Some Stars Find Careers Tailor-Made By Manuel

This appeared in The Tennessean on February 7, 2005

Dolly Parton wouldn't be Dolly without the look. Porter Wagoner wouldn't be the same without the rhinestones. And Johnny Cash would never have been as dramatic if he had been the man in white.

It's the image, baby. Without it, you've got a new kid in Nashville with a pretty good voice.

The master tailor of glitter, Manuel, pulled up a piece of couch one night last week with country music star Marty Stuart to talk about how, in Nashville, your tailor can help make you a star. Manuel's work is on display at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts through May 22, 2005. The image thing is like this, Manuel said:

"When you go home to mother and grandmother, you want to dress up for them. I think the entertainment world is in the same situation. I think when they sell a ticket, you should look good for them."

Manuel said it's like if you were on a train, and all the seats were taken, and a nun walked on. Someone would give up a seat.

"What if the nun was a pick-pocket?" Manual asked. "It was that outfit that made us believe. I think that is imaging."

Stuart, dapper in a black leather fringed jacket and turtleneck talked about what it was like to grow up loving music in a small town in Mississippi, waiting for the fair to come around.

"In 1967, Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours was the act," Stuart said, "I got to the fair early to watch this bus unload. By the time they got on the bus, they were wearing matching sits."

And then Ernest Tubb got off, he said, wearing a pinstriped suit fit for a king.

"It was the most magnificent sight. I saw Jesus that night. I went home and prayed. I wanted a suit like that."

Western wear historian Holly George-Warren explained that the Western image -- fringe and rhinestones, cowgirl skirts and piping -- started at the movies. Gene Autry, for example, started out wearing plain old business suits but was transformed when he put on a cowboy shirt.

"in the beginning, the Nashville performers did not like the cowboy look," Warren said. That changed when Little Jimmy Dickens, Hank Williams, Sr. and Pee Wee King bought suits in California and wore them here.

The hayseed, blackened teeth, ragged overalls look of the Grand Ole Opry began a transformation. The look created Nashville legends.

Stuart said when he was just starting, he wanted a Nudie suit badly. Nudie Cohn, with a North Hollywood shop, had taken the look to a new level. He went to Nudie's with $250 in his pocket. Tried on a suit. Like it. Wanted it.

"I asked, 'how much?' " Stuart recalled, and Nudie said $2,500. "I said, 'I can't afford it.' "

Nudie's young apprentice came up to him and said, "Hey, kid. Someday you'll come in here and buy the whole store, but today, you get a free shirt."

That was Manuel. A friendship ws born, and Manuel helped Stuart create his image.

"He'd sell you a shirt, but he wouldn't make you a suit until he saw you perform," Stuart said. "He'll tell you anything you want to hear and then make you what he thinks you need."

Stuart knew it had worked at the launch of a comic book: "Spiderman looked at me and said, 'who does your clothes?' "

The answer: a seamster named Manuel Arturo Jos Cuevas Martinez, who once sold oranges in his Mexican neightborhood so he could go see the Lone Ranger at the movies.

"You do become a star the minute you put it on," Stuart said.

By Gail Kerr

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