Wes Shugart: Makin’ Boots in Nashville
by Gene Fowler
Wes Shugart heard the call of leather back around 2011.
At the time, the Nashville-based cowboy bootmaker was a builder of multi-million-dollar homes. “But I was stressed out, big time, and not very happy,” he says.
“I knew he was searching for something different,” adds his wife, Sandra. “He came to me one day and said he wanted to make footwear or boots. I couldn’t imagine that. It seemed alien to me.”
In time, of course, she came to see that the desire was as natural as the feet at the end of one’s legs. “And it set his heart on fire.” Since 2012, Wes has been turning out beautiful, high-quality boots at his Nashville-based outfit, Music City Leather.
The bootmaker says he was raised on a cattle farm near Cohutta, Georgia, in the northwest part of the state. “I grew up on a horse,” he adds, and I always appreciated a good, sturdy pair of boots. Though cowboy boots when I was a kid, they were mostly for trail riding and enjoyment.”
His early leatherwork experience was largely confined to Cub Scout merit badge projects. “But I was always creative, making metal sculptures on the farm, and I got a taste of woodworking with a wood lathe.”
They say life begins at 40, and for Shugart that meant the shift to bootmaking in his early 40s. “My bootmaking was really kind of a sobriety project,” he adds. “When I quit drinking, it opened up a lot of free time in the evenings. And since I’d always worn cowboy boots, I had a lot of them, not custom boots but Old Gringo, Lucchese, ACME. There’s two things today that are truly American in fashion and design and that’s blue jeans and cowboy boots.”
Because he had been successful as a high-end home builder, Wes was fortunate enough to be able to take his time when he decided on his career transition. He talked to a lot of bootmakers in his search for an apprenticeship, eventually selecting Deana McGuffin as his first teacher. “We just clicked,” he explains. “Also, there’s a pair of boots in Jennifer June’s book that caught my eye. They’re tan French calf-bone tops with multicolored inlays. I loved those boots and they led me to Deana. She had them on a shelf and I said I wanted to buy them. She sold them to a collector, but she sent me the pattern with a note that said, ‘Make your own pair and quit being a whiny b—–!’” Here, Wes chuckles, explaining that’s just how he and Deana get on. “But she sent it to me and I made my own pair out of alligator.”
When I asked Wes about a boot theory on his Facebook page, which holds that men like cowboy boots because of the high heels and flashy colors, he said that either came from a quote by Deana or by Lisa Sorrell.
He also apprenticed briefly with Arizona bootmaker Paul Krause. “While Deana, a third-generation New Mexico bootmaker, took me under her wing and taught me process, Paul helped me learn more about foot conditions and how to fit a foot.”
He also learned a great deal from the now-inactive bootmaker’s online forum moderated by Texas boot collector Mark Fletcher. “It was a real hub for bootmakers and I read it back to front. Lisa Sorrell’s videos were also quite helpful. But really, everybody in the industry pretty much taught me something along the way.” When he felt ready to make boots, he disappeared into his shop and learned how to make them by trial and error. “I made boots for friends and family until I felt secure enough to open the shop in 2012.”
Wes explained that he takes eight measurements and tracings of a customer’s foot, creating the individual last from these measurements to ensure a proper fit. “Then I cut all materials from whole hides. I stitch when needed with a single-needle sewing machine and do the rest by hand using the time-tested techniques that I learned from these and other bootmakers.”
Asked about his sources for leather, Wes says he relies on pretty much the same outlets as all the other bootmakers, meaning Hardtke Leather, Garland Neumann, Lisa Sorrell, American Tanning & Leather, GH Leather, etc. He keeps a huge stock of leather on hand. “It’s overwhelming to some customers, so I try to read each person in order to know how much to show.”
One thing I noticed in perusing Music City Leather’s website and social media pages is that he seems to combine different leathers more than most of the bootmakers I’ve researched. There’s boots of bison, shark and kidskin; giraffe and water buffalo; water buffalo and kangaroo; roughout pig and calf; half-quill ostrich and kangaroo; bull hide and water buffalo; turquoise kangaroo with chocolate roughout pig; pig and kangaroo with a shark counter; cigar gator and kidskin; python and roughout kangaroo; gator and kangaroo with a black cherry, smooth ostrich inlay; pig, shark, kangaroo and many more in seemingly endless combinations.
I also don’t recall running across anyone using a warthog hide. “I really like warthog, but you can’t get it. I got some three or four years ago from…I think it was Hardtke. Maybe two or three skins. But you can’t find it anymore. I liked it better than shark.”
The Music City man says that because of his location in Nashville, which tends to draw a lot of international tourists in addition to American lovers of good-old country music, he gets a fair number of clients from places like Belgium and India.
Much of his local business is for dress boots. “It’s the nature of where I live. The majority is corporate suburban folks. We also have a lot of horse trainers and walking horse people.” And of course, a company named Music City in Music City also deals with a lot of musicians who want something unique and eye-catching on their feet. But surprisingly, the only name Wes mentions is the great Doc Severinsen, the bandleader for Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. “He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s in his 90s and he’s absolutely the coolest guy. He really gives back—he’s always going somewhere, participating in seminars and other programs.”
One client, a former military and CIA professional, has had 11 pairs made by Wes. “He showed me his new motorcycle that had Day of the Dead illustrations painted on the embroidery. So, I matched his next pair of boots up with his motorcycle. And a friend who makes leather jackets chain-stitched that same Day of the Dead skull design on his jacket.”
Another design theme evolved from doodling around on the internet, while his wife Sandra watched television. “I was googling images of black cowboys and I came across this one photograph of a cowboy with no gun and no chaps, but his pants were tucked in and he wore these boots with a unique one-row stitch design. So, I took a screenshot of it and then sketched it and sent it to Lee Miller in Austin. I don’t really like to copy or use anyone else’s designs, except for Deana McGuffin’s, so I asked Lee if he’d ever seen that stitch design before. He said he hadn’t, so I tweaked it and claimed it as my own. It fills a boot top nicely, while still maintaining some negative space. Negative space is very important for the balance of a design.”
Another customer loved a design inspired by Willie Lusk, the famous African-American bootmaker of Lubbock, Texas. “I was inspired by it, too, but I tried not to copy it 100%,” explains Wes. “But that’s hard to do in a 6 by 12-inch area. Still, I loved Willie Lusk’s stitching. He stitched from the inside out and I stitch from the outside in. I can’t get it as wispy looking as he did.”
In a phone interview, Wes comes across as a country boy, which I definitely intend as a compliment. But as you talk to him for a while, like a lot of “country boys,” an artistic—even a mystical—streak emerges. You notice it in the way he reads his customers. “I will ask people, which do you notice first, an oak tree or a hawk in the tree? Their answer can determine whether I put flora or fauna on their boot tops. And that personalizes the boot more. That’s one of my favorite things about bootmaking, getting to know someone that way. The measuring chair, for instance, is a magical setting. You have to invade their space to get the measurements and that will often relax them and let them open up. You find out their personality, what colors they like, where their aura is located.”
Talking about the art of the boot, Wes muses that true beauty and art are subjective considerations. And nothing is ever perfect. There’s never been a perfect boot. “There’s minute imperfections in nature and in handmade things. That’s the beauty of handmade things, when the perfection and imperfection meld together. It’s the yin and the yang.”
Stitching becomes meditative and prayer-like. “I just gaze in front of the needle and stitch,” he explains. “The key is working with intent. You have to be in the moment. You have to learn patience. Work with intent or you freeze. Be present. Be patient.”
And like every fine bootmaker with whom I’ve spoken, Wes acknowledges that his bootmaking journey is a long, long road with far to go. Still, as discerning an eye as Texas boot collector Mark Fletcher, upon beholding a pair of Music City Leather’s finest, expounds, “Like I’ve said many times, they look like they were made during the Golden Age of Bootmaking by one of the Boot Gods.” Amen.