The Bands

International Submarine Band performed country music to rock audiences and was often booed off the stage 

The Byrds - Chris Hillman recruited Gram to join the band when they were short a player. Roger McGuinn - the band's leader is quoted as saying "we hired a piano player and ended up with Hank Williams".

 

The Flying Burrito Brothers in their Gilded Palace of Sin album Nudie suits. At first Nudie would lend Gram costumes to wear on stage when he was gigging at local country night clubs. By the time he formed the Burritos, record company advance money was used.

 Burrito songwriting collaborators Parsons & Hillman

Gram and Keith Richards became besties and musical collaborators. Gram taught the Stones had to play & sing country music which led to their signature album Exile on Main Street.

The Flying Burrito Brothers with Pamela Des Barres and her groupie squad. Pam is in the back row between Gram and Chris Hillman.

 

The Women

The Whiskey was the preeminent LA rock club and Pamela Des Barres started hanging out there when she was in high school in Reseda. She put herself right in the middle of the LA rock scene had a great sense for who was going places. When Gram formed the Burritos she became a big fan of the band, and specifically Gram. 

A charming photo of  Pamela Des Barres around the time of the Burritos. In her book 'I'm with the band' she chronicals the domestic scene at burrito manor in the valley where the band lived along with Gram's first wife Nancy Ross.

Gram arguing with his first wife, and expectant mother of his daughter Polly. Neither of his marriages appears to have been happy. He had too much going on and was intoxicating to most women which drove both of his wives crazy.

LA Scenester & chronicler Eve Babitz was fascinated with Gram and wrote about him. She became a friend and confidant when he took up residence in the Chateau Marmont after the burritos broke up.

Gram and his second wife Gretchen who toured with Gram on the Fallen Angels tour with Emmylou Harris. She couldn't escape their obvious chemistry.

Gram and Emmylou on the Fallen Angels tour

 

 Gram discovered Emmylou Harris who went on to define the Alt Country genre

 

The exquisite Emmy backstage with Phil Kaufman. After Gram died she made him her road manager (Mangler). Phil is the one who stole Gram's body and set him on fire in the desert making a major contribution to his myth.

 

The Clothes

Nudie & Gram from the famous Raeanne Rubenstein publicity shoot that ended up in Rolling Stone magazine

 

Two guys who reinvented themselves: Nudie was born Nuta Kotlyarenko - a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who came to America at eleven and hustled his way to fame making clothes for entertainers. He started out sewing rhinestones on g-strings for strippers in NY, and ended up as the go-to tailor in Hollywood in the heyday of the western star and country music performer. Gram was born Cecil Ingram Conner III to a wealthy southern family but chose music and worked hard from an early age to turn himself into a star.

 

Gram's famous Burrito Brothers Nudie Suit. Below the sketch for the design. The arms featured Tuinals, Seconals, (barbiturate downers), and blotter acid.

 Chris Hillman's Burrito suit featured peacocks

Dolly Parton looking lovely. She got her break singing with Porter Wagoner who's band were all outfitted by Nudie.

 A great illustration of a young crew-cutted George Jones in a red Nudie suit

Nudie also did western themed custom Bonnevilles and Eldorados. Shown here Web Pierce's car. Below are great shots of Gram and Kid Rock in the same car.

Gram at the Altamont  festival in proto glam-rock  country androgyny. The look included highlighted hair, a midriff top and wide sash belt. Gram was the first guy to ever sing country music looking like this.

 

 Jerry Garcia in a 'dead' Nudie

 Manuel Cuevas (Nudie's former fitter) fitting Jack Black in his skeleton bones suit

Tanya Tucker looking completely badass her 70's Nudie suit

 

Heirs to the Legend of Nudie & Gram

The remaining Cowboy Tailor in LA is Jaime Castaneda who worked for Manuel and opened his own shop on Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood, when Manuel moved his business to Nashville in the late 80's. He makes stage outfits for Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and other west coast artists.

A photo of Manuel Cuevas and photographer Raeanne Rubenstein (center) who shot the famous series of Gram & Nudie

 

Manuel's daughter Morelia (who is also Nudie's granddaughter) who along with her brother Manny (below) run Manuel's in Nashville the main destination for artist seeking embroidered rhinestone stage outfits, Manuel is 83 and going strong.

Nudie's other granddaughter Jamie Lee Nudie and her partner Mary Lynn Cabrall live in Santa Clarita and have a cafe / museum of Nudie memorabilia and T shirts there. They also wrote a great coffee table book: Nudie The Rodeo Tailor.

 

Gram's daughter Polly from his first marriage (on the left) shown here with Nora Jones at a Gram Parsons tribute event

 

Sources

Hickory Wind - Ben Fong Torres, Pocket Books 1991

Proud To Be An Okie - Peter La Chapelle, University of California Press 2007

I'm With The Band - Pamela Des Barres, Chicago Review Press 1987

Twenty Thousand Roads - David Meyer, Villiard 2007

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