Let’s start with the Nudie suits. When the band sported them in 1969 for the album cover of Gilded Palace of Sin, the Ukrainian-born, Hollywood-based tailor Nudie Cohn had by then outfitted at least half of the country stars who had graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry with his elaborate embroidered and rhinestone-studded suits. By 1969, rhinestones, spotlights, and country music were indelibly linked. Like the rap industry of today, the country-music industry was, then and always, about glitz and fame. It was about making it past your poor roots and becoming a star. As the rap industry is about escaping the projects, the country-music industry was about escaping rural America. Country was about gold records, large shiny belt buckles, seeing your name in the marquee lights.
In regards to rap culture: Cornell West has written that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Let Freedom Ring!” became “‘Bling! Bling!’—as if freedom were reducible to simply having material toys.” In wealth-obsessed America, the freedom we seek is less about the opportunity to pursue a spiritually fulfilled or a richly meaningful life and more about cash money.
The country music that also glosses the meaning of freedom commodified the rural American experience and turned it into profit; it was about capitalizing on one’s humble upbringing by conjuring all of its sellable images—dirt roads and hayfields and rivers and creeks and oak trees—while at the same time turning them into nostalgias, leaving the rural life behind. To make it —to become a star—meant to make it out of rural America. Living in the country was the past, and that’s what made country songs pure and sad and very big money among a rapidly urbanizing and increasingly wealthier and more depressed American population.
It was the “outlaw” country singer Waylon Jennings who in 1977, eight years after the influence of Gilded Palace had seeped in, insisted, “I don’t need my name in the marquee lights,” who suggested going back to Luckenbach, Texas (pop. 3) to live simply, with music, friends, and love, and renounce success. It’s funny that the term “outlaw” used to describe Jennings and other musicians who shunned the industry’s “slick” production, its rhinestones and marquee lights and gilded palaces of sin, means to have broken the law and to be a fugitive, which implies a restriction of freedom. It’s as if to seek fortune was to follow the law, while to shun material wealth was to break the law and thus to have one’s freedoms restricted.
“Baby, let’s sell your diamond ring / Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away.” To be a fugitive was to return to the country. But the fugitives who fled Nashville and Hollywood came later, in the late ’70s. The pianist David Barry, who played in L.A.’s music scene, has said that in the Flying Burrito Bros.’ time, “Real country stars didn’t want to wear [jeans and boots], because it suggested they came from country’s poor white roots.”
Real country stars lived in Hollywood. They wore Nudie suits.
That the suit that’s said to have launched Nudie Cohn into fame, one worn by a trying-to-make-it country singer named Tex Williams in 1948, featured a covered wagon and wagon wheels is not uninteresting. The covered wagon as American symbol stands first for manifest destiny, that notion that swept the new inhabitants of the continent ever westward, into already-inhabited territories that they believed, or made themselves believe, God had intended for them to have—what is now Mexico and Texas and New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington. And California, the farthest West of the continent that embodied and made complete this notion of expansion.
The term manifest destiny was first used by a journalist named John L. O’Sullivan in an editorial in favor of the annexation of Texas, in 1845. He asserted the American Anglo-Saxons’ “manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”
Three years after O’Sullivan’s editorial, when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California, the Rush began, and covered wagons rolled in steady streams, and pack horses plodded in droves, making their way to the land that symbolized then and now both freedom and bling bling, or the material—if not spiritual, mental, psychological, or otherwise—freedom that bling bling affords. (“In your high society you cry all day,” Jennings would later sing.)
One hundred thousand Native Californians were killed or died of disease in those first twenty gold-rushed years, and by 1900 the Native population in California had dropped from perhaps a million to 16,000 people, while Los Angeles hit a population of over 100,000. It was exactly 100 years after the Gold Rush began that Nudie Cohn, newly relocated to Hollywood, convinced the struggling Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine with the money he’d made from an auctioned horse.
With the sewing machine, Nudie made Tex’s covered-wagon-covered suit that began his career of selling high-Western-style wear to stars at exorbitant prices. As Nudie rose to fame, he became known for promoting himself shamelessly, paying cash for purchases with dollar bills on which a sticker of his own face covered George Washington’s.
Nudie designed the famous gold lamé suit that Elvis wore in 1959 on the cover of his album of hit singles called 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong. Released by Hollywood’s RCA Victor, it turned into a bona fide Gold Record. Its cover featured no less than 16 identical Elvises in gold lamé suits, a fact that, coupled with its title and Gold status, puts the Elvis phenomenon in direct conversation with the German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay called “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which argued that the aura of a work of art is devalued the more it is reproduced. (Hence the dollar bill is not-regrettably defaced, and, though it would take some time to explain the leap, hence also inflation, wherein the more money that is produced the less value it has, meaning that the $10,000 Elvis paid for his gold-lamé Nudie suit would have cost him $85,000 or so today.)
This idea resonates with the oft-told (and most often laughed at as outlandish) Native American belief that having one’s photograph taken robs a person of their soul. The duplicated Elvis photographs on the record cover look like figurines, toys ready for sale. Elvis would spend the next decade in Hollywood making films that preceded his long psychological crash and drug addiction that ended in 1977 with a pharmie-induced heart attack.
But when kid Gram Parsons—lead and harmony vocals, guitar, piano, and organ for the Flying Burrito Bros.—saw Elvis in Waycross, Georgia, Elvis was still 21, and his aura captivated the nine-year-old Gram. Elvis was a strange and different bird. He had grown up in Tupelo, Mississippi and in Memphis, Tennessee, sometimes in public housing projects in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, hearing blues musicians on Beale Street, and singing hymns in a Pentecostal church in which the Lord was made of blood, sweat, tears, and spirit, was a Lord who traveled through music, worked through song. When Gram saw Elvis, he was channeling something real and raw and profound on stage. It was the beating heart of America, particularly of the capital-S South. Seeing Elvis is often cited as the formative event of Gram Parson’s young life as an artist, and when Gram—also a Southerner with a background in church hymns, spirituals, and country—ended up in Los Angeles some ten years later, Elvis was living there too.
Gram was the grandson of a wealthy Florida citrus-fruit magnate. His parents had both died of over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. As a member of the Byrds, he transformed the group, as Country Music Hall of Fame writer Peter Cooper put it, “from America’s most popular rock band to one of America’s least popular country bands.” He can be seen as the force behind the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo album, which Gram didn’t call rock or country either but Cosmic American Music, and he and fellow Byrd Chris Hillman split off to continue the sound as the Flying Burrito Bros., along with “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Chris Ethridge, on the Gilded Palace album.
A Rolling Stone article written at that time called Los Angeles a place to “get heard, get signed, get rich,” where “there are 318 record wholesalers and manufacturers listed in the yellow pages,” “a city crammed with writers, photographers, artists, critics, producers, marketing consultants, promoters, managers, publicists, messenger services, and at least a hundred other occupational categories—all of them devoted in part or wholly to the music business.” Not to music but the business.
No artist’s aura was safe there. The language of the music business echoed the language of Western imperialism and expansion—as in, for example, Columbus’s “discovery” of an entire continent already inhabited by intricate and complex civilizations, or Cabrillo’s “discovery” of San Diego Bay, or all the lands and places that explorers “found”—in that agents “discovered” new talent, original people and material they hoped to plunder for riches.
Thus was written the searing gospel anthem of Cosmic American musicians— “Sin City,” of Gilded Palace of Sin, the Burritos’ debut, recorded in Hollywood’s A&M studio. “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in,” were the first lines. It’s a visionary song. It’s slow and sorrowful and on fire. It’s everlasting. It seems to grow richer the more you hear it, not less.
The song’s central and invisible character was the former Byrds’ manager Larry Spector, with whom Hillman and Parsons had had bad dealings, and who Hillman said was “a thief.” The unnamed Spector stays hidden behind a gold door in the song. “On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain,” Hillman and Parsons sang together, like choirboys.
Hollywood didn’t know what to make of choirboys, be they cosmic or not. The album was a commercial failure, while a few critics at the time insisted it had artistic value.
Rhinestones are imitations of actual stones. They’re sparkly, cheap, made to catch the spotlights. They are mass-produced, while real stones and gems are more rare, each one a wholly unique piece of rock from the earth.
The Flying Burrito Bros. did a photo shoot for the album cover in the Mojave desert outside of Los Angeles. Dressed in the rhinestone suits, they stood in the ruins of a wooden shack that looked like a hovel abandoned after the Gold Rush and left to dissolve again into the dust. Gram’s suit famously featured marijuana leaves, poppy flowers, and pharmaceutical pills, along with fire leaping up the sides and a cross on the back with shafts of light radiating from it. Was he country? Was he rock ‘n’ roll? He was a Cosmic American.
The Burrito Bros. wore the rhinestone suits for the cover, while on the “Sin City” recording, their voices shone like emeralds, the pedal steel a gleaming ruby. Real gems.
Gram died of an overdose in that same Mojave Desert, at the age of 26, four years after the photo shoot, after Gilded Palace of Sin, after a lot of commercial flopping, and with him died whatever his vision of Cosmic American Music was, except that it didn’t. It’s an aura that continues to penetrate in its mysterious way.
Elvis outlived him by four years. He lived to be the subject of the first global concert satellite broadcast; his image reached more viewers in the world at once than any human’s ever had. He staged more and more live shows than ever before while his addiction grew. Those closest to him say that he was not himself, that it was as if he’d disappeared, as if his soul, that raw spark that he was known for in the beginning, had vanished. He died, from a drug-induced heart attack, on the toilet in his gold-embellished bathroom, an American king.