Nashville Artisans: Music City Leather
Cowboy boots have long been a uniform of Nashville, from the boot shops offering three-for-the-price-of-one specials to the bachelorette parties making them practically the dress code. They have been emblemized in neon lights and memorialized in song, being made for walking, being left under unknown individual’s beds and even getting their own brand of boogie.
But despite their cultural significance in Music City, most of the boots making their way down Broadway have strayed far from their roots – going from a durable, craftsman-made shoe to cheap, bedazzled alternatives.
Music City Leather seeks to change that. A one-man operation owned and operated by Wes Shugart, Music City Leather makes handmade, custom cowboy boots made to fit, made to last and made to the taste of each individual customer.
Since he started making cowboy boots in 2012, Shugart has outfitted the feet of rich businessmen, country music stars, stylish housewives, outdoorsmen and those who just love boots. Working out of his Brentwood-based studio, he stays booked months in advance, with his reputation and demand only continuing to grow.
Meet the maker behind Nashville’s finest and truest cowboy boots.
On a typical day, you’ll find William Earl “Wes” Shugart dressed in a denim shirt, an old fur felt hat from HatWRKS, turquoise jewelry and of course, a pair of work boots he built himself. His style is effortlessly cool – classic and practical, with accents of Western flair that channel the culture of his craft’s origins.
Shugart works out of his newly renovated home studio, located just south of Nashville on the outskirts of Brentwood, Tenn. The basement-level space is filled with lasts of customers’ feet, samples of new stitch designs and boots in various stages of construction. Spools of colorful thread occupy the wall above his vintage sewing machine; rolls of exotic leather – everything from water buffalo to ostrich to shark – fill another. Outside, his blue heeler barks at the door, trying to coax Shugart out for a work break and a game of fetch. It’s a blend of Southern domestic bliss and creative entrepreneurship – perhaps a snapshot of Nashville itself.
In the same way that Shugart doesn’t try to be cool (and doing so, manages to be effortlessly so), he doesn’t try to please people, and in doing so, is incredibly likeable. He is passionate, genuine and colorful, happy to help educate his customers and offer up his unique brand of Southern wisdom on everything from love to work to what makes a great boot. He has found success without playing the game, without compromising his values or clamoring to the subcultures and gatekeepers that so many new Nashville transplants fight to get attention from. He’s a man who knows the value of his work, refusing to give away his boots for less than they’re worth, treating the biggest country star the same as the average Joe.
Shugart’s roots are in Dalton, Georgia, a small town nestled in the north Georgia hills, just east of Chattanooga. Despite Dalton’s reputation as the carpet capital of the world, Shugart was raised on a cattle farm, where he learned the importance of hard work – and a comfortable cowboy boot.
After meeting his wife, Sandra, in his early 20s and “chasing her to Nashville”, Shugart built a career in construction, working for several businesses to help support their young son, Cole (now a student at Lipscomb and half of the popular pop duo, Reign). Despite his career success, Shugart knew it was time to make some changes in his life. He got sober, left his day job and apprenticed with a second-generation bootmaker in New Mexico, learning each element of the craft. Today, he’s turned it into a lucrative living and is quickly gaining more and more attention as a bootmaker-on-the-rise.
Shugart builds his boots the way they used to be made – for comfort, function, longevity and style. He begins by taking eight measurements of the customer’s foot and then builds a custom last that the boot is built around, ensuring the perfect fit. After the tops of the boots are designed and stitched, they are assembled and stretched around the last to create the boot, with the leathers forming to the shape of the customer’s foot. All of his stitch work – ranging from simple and beautiful to elaborate – is done by hand with a single needle sewing machine. The soles are also assembled by hand, stitching the sole and welt, stacking the heel blocks and wood pegging the shank.
Each pair takes about 30 hours to make, but they also last for 30 years.
Since learning the process of bootmaking, Shugart has grown in both his craft and his art. His boots are beautiful, no doubt, but they’re also practical. They fit, they’re comfortable and they are lifetime pieces, able to stand up to cowboy-worthy conditions, even if they’re often worn to business meetings. The custom-nature of his boots has also allowed him to create unique solutions for many customers with special needs – different length legs, foot trouble, ankle injuries – creating functional shoes with more style than the tennis shoes many people with problem feet get stuck wearing.
But “functional” does not mean lacking in style. Shugart describes each pair of Music City Leather boots as “wearable art”, with the designs growing in precision and complexity over the years. Shugart has begun working with more exotic leathers such as ostrich, crocodile and kangaroo, and he recently placed in the World Leather Debut and won the top stitch award at The Boot and Saddle Makers Roundup, beating many industry veterans for the coveted award.
When working with customers, Shugart can guide them through common leathers, boot styles and stich patterns to help them create a boot unique them. He also takes totally custom requests – everything from inlaying an image of a man’s favorite horse on the boot to building a boot out of the skin of an alligator that his customer harvested.
“When I’m making an investment piece, I try to work with the customer to figure out ‘How do we take a brown boot and make it you, without being fancy?’" said Shugart. “I try to match a boot to somebody's style.”
Many customers work meaningful initials, colors and family symbols into the boots. And Shugart likes to make sure his designs stay connected to the beauty of the earth, using textures, materials and methods that honor the boots’ origins.
"I feel like a boot should be rooted to the ground and then flow up,” Shugart said.
Though handcrafted goods are becoming increasingly hip, with a number of Millennials making a living crafting leather and jewelry and art out of East Nashville homes and co-working spaces, Shugart’s work is more tailored to the luxury market, with boots starting at $2,000. And though what Shugart does is highly creative, he actually attributes his success to Nashville’s strong economy.
“Executives are my main customer, so it’s really the big business that’s been brought here (that makes what I do possible),” he said.
Shugart understands that not everyone can afford or even wants to spend $2,000 on a cowboy boot – but he’s determined to help you understand the difference between an off-the-shelf boot and a handcrafted boot. Even the boots that appear expensive – the $300 to $1,000 pairs – are often made in factories or outsourced to other countries, and they simply don’t last the way an American-made bespoke boot does.
"There's nothing wrong with an off-the-shelf boot if that's what you can afford,” said Shugart. “But don't buy an off-the-shelf boot just for the brand name. They’re disposable long-term boots."
“My boots can actually save you money over time. They are built to last, and almost every part of them is serviceable.”
If there’s anyone who can convince you to ditch your cheap boot habit and invest several thousand dollars in a pair, it’s Shugart. Every piece of his boots is designed to stick with you for the long haul – from the high-quality construction to his timeless designs.
"I don't believe in fashion,” said Shugart. “I believe in style..and style never goes out.”
To learn more or schedule an appointment, visit www.musiccityleather.com.