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Manuel, Country Music Tailor, Honored By NEA For 'Indispensable' Work

Manuel Cuevas fits Johnny Cash for a black suit.
Photo courtesy of Morelia Cuevas via StoryCorps
Manuel Cuevas fits Johnny Cash for a black suit.

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Nashville tailor Manuel Cuevas, the maker of rhinestone-studded suits worn by entertainers like Elvis Presley and Jack White, is receiving one of the nation's highest honors for folk artists.

The National Endowment for the Arts announced this week that he has won its National Heritage Fellowship, one of only 10 people who'll receive the honor this year.

The NEA says it's honoring Manuel Cuevas for designing clothes that have been "indispensable for country and western stars." The award includes a $25,000 dollar prize and a concert in Washington, D.C.

Cuevas — or simply Manuel, as he's usually known — grew up in Mexico, and he says his interest in sewing began when he was just 7 years old.

"The guys in school were more about playing ball and the slingshots," Manuel said in an interview last year with NPR's StoryCorps. "That never interested me."

Manuel got his start designing prom dresses in his hometown in the Mexican state of Michoacán, just south of Guadalajara on the country's west coast. But it was in Los Angeles that he made his name, alongside the famed Western wear designer Nudie Cohn.

Working out of a humble storefront, they produced clothes that combined elements of Anglo, Native American, Central-American and Eastern European cultures, essentially defining the look of country and early Americana music in the 1970s.

After Cohn died in the 1980s, Manuel moved to Nashville, where he continues to operate a clothing store — even well past retirement age.

He says he can't stop making his signature embroidered jackets and flashy dresses.

"You know, if I was away from my shop, I probably wouldn't be able to last more than 15 days," he says. "The sewing machine and the needle and the thimble, that's it for me."

Copyright 2018 WPLN News

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons