Rhinestone Cowboy

Clothes make the man, they say, and in my case this may be especially true.
Rhinestone Cowboy
BLACK LIKE ME: My customary wardrobe is not a tribute to Johnny Cash. I just don’t want to do the wash.
Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden

It’s not my style to write about style. If you’ve got to ask what style is, you probably ain’t got any. But it’s still possible that some may rub off on you, so here goes.

There are two kinds of style. There is strictly sartorial style, the currency of the country club, which allows you to spend your entire life as a well-dressed loser and never even know it. This type of style is merely a veneer of affectations signifying nothing; it may get you in the door, but it can’t keep you from being the most stultifyingly dull person at the dinner party. (You could try learning a few card tricks. No, better not.)

The second kind of style is an innate, natural flair. This type requires no masquerade. Indeed, it can sometimes be demonstrated with merely a simple gesture. For instance, I have just written my will. I have requested that when I die, there is to be no funeral and no service. I am to be cremated, and the ashes are to be thrown in Rick Perry’s hair.

We have elected a new president, based not upon his conventional achievements and accomplishments but the freshness of spirit and hope for a bright future that he somehow embodies, perhaps through his style as a human being. Maybe it is a better thing to see a candidate clearly through the window of the soul than for him to have to offer volumes of detailed promises that no man can possibly keep.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, the point is made that our first opinions of people, places, and circumstances are the correct ones. What better vehicle to convey who we really are than style? I’m not talking about what kind of tie is in this year. I’m talking about the world being buried beneath the weight of information, which we mistake for knowledge; quantity, which we confuse with plenty; and wealth, which we perceive to be happiness. Maybe style, both spiritual and sartorial, tells us more than we know.

Jimmy Dean, the famous sausage king, once called me and said, “I like your style. You’ve got the balls of a blind lion tamer.” I appreciated the compliment, but how does someone you’ve never met decide what he thinks of you? The decision in this case was made by watching sound bites on various cable news shows. In the ADHD culture in which we live and die, there is time, it seems, for little else but style.

Far be it from me to downplay the importance of wardrobe. Clothes make the man, they say, and in my case this may be especially true. I’ve got my black cowboy hat; my preachin’ coat, custom-made by Manuel, of Nashville; and my cigar, which I only smoke when America lets me, which, unfortunately, is almost never. I do have an alternative wardrobe. It’s my old weather-beaten vest, which Waylon Jennings gave me after I almost got tarred and feathered by a rather hostile audience in Denver in 1974. I was an acquired taste. But styles change and people change—all except for people in Eugene, Oregon, who are still wearing bell-bottoms.

Style is what you want it to be, but it’s also what others see. A middle-aged country singer who shall remain nameless was given to dressing much younger than her years, in tight skirts and fishnet stockings. Upon seeing her, Roger Miller once remarked, “Honey, you look like a dead teenager.”

Back to Manuel for a moment, because he sets the style standards for country music these days. I used to buy a lot of flashy rhinestone-studded outfits from Manuel. In fact, that’s why, in Nashville, I became known as “the man who put the glitter on Loretta Lynn’s titter.” But Manuel started out working in Hollywood for Nudie, who was one of the first to provide fancy Western outfits to singing cowboys like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who, as Willie Nelson points out, always had very smart horses. Nudie also sequined stars like Hank Williams (Senior, of course—you infidel!), Lefty Frizzell, Porter Wagoner, et cetera. There are those who say that Manuel, who was Nudie’s head designer, played a more than seminal role in Nudie’s success. Dwight Yoakam, who designs his own stuff, believes Manuel is a fashion genius. I don’t know who’s a genius. I just think it’s fun to dress up like a cowboy star if you can afford it.

My friend Marty Stuart, who has a new show on Saturday nights on RFD-TV, used to be one of the flashiest-dressed stars in country music. With the death of his friend and former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, however, Marty started dressing in black as a tribute to the man who once called Kris Kristofferson “a harmony whore.” I’ve loved Johnny Cash since my early teens, but I don’t dress in black necessarily as a tribute to him. I dress in black so I never have to wash my clothes.

Probably some of my finest style-setting moments occurred in the mid-seventies, when I was hanging out in L.A. with my band, the Texas Jewboys. We wore sunglasses all day and all night, and that was BBB (Before the Blues Brothers). We were some of the very few artists in L.A. at the time who, in terms of dress and behavioral style, were constantly “in character.” Perhaps we looked a bit seedy, but it was in a stylish way. We never had to dress up for performances and we never, ever played golf in the afternoon with record company executives. None of us really gave a damn about style—that’s probably why we had some. The L.A. of the seventies doesn’t exist anymore. Like style itself, it was a tow-away zone.

I once asked Willie, my guru, “Who was the person who most influenced your vocal style?” Without hesitation, he told me, “Frank Sinatra.” When the same question was put to Frank Sinatra, he answered, “Billie Holiday.” When Billie Holiday was asked who

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