This Country Music Tailor Is Known As 'The Rhinestone Rembrandt'

Mar 31, 2017
Originally published on March 31, 2017 1:39 pm

Manuel Cuevas moved to the U.S. from Mexico in the late 1950s to pursue his calling as a tailor.

He started sewing when he was 7 when most kids were occupied with other things, such as playing.

"The guys at school were more about playing ball and the slingshots," 78-year-old Manuel explained to his daughter, Morelia, at StoryCorps in Nashville. "That never interested me. I was really an outcast. I'd go to bed and I'd dream about fabrics and leathers and about the things that I'm going to make the next day."

And he had a general philosophy about the clothes that he created, which have earned him the nickname the "Rhinestone Rembrandt."

"Well, you know, a pretty dress is not necessarily a pretty dress, it's the person that's carrying that dress," Manuel says. "I remember this guy wanted a John Wayne shirt, and the guy says, 'I don't see John Wayne in the mirror.' I said, 'Neither do I. I can make you a John Wayne shirt, but I cannot make John Wayne out of you, you know.'"

He also makes only one piece. Just the one.

"I don't want to make two of anything," he says. "That's why I don't make socks. So it's like history written again every day."

When asked what he's most proud of, Manuel is quick to share a dream that came true.

"Well, I grew up in love with the Lone Ranger. And I was 5 years old walking 6 miles from the little town where I was born to the big towns to see the episodes of The Lone Ranger," he says. "And then as an adult, I got to make his uniform, his mask. That was the most glorious moment of my life."

Then Morelia asks her dad a more serious question — "Would you ever think about retirement?" — to which he initially gives a less than serious response. "Yeah, I retired this morning. I put new tires on."

But then Manuel gives his daughter a real answer: "No, I don't. I don't believe in that. I'm enjoying life and, and people keep giving me checks for it. You know, if I was away from my shop, I probably wouldn't be able to last more than 15 days. The sewing machine and the needle and the thimble, that's it for me, you know."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Emily Martinez.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Academy of Country Music Awards will be handed out this weekend. And today on StoryCorps, we'll hear from an industry legend. He's famous not for how he made country music sound but for how he made it look.

Manuel Cuevas made iconic outfits for Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. He turned Johnny Cash into the Man in Black. Manuel moved to the U.S. from Mexico in the late 1950s to become a tailor. And as he told his daughter, Morelia, at StoryCorps in Nashville, he started sewing when he was just 7 years old.

MANUEL CUEVAS: The guys at school were more about playing ball and the slingshots. That never interested me. I was really an outcast. I'd go to bed, and I'd dream about fabrics and leathers and about the things that I'm going to make the next day.

MORELIA CUEVAS: Do you have a general philosophy behind all this work that you do?

MANUEL CUEVAS: Well, you know, a pretty dress is not necessarily a pretty dress. It's a person that is carrying that dress. I remember this guy wanted a John Wayne shirt. And the guy says, I don't see John Wayne in the mirror. I said, neither do I (laughter). I can make you a John Wayne shirt, but I cannot make John Wayne out of you, you know. And I've always done only one piece. I don't want to make two of anything. That's why I don't make socks. So it's like history written again every day.

MORELIA CUEVAS: So would you say you're most proud of?

MANUEL CUEVAS: Well, I grew up in love with "The Lone Ranger." And I was 5 years old walking six miles from the little town where I was born to the big towns to see the episodes of "The Lone Ranger." And then, as an adult, I got to make his uniform, his mask. That was the most glorious moment of my life.

MORELIA CUEVAS: Would you ever think about retirement (laughter)?

MANUEL CUEVAS: Yeah, I retired this morning. I put new tires on.

MORELIA CUEVAS: (Laughter).

MANUEL CUEVAS: No, I don't believe in that. I am enjoying life, and people keep giving me checks for it. You know, if I was away from my shop, I probably wouldn't be able to last more than 15 days. The sewing machine and the needle and the thimble, that's it for me, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF EARS' "BRASS BUTTON")

MARTIN: That's Manuel Cuevas and his daughter Morelia in Nashville. Their recording is archived, along with thousands of others, at the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.