The old adage “never judge a book by its cover” probably doesn’t mean much to anybody who values classic country, especially during the era of the Nudie suit. Popularized during the ‘60s and ‘70s, these bold, bedazzled articles of wearable art designed by Russian immigrant Nudie Cohn are nothing if not the finest cover known to man. The same goes for the guitars that legends like Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner, Glen Campbell and Roy Rogers chose to sling over their shoulders. From the moment they hit the stage, everything on their body screamed star power before they even hit a note.
“Roy Rogers would say when he made public appearances where kids would be far away in an arena high up and he said in a Nudie suit kids would see him,” says longtime music critic and historian Jim Washburn. “He was like a big, glaring flag so he hoped they felt they were getting their money’s worth.”
However, if you were to literally judge a book by its cover, the one that Washburn wrote along with revered Nudie suit and classic guitar collector Mac Yasuda is definitely worth taking a deeper look. Rhinestones and Twanging Tones, features breathtaking photos of Yasuda’s Nudie suit and rare guitar collection with words written by Washburn. It tells the story of an era of country music marked by flashy outfits and legendary singers. On the heels of their recently released book, the co-authors are doing a special signing, slideshow and lecture at the Fullerton Museum tomorrow, June 15 at 6 p.m.
The 256-page book published by Hal Leonard is an extension of the exhibit Washburn and Yasuda collaborated on 12 years ago by the same title. Former OC Weekly music editor Washburn had previously created an exhibit on OC rock and roll history that had featured hundreds of items gathered from nearly a hundred sources. When the museum asked is he had other ideas for a show, Washburn thought of his friend Yasuda’s collection of star-owned suits and guitars. “Along with being a great and historic assemblage, the idea of only having to go to one guy to get it all really appealed to me,” he said.
Not only is the Rhinestones and Twanging Tones collection impressive to look at, the assortment of spangling suits and guitars tell a story of country music’s immigrant past.
“On one hand it’s the hardscrabble music born from the Heartland America blah, blah, blah, on the other it’s a really weird composite of stuff that has nothing to do with what it supposedly is,” Washburn says. “You can trace some country stuff back to ancient Scottish murder ballads. Yodeling came from the alps, the steel guitar came from Hawaii and a lot of the influence came from Hollywood.”
Along with such non-countryside influences, Aussie Keith Urban wasn’t country’s first foreign star.
Probably the most famous example was Snow, a native Nova Scotian who ran away from home at the age of 12, cheated death several times and wound up in the US where he’d become one of the foremost country music stars to popularize Nudie suits. Yasuda, who’s been a Newport resident for decades, grew up in Japan and was fascinated by Snow after listening to one of his albums and falling in love with the look, style and feel of country music.
“I knew nothing about [country music at the time] but it was the ‘60s and everyone was getting a guitar and trying to do a band. So we were looking for something to do and he brought in a record and said ‘Why don’t you play like this?’ and I said “Sure, I don’t know anything about it but why not?”
Yasuda’s infatuation with Western culture grew feverishly and inspired him to move to the U.S., first to Michigan Technological University on an engineering scholarship, then to slightly warmer weather down in Newport Beach where he’s lived for decades. Though he and Washburn have both written books on guitars in the past, this collaboration and specific dedication to timeless pieces in Yasuda’s collection speak volumes about his obsession with the culture as botha collector and as a performer.
From the time he got to the States and started playing in country bands, the Japanese native was a hit with Americans who came to see him shred and sing cover tunes from the the artists he idolized.
“I went to the bar and there was a country band playing and I went in there one night and grabbed a guitar and started singing and they got kind of shocked,” Yasuda remembers. “Here’s this little Japanese guy, a modest-looking kid singing Hank Williams, they loved it.”
Early on he was earning $50 a week playing at a bar where would earn the money to buy American guitars for a few bucks and then sell them back to Japan for hundreds of dollars because they were considered to be so rare in his home country. He gradually earned enough money to start collecting really high-end guitars. His stable of 15 pre-WWII Martin D-45 acoustics (only 91 of these things ever existed world wide) are worth upwards of $300,000 dollars each his most prized possessions in his multi-million dollar collection.
He’s also the owner of Leo Fender’s Broadcaster with serial number 0019, along with a Gretsch White Penguin (one of only a handful known to exist) and piles of Gibson’s coveted J-200s.
As his army of guitars grew, so did his friendships with many of his biggest country idols, including like Wagoner and Snow, whom he wound up performing with on stage at the Grand Ole Opry back in 1993. Dressed to the nines in one of his Nudie suits, it was quite something to see Yasuda go from being a young kid in Japan infatuated with country and stick with it long enough to be invited into the culture’s holiest of holies to strum and sing alongside his idols.
“I was introduced by Hank Snow in the same stage he played with Elvis Presley, right there…I was all shook up,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I felt I didn’t even have to sing, just walk around in the suit like a fashion show, during the break I was turning around and showing it inside and out and saw people dashing to the stage taking pictures.”
As fancy as his suits and guitars make him feel whenever he photographs them for one of his books, being able to get gussied up and perform in stage will always be his greatest high.
“It’s about being with the fans and seeing how much they love you back and feeling and looking the part of a star, that’s the part I’ll always love the most,” Yasuda says. “There’s still nothing better than that.”
An Evening of Rhinestones and Twanging Tones with Mac Yasuda and Jim Washburn, Friday June 15 6 p.m., Slideshow, book signing and lecture with the authors. Cocktail hour at 6 p.m., presentation begins at 7 p.m. Admission $8/$10. All ages. For more info, click here.