Tuesday, March 26, 2013


By Crystal Caviness
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Once upon a time, one could judge a male Country Music artist by his cover — or, said another way, his clothes, the finery that expressed his Country-to-the-core soul. Decked out in rhinestones, sequins and embroidery, the look might be called over-the-top, perhaps even garish. But nobody could accuse Little Jimmy Dickens, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner and, on occasion, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson of blending into the sea of their fans.

Flash forward to our time. Today, the dress code includes ball caps, T-shirts, ripped shirts and scuffed boots — in other words, the folks on the stage and the guys watching the stage are wearing pretty much the same stuff. Drop Zac Brown, Eric Church, Craig Morgan or Joe Nichols into the crowd and they’ll likely disappear into a blur of blue denim, earth-tone T-shirts and dark head coverings, either caps and toboggans.
Joe Nichols in 2012
Photo credit: Kristin Barlowe
Joe Nichols in 2013
Photo Credit: Ford Fairchild
For whatever reason, a style revolution has occurred among contemporary male Country artists over the past five decades. Customized clothes, with all the embellishments, gave way to the 1990s “hat acts,” for whom George Strait set the standard. And that, in turn, led to today’s off-the-rack attire filling plenty of wardrobe cases.

“As music has evolved, so has style,” said Black River Entertainment artist Craig Morgan, whose look has transformed over the years through various record labels and seven album releases. “Things used to be a lot more formal. Now the focus is more on music and entertainment. The labels and publicists want us to stand out. Early on, that’s why artists dressed the way artists dressed. Now, our industry is comfortable with who we are, more so than any other genre.”

“We started experiencing freedom in the early part of this decade,” said CMA Award winner and four-time Grammy nominee Joe Nichols. “The look is more like an everyday person than it’s ever been because the Country fans are similar to Country artists. The look I see in the crowd is flannel shirt and ball cap for the guys. For male artists, the wild suits are less popular.”

Indeed, the focus used to be on styles that would prompt double takes from the fashion police. “These people were fascinated by the extreme looks in their wardrobes when they performed for not only themselves but for the audience,” said Manuel “Manny” Cuevas of the top male Country vocalists of the 1960s and early ’70s. “They were putting on performances that they wanted to be talked about for decades, with elaborate rhinestone suits with motifs that represented something about that artist. Whether it was a certain type of flower or musical note, it represented parts of their songs, their heritage and where they came from.”

Cuevas knows of what he speaks. His father, Manuel Cuevas Sr., known simply as “Manuel,” created Johnny Cash’s signature black suits and Elvis’ famous gold lamé outfits. He has designed for Hank Williams I, II and III, and it was one of his creations that Bob Dylan wore for his 1997 performance before Pope John Paul II in Bologna.

“I’m not saying go back to the full rhinestone suits and cowboy hats, because that’s not for everyone,” the younger Cuevas clarified. “But I’m definitely saying, ’Dress up a little bit. Look like the artist that you are. Look like a million bucks! I know it’s easy to put on a pair of Converse shoes and frayed jeans because they’re comfortable to jump around in onstage — and a T-shirt because you can sweat your butt off. But the industry is about making a strong statement. Don’t forget about trying to create an individual look for yourself, because you are an individual.'”

On his website, www.ManuelCouture.com, the senior Cuevas expands on this thought, writing that “record companies call me to help fabricate personalities for their artists.” But these calls happen less often these days. Record label budget line items for stylists, hair/makeup and wardrobe for many artists have gone the way of the cassette, at least as the norm.

Even in this climate, though, Cuevas maintains that achieving individuality is as vital as ever. “Artists aren’t having a chance to establish an identity — and identity equals longevity,” he insisted. “Depending on how you dress, the look determines how long you’re going to be around. You want to make an impact, so kick it up a notch.”

Among modern acts, he cites Big & Rich as having established an image that helped expand its presence and enhance its shows. “John Rich has a sophisticated, conservative look with his suits and cowboy hats,” he observed. “There is slight embellishment. He still looks classic and dressed up. Big Kenny looks outrageous, layered with scarves and top hats embellished with feathers and beads. They’re giving a lot more to their performance with their wardrobe, while others (who dress more casually) are not.”

It can take a while for a male artist to discover a look that’s both unique and a good fit. Morgan, for example, says he’s finally found his style, though it took several years and a few albums. One reason, he adds, is that in his earlier days, he had less input about his image and his clothes than he does now.

“As a new artist, you want to please the people who sign you to the record deal,” he said. “And you have your peers, those who have been in the business a while, who affect your look and your sound. Early on in your career, you aren’t real comfortable with who you are as an artist. It can take some time to really define that and your look.”

Around 2006, when his third and fourth albums (My Kind of Livin’ and Little Bit of Life) were released, Morgan became less concerned with his look because he was more secure in his career. With that, he allowed his look to incorporate different facets of his life, from musician to soldier to husband to dirt bike racer, all roles he has had or still has.

“I’m comfortable and I’ve reached a point where the music is bigger than the shirt,” he said. “My style developed itself and is what it is. I’ve always been a T-shirt and blue jeans kind of guy. When it gets down to it, that’s what it is and it works.”

In contrast to the classic view expressed by Cuevas, Morgan is more than comfortable with a look that is relatable to his fans. “It’s great that we as Country Music artists can genuinely connect with our fans, through our music, our look and our lifestyle,” he said. “It helps us build and keep a connection with our fans that is truly unique to our genre.”

Nichols, who donned a cowboy hat for the cover of his 1996 self-titled debut album, lived through the “hat act” era. And he’s glad those days are gone. “For me, it felt like a bit of freedom that you could be a Country artist and look how you wanted to look,” he explained. “You didn’t have to be George Strait. You could put on a T-shirt and have long hair. It didn’t have to be so standard.”

Nichols, who last sported cowboy headgear on the cover of Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other in 2002, says he’s spent many hours with wardrobe experts, discussing the latest trends. “In the end, however, it was up to me to say what I was willing to do,” he concluded.

“My belief is that I can look Country,” Nichols continued. “I can look rock ’n’ roll. But first of all, I wear a lot of Roper shirts; they make a cool Western shirt that’s pretty Country. Then I customize. I put on some cool rock ’n’ roll boots. For me, it’s simple. I’ve got my hair that hangs down in my face, my Roper shirt, whatever jeans feel comfortable and my boots — and I’m ready.”

It’s a simple look, especially by traditional standards. But Nichols hasn’t forgotten that he still has to look like a star. “Even if it’s small or subliminal, I think when people buy music from an artist or come to a show to watch an artist, they want to see something spectacular,” he said. “It used to be the artist would wear something sharp because people want to see you look different. But looking different can mean a lot of things. It can cost a lot of money to look normal. I may be wearing a V-neck T-shirt, but it's a $200 V-neck T-shirt. It’s those subtle differences and fans do pick up on that.”

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