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  • Southern VoicesRhinestone Man
  • Jennifer Joy Jameson (bio)

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Loy Bowlin, by Sally Griffiths, courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

[End Page 79]

Loy Bowlin's bejeweled dentures—a different color rhinestone on each tooth, two front teeth framed in gold—were a prelude to his creative output. Born on a cattle ranch in Franklin County, Mississippi, in 1909, Bowlin was a shade-tree mechanic and former used car salesman, who, upon retiring, took on a persona as McComb, Mississippi's "Original Rhinestone Cowboy," with a sparkling Western suit for each day of the week and a highly ornamented blue 1967 Cadillac to match. Inspired by Glen Campbell's 1975 hit recording, and, depending on what version of the story—divine intervention—Bowlin became compelled to adorn everything he touched. In doing so, he was able to move beyond a life previously characterized by divorce and depression and into a bold new existence that drew people closer to share in his sense of joy and wonder.1

I first saw Loy Bowlin's gleaming smile in a book produced by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, where his dentures now have a catalog number, just like the many parts that make up his glittering magnum opus, the Beautiful Holy Jewel Home—his modest two-bedroom home, covered inside and out in near-Moorish bejeweled patterns. As a former Nashvillian with family roots in Hollywood show business, I was familiar with Bowlin's aesthetic in Nudie Cohn's adorned "Nudie Suits" of the 1960s and 70s, seen on many a country star from the South to the Golden West. And when I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, in 2014 as the folk and traditional arts director for the Mississippi Arts Commission, Bowlin's world in nearby McComb became increasingly remarkable to me; I wanted to know more about the place that produced "Rhinestone."

An oral history project on the life and work of Bowlin began to take shape with a list of potential interviewees: the reverend at Bowlin's church, his next-door neighbor, his many younger visual artist friends who contributed to his work, remaining family members, and, of course, the dentist responsible for his sparkling grin. After I began to visit with the Bowlin family and other local people in McComb, the research took on a broader function in support of a 2017 exhibition, which is currently on view at the Kohler Arts Center, and includes his bejeweled home.2

In the 1970s, before Bowlin embellished every inch of his home with bright patterns, collaged in paper cut-outs and glitter, he was a fixture in a pedestrian mall called Sunshine Square. "The World's Most Famous Entertainer," McComb's buck-dancing, joke-telling, harmonica-toting Rhinestone Man began his act in response to feelings of isolation. Suited up, he would make new friends, tell stories, dance a little, and occasionally sell autographed pictures of himself on a palomino for a buck-fifty apiece. "The teeth are what really get people," proclaimed Bowlin in a clipping from the Times-Picayune.3

Local people in McComb experienced Rhinestone's larger-than-life world through his dazzling aesthetic choices, often combined with his entrepreneurial inclinations to define and design his own brand and emerging career—less as an [End Page 80] artist, and more as an entertainer. A significant paper trail reveals Rhinestone's interest in taking his act to Hollywood, marked by various successes and failures, from a cameo in Harrod Blank's 1992 documentary film Wild Wheels, to a kindly worded rejection letter from the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Bowlin also commissioned a series of theme songs set to popular country styles (with lyrics he likely penned himself, but that were recorded by professional studio musicians). One tune memorializes a number of Rhinestone motifs:

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Loy Bowlin, untitled (embellished dentures), date unknown, rhinestones and mixed media, 1½ × 3 × 2¾ inches, gift of Kohler Foundation Inc., courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center.

This is a song about the KingThe Original Rhinestone CowboyAs he walks down the streets of Sunshine Square...


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