It was 1913, and ethnic Jews living in the Ukrainian region of the Russian Empire were regularly subjected to brutal massacres, known as pogroms. Just two years after the birth of a young boy named Nuta Kotlyarenko (Нута Котляренко) in Kiev on December 15, 1902, one such notorious program performed on the streets of Kiev after a meeting of the City Hall, which resulted in the massacre of an estimated 100 Jewish people.
While many other such massacres occurred in the western parts of the Russian Empire, Nuta Kotlyarenko’s parents – fearing for his life – put the boy and his brother Julius on a ship bound for America. This boy would go on to become arguably the most important person in country music history who never picked up an instrument.
When you go to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, there’s a man’s influence on you to see more than anyone else. No, it’s not the father of country music Jimmie Rodgers, nor the first king of country Hank Williams. It is the timeless work of this Ukrainian refugee from Kiev who will later be called Nudie Cohn.
And it does not stop there. Go to Graceland in Memphis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or many of the museums covering the big screen cowboys of the 50s, and you’ll find plenty of evidence of this Ukrainian’s importance in American culture. .
Now, to be historically accurate, Nudie Cohn didn’t invent the Western-style costume her name is now synonymous with, and wasn’t the first to employ it in country music. It’s the work of one of the premier country bands of all time, Maddox Brothers and Rose, who became known as “The Most Colorful Hillbilly Band” for their striking and garish stage costumes. Nathan Turk also deserves credit for being one of country music’s first Western tailors – a Polish immigrant himself, as does Mexico’s Manuel Cuevas who was a Nudie understudy and first worked for him. But it was Nudie Cohn who transformed it from a fad into an art form that has stood the test of time and become the very image we associate with classic country today.
First arriving in the United States at the age of 11 on Ellis Island in New York, it was there that Nuta Kotlyarenko’s name was Americanized. Nudie Cohn worked as a shoe shiner to get by, and later as a boxer, allegedly linked to legendary gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. After spending time in Leavenworth dealing drugs (presumably for the mob), Cohn met his American-born wife Helen Barbara Kruger – later known as Bobbie Nudie – at a boarding house in Mankato, Minnesota.
It was 1934, and in the middle of the Great Depression. The young couple had the wacky idea of opening an underwear boutique for showgirls and prostitutes in New York City called “Nudie’s for the Ladies”, and Nudie’s were officially in the clothing business. But it became apparent early on that Nudie’s chain stitch embroidery style would be better suited (no pun intended) to Western Wear which was all the rage on the American West Coast. So he moved to Los Angeles and quickly became the tailor of country music.
Country singer Tex Williams is where Nudie Cohn got her start in country music. The suits he wanted to make were so expensive that we couldn’t start custom-making them. So while supporting himself by designing mass-produced clothes in his garage with his wife, Cohn made a deal with Tex to take the proceeds Tex made from the sale of a horse to buy a sewing machine. so that he can make the singer’s stage clothes.
Tex became like a walking billboard for Nudie, and it worked. Soon, Nudie Cohn opened the famous “Nudie’s of Hollywood” at the corner of Victory and Vineland, and later “Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors” on Lankershim Boulevard, accentuating Nudie’s gift for chain-stitch embroidery with rhinestones.
It was the music of artists such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Porter Wagoner and Gram Parsons that made them famous. But the image we all conjure up of these artists whenever their music comes to mind was born from the imagination of Nudie Cohn. Hank’s famous white suit with the black musical notes cascading down the sleeves and legs was a Nudie Cohn masterpiece. Porter Wagoner eventually owned 52 Nudie suits, each costing around $11,000 to $18,000 (not adjusted for inflation), with one of the most popular Nudie suits of all time being Porter’s Peach Wagoner suit with a covered wagon at the back and wagon wheels. along the legs.
The Gram Parsons Nudie costume worn as part of the Flying Burrito Brothers The golden palace of sin album in 1969 with the pills and marijuana leaves emblazoned on the mantle made it a counter-cultural and cross-cultural revolution. Soon, artists who didn’t wear Nudie Suits in country music were easier to count than those who did, while still wearing the suits well-travelled in the world of rock and popular music.
Elvis came up with the idea of wearing Nudie Suits after opening once for the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and became attached to the style of dress. Elton John started wearing them on stage in the 70s. ZZ Top appeared in Nudie Suits on the cover of their 1975 album Fandango!. Even more modern artists outside of country music such as Post Malone and Kesha have sported the style.
The Nudie Suit has become a statement beyond fashion. He created the initial country music character Outlaw David Allan Coe, who after Mel Tillis gifted the up-and-coming artist with numerous Nudie Suits, he began wearing them all the time around town and calling himself The mysterious rhinestone cowboy. Clothing style was instrumental in the 1979 film electric jumper with Robert Redford.
Nudie Cohen also designed cars, customizing 18 vehicles in his heyday, mostly Pontiac Bonneville convertibles, including the one that sits in the Country Music Hall of Fame with pistol door handles and rifle sidebars designed for Webb Pierce, and another which appears in the 1988 video for “The Streets of Bakersfield” starring Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens which was originally intended for Elvis Presley, and is now at Buck’s Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.
But even though the Nudie Suit is now synonymous with country music and American Western culture, there is a distinct Ukrainian influence in the style. The rhinestones may have originated in Germany, but the style of chain stitch embroidery is distinctly Asian and Oriental in origin. Imported to Russia and the Ukrainian region via the Silk Road, it looks a lot like traditional Ukrainian dress, but not as garish.
So yes, there is a significant influence of Ukrainian culture in American country music, believe it or not. And all you have to do is flip through the pages of a country music history book or stroll the halls of the Country Music Hall of Fame to see it unfold in all its glory, including exhibitions dedicated to Nudie’s contributions.
But what you won’t see is Nudie Cohn recognized as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame himself, although when he died on May 9, 1984 at the age of 81, many stars of the country music attended the funeral and mourned his passing as if he were one of their own – not a servant or secondary participant in the music, but an equal player.
Many country music artists have contributed to the sound of what we think of as “country music” in small and meaningful ways, all intertwining in a melting pot of influences. But few, if any, have contributed more to the image of country music than that starving and desperate Jewish refugee from Kyiv, Ukraine, fleeing oppression known as Nudie Cohn.