Nudie Cohn: The Ukrainian Refugee Who Created the Image of Country Music

photo: Raeanne Rubenstein

It was 1913, and ethnic Jews living in the Ukraine region of the Russian Empire were regularly subjected to brutal, mob-like massacres, known as pogroms. Just two years after a young boy named Nuta Kotlyarenko (Нута Котляренко) was born in Kyiv on December 15th, 1902, one such notorious pogram ensued on the streets of Kyiv after the collapse of a City Hall meeting, which resulted in the massacre of an estimated 100 Jewish people.

As numerous other such massacres transpired throughout the western portions 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. That boy would go to become arguably the most important person in country music history that never played and instrument professionally.

When you go to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, there is one man’s influence you will see more than anyone else’s. No, it’s not the Father of Country Music Jimmie Rodgers, or the first King of Country Hank Williams. It’s the timeless work of that Ukrainian refugee from Kyiv who would later go by the name Nudie Cohn.

And it doesn’t just stop there. Go to Graceland in Memphis, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or many museums covering the silver screen cowboys of the 50’s, and there you will find ample evidence of the importance of this Ukrainian throughout American culture.

Hank Williams in a Nudie Suit

Now to be historically accurate, Nudie Cohn did not invent the Western style suit that his name is now synonymous with, and was not the first to employ it in country music. This was the doing of one of the first country bands ever, 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 the original Western tailors for country music—a Polish immigrant himself, as does Manuel Cuevas from Mexico who was an understudy of Nudie and initially worked for him. But it was Nudie Cohn who took it from a fad to an art form that has withstood the test of time, and become the very image we associate with classic country today.

First arriving in the United State at the age of 11 on Ellis Island in New York, this is where Nuta Kotlyarenko’s name was Americanized. Nudie Cohn worked as a shoeshine boy to get by, and later as a boxer, allegedly with ties to legendary mobster Pretty Boy Floyd. After doing time in Leavenworth for trafficking drugs (likely for the mob), Cohn met his American-born wife Helen Barbara Kruger—later known as Bobbie Nudie—in a Mankato, Minnesota boardinghouse.

It was 1934, and in the midst of the Great Depression. The young couple had a harebrained idea to open an undergarment shop for showgirls and prostitutes in New York City called “Nudie’s for the Ladies,” and the Nudie’s were officially in the clothing business. But it became apparent early on that Nudie’s signature style of chain stitch embroidery would be better suited (no pun intended) for Western Wear that was becoming all the rage on the American West Coast. So he relocated to Los Angeles, and soon became the tailor of country music.

Country singer Tex Williams is where Nudie Cohn got his start in country music. The suits he wanted to make were so expensive, you couldn’t just start making them on spec. So while supporting himself designing mass manufactured clothing in his garage with his wife, Cohn swung a deal with Tex to take the proceeds Tex made from selling a horse to purchase a sewing machine so he could 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” on the corner of Victory and Vineland, and later “Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors” on Lankershim Boulevard, accenting Nudie’s gift for the chain stitch embroidery with Rhinestones.

Gram Parsons (photo: Raeanne Rubenstein)

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 of these artists whenever their music comes to mind sprang from the imagination of Nudie Cohn. Hank’s famous white suit with the black musical notes waterfalling down the sleeves and legs was a master work of Nudie Cohn. Porter Wagoner eventually owned 52 Nudie Suits, with each one costing roughly $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 on the back, and wagon wheels down the legs.

The Gram Parsons Nudie Suit worn as part of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace of Sin album in 1969 with the pills and marijuana leaves emblazoning the coat made it a countercultural and cross-cultural revolution. Soon, the artists who didn’t wear Nudie Suits in country music were easier to count than the ones that did, while wearing the suits crossed well over into the rock and popular music world.

Elvis got the idea of wearing Nudie Suits after once opening for the Maddox Brothers and Rose, and endearing himself with the clothing style. Elton John began wearing them on stage in the 70’s. 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 became a statement beyond fashion. It crafted the initial persona for country music Outlaw David Allan Coe, who after Mel Tillis gifted the up-and-coming performer numerous Nudie Suits, he started wearing them all the time around town and calling himself The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy. The clothing style played a seminal role in the 1979 film Electric Horseman starring Robert Redford.

Nudie Cohn also designed cars, customizing 18 vehicles in his heyday, mostly Pontiac Bonneville convertibles, including the one sitting in the Country Music Hall of Fame with pistol door handles and rifle sidebars designed for Webb Pierce, and another that appears in the 1988 video for “The Streets of Bakersfield” featuring Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens that was originally meant for Elvis Presley, and now sits in Buck’s Crystal Palace in Bakersfield.

But even though the Nudie Suit is now synonymous with country music and Western American culture, there is a distinctly Ukrainian influence in the style. The Rhinestones may come from Germany, but the chain stitch embroidery style is distinctly Asian and Eastern in origin. Imported into Russia and the Ukrainian region via the Silk Road, looking at traditional formal Ukrainian dress, it is very similar to classic American Western wear, just not as gaudy.

Ukrainian formal dress

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 through the halls of the Country Music Hall of Fame to see it splayed out in all of its brilliance, including dedicated displays to Nudie’s contributions.

But what you won’t see is Nudie Cohn recognized as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame itself, even though when he passed away on May 9th, 1984 at the age of 81, many country music stars attended the funeral, and mourned his passing as if he was one of their own—not a servant or a side participant in the music, but an equal player.

Many country music artists have contributed to the sound of what we consider “country music” in small and significant ways, all intertwining into a melting pot of influences. But few if anyone contributed to the image of country music to such a great degree than that hungry and desperate Jewish refugee from Kyiv, Ukraine fleeing oppression who came to be known as Nudie Cohn.

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