Showing posts with label Flying Burrito Brothers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flying Burrito Brothers. Show all posts

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Nudie Suit

Gram Parsons in Nudie suit © Jim McCrary 1969 All Rights Reserved.
Having spent the past couple of days reading Bob Proehl’s excellent new book—published just this month—on the Flying Burrito Brothers’ classic country album THE GILDED PALACE OF SIN (1969), my thoughts have turned to the enigma of the late Gram Parsons (1946-1973), who died at the painfully young age of twenty-six of a drug overdose. In his discussion of Parsons and the Burrito Brothers, Proehl devotes a chapter to Nudie Cohen (1902-1984) and the highly individualized costumes he designed for country & western entertainers, including the Burritos. Unique and highly distinctive—“individualized”—Nudie costumes frequently served as memory aides for audiences, helping them to identify particular performers: Porter Wagoner, for instance, had suits created with wagon wheels on them, a distinctive emblem obviously derived from a wordplay on his surname. Proehl rightly notes that Gram Parsons’ famous Nudie suit (pictured, modeled by Parsons, the suit he was wearing in the picture used as the album cover for The Gilded Palace of Sin) was made by Manuel Cuevas, the most gifted protégé of Nudie Cohen. Here’s Proehl’s detailed description of Parsons’ Nudie suit:

The white coat, cut high to show off a handtooled leather belt, had large multicolored pills along the sleeves: white-crossed amphetamines, red barbiturates, and green and blue capsules to symbolize some combination of the two. Kelly green cannabis leaves snaked up the front, and bright pink poppies stood out at each shoulder. The lapels bore carefully embroidered naked women, the cartoonish renderings recalling the cover girl from Sweetheart of the Rodeo, stripped bare. The pants flared out at the bottom with bright red inserts, and flames rose up from the flares, licking at the poppies that sat at the point of each low-cut hip. But the centerpiece was the jacket’s back, emblazoned with a red cross, rays of light streaming out of it like a massive prison tattoo, a cholo cross. (27-28)

Proehl, importantly, actually quotes Manuel Cuevas about the significance of Parsons’ suit. Cuevas made the observation many years later that Parsons’ costume “was actually a map for him to follow to his death” (28). There may be some truth to this claim. The question is, did Gram Parsons purposefully design his suit so as to announce both the manner of his death, as well as his subsequent cremation? While the omission doesn’t detract from his discussion, I’m not sure whether Bob Proehl was aware of the interview Michael Jarrett conducted with Manuel Cuevas (July 1997), in which the artist is even more explicit about the symbolic meaning of Parsons’ suit. Cuevas’ comments tend to support the uncanny speculation that Parsons was aware both of the manner of his death (drugs) and his subsequent cremation:

I never realized until way past his death that that’s what we were talking about. The fire on the cross—that’s the way he wanted to die. Although we have been friends forever, Phillip Kaufman [the Burritos’ former road manager who stole Parsons’ body from the Los Angeles airport and burned it in Joshua Tree Desert] and I hadn’t really talked about Gram, but Gram had talked to him. Phil had promised Gram that, if he died, he would burn his body. I was just making the outfit according to all the ideas that we put together: the nude girls, the pills and the marijuana plants, and the California poppies. The fire up the pants. The cross in the back. Although I captured the idea—we developed it into a great form—it wasn’t until a few years after his death that I really started thinking about it. “This boy was really telling me how he was going to die.” (63)

Despite the designer’s assertions, the question of whether Parsons inscribed the suit as a sort of unconscious death wish remains only an intriguing possibility--but it most certainly reveals the the manner in which myths are made.

A Few Album Covers Featuring Distinctive Nudie Suits:

Flying Burrito Brothers – The Gilded Palace of Sin (A&M)
Dolly Parton-Linda Ronstadt-Emmylou Harris – Trio (Warner Bros.)
Elvis Presley – 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong: Elvis’ Gold Records, Volume 2 (RCA)
Hank Snow – The Essential Hank Snow (RCA)
Porter Wagoner – Big Rock Candy Mountain (Gusto)
Hank Williams – 40 Greatest Hits (Polydor)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Pedal Steel

Although typically defined as a type of guitar, the pedal steel guitar is actually an unusual instance of a stringed instrument becoming a keyboard instrument. The pedal steel is an electric guitar placed on a narrow table with legs, usually plucked with fingerpicks, with foot pedals and knee levers changing the pitch of the strings that are played with a steel bar. In America, the origin of the pedal steel guitar—perhaps the most recognizable instrument in country music—dates back to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, when Americans were introduced to the Hawaiian steel guitar and the way it was played, flat on the lap and fretted with a piece of metal or bone or the back of a comb. Within a few years, steel guitar music became a national craze, augmented by the phonograph record. By the late 1930s, the electric steel guitar, now with pedals and manufactured by Rickenbacher, Fender, and others, had become strongly associated with American country music, even though its origin was Hawaiian. Thus country music is, in fact, an eclectic form of world music. In 1953, Bud Isaacs and Webb Pierce recorded “Slowly,” revolutionizing the use of the pedal steel guitar in both country and popular music in America.

In country music, the pedal steel is the musical equivalent of drunken self-pity, a form of self-indulgence in which one entertains the belief that one’s life is sadder and more difficult than everyone else’s—as the old adage says, suffering transforms the common man into a philosopher. Hence the pedal steel gives expression to inner emotional turmoil. The 1950s recordings of Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, collected on the highly prized CD Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (Razor & Tie), influenced countless pedal steel guitarists who followed, and prepared the way for the pedal steel to be employed in rock music—by The Byrds, The Rolling Stones, The Flying Burrito Brothers (check out “Christine’s Tune” here), and many other bands.

Some Exemplary Recordings Featuring the Pedal Steel:

B. J. Cole, “Clair de Lune,” Transparent Music (Hannibal)

Jimmy Day with Ray Price, “Crazy Arms,” on Hillbilly Fever! Vol. 3, Legends of Nashville (Rhino)

Pete Drake, “Lay Lady Lay,” on Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline (Columbia)

Josh Dubin, “First Song for Kate,” on Bobby Previte, Claude’s Late Morning (Gramavision)

Buddy Emmons, “Silver Bell” Amazing Steel Guitar: The Buddy Emmons Collection (Razor & Tie)

John Hughey, “Last Date (Lost Her Love on Our Last Date),” on Conway Twitty, 20 Greatest Hits (MCA)

Bud Isaacs, “Slowly,” on Webb Pierce, King of the Honky-Tonk: From the Original Decca Masters, 1952-1959 (MCA/CMA)

Sneaky Pete Kleinow, “Christine’s Tune,” on Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin (Edsel)

Ralph Mooney, “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” on
James Burton and Ralph Mooney, Corn Pickin’ and Slick Slidin’ (See-For-Miles)

Speedy West, “Stratosphere Boogie,” on Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, Stratosphere Boogie: The Flaming Guitars of Speedy West & Jimmy Bryant (Razor & Tie)