Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Fancy footwear and a song to boot
Boot maker to the Nashville stars,
Bo Riddle dreams of his own hit single

by Bob McEowen

As long as performers have donned rhinestone-studded suits country music has been as much about style as twangy guitar riffs and tales of broken hearts. Whether it’s the right hat, the skin-tight jeans or the flashiest western boots, creating a look is all part of the act.

Bo Riddle made these flag-motif boots for display in western museums and exhibits. Bo has made boots for Marty Stuart, Alan Jackson and other country music stars. A Missouri native, he recently opened a boot shop in Ozark after living and working in Nashville, Tenn., and Batesville, Ark.

When it comes to boots, a veritable hit parade of Nashville stars has turned to Bo Riddle, a Missouri native who recently moved to Ozark after working in Tennessee and Arkansas.

At this year’s CMA Awards ceremony singing duo Eddie Montgomery and Troy Gentry wore boots bearing the Bo Riddle brand. Bo has made boots for Lee Greenwood, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and many other singing sensations. Marty Stuart — one of the most style-conscious country entertainers ever — rarely takes the stage without a pair of Bo’s boots.

“I’ve probably made a dozen pair for Marty Stuart,” Bo says. “He told me he doesn’t wear anything on stage that I didn’t make.”

Bo’s boots have been featured in museums and in coffee table books celebrating the art of the cowboy boot. But unless customers spy the personal messages scrawled on publicity photos adorning his shop walls they might assume Bo was just another shoe repairman, replacing half soles and fixing heel caps.

That impression would be as wrong as the one held by country music insiders who knew Bo as “the” boot maker to the stars during his Nashville days in the 1990s. While Bo made his reputation crafting outrageous $3,000 works of art for celebrities, his stock in trade is providing custom-fitted footwear for the rest of us.

With prices starting at $600, Bo will custom make a pair of western boots that fit the customer to a T. But even that, he says, doesn’t describe his true calling. While he’s earned his living for nearly 30 years making boots, Bo, 48, says he’s really a songwriter.

“I’m a guy with a dream like anybody else,” he says. “I think I have a hit song in me and I’m pursuing that. In the meantime real life dictates that I make boots to pay my bills.”

When Bo was in seventh grade his father traded a 1964 GMC pickup for a shoe repair shop a friend had inherited. The father and son learned the craft together and operated the business, first in Willow Springs and later in Kirksville.

Bo Riddle sands the heel of a custom made boot which bears his trademark brand.

After high school, Bo attended technical school in Oklahoma to learn boot making. Although he traveled as a musician for six years, playing fiddle in country bands, he eventually settled down to make boots in Birmingham, Ala. Ironically, Bo’s great-grandfather made boots there during the Civil War.

After a fire destroyed his home, Bo took a job teaching boot making at a minimum-security prison. Bored with teaching, a year later he moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. Meanwhile, he managed a chain of shoe shops to pay the rent.

Bo landed a record deal with an independent label and released an album. The record never went anywhere and is now relegated to the bargain bin.

“I got some decent airplay but the bottom line was it’s hard to compete with the major labels,” Bo says. “I never did get any royalties off of it.”

Despite his determination to concentrate on music, Bo’s first wife saw more money in boots and pushed him to return to his craft. When Kix Brooks, later of Brooks and Dunn fame but then an up-and-coming artist, came into Bo’s store looking for a pair of black boots emblazoned with red flames, Bo agreed to make them. Word of Bo’s boot making ability soon reached a press agent for Marty Stuart.

“She brought Marty in to meet me and see my work. It went from there and I became Marty’s custom boot maker,” Bo says. “Marty and I became very good friends.”

Bo tunes his guitar in the back room of his Ozark boot shop. Although Bo has made his career and reputation crafting custom boots, his real desire is to acheive success as a songwriter.

With the king of Nashville cowboy style in his corner Bo’s reputation spread like wildfire. “Marty has referred a lot of customers to me, both fans and fellow artists,” Bo says. “I’ve made boots for so many of them I’ve just lost track.”

The relationship began a period of Bo’s life that was both heady and unsettling as he looks back.

“I was welcome in the circles of the stars,” Bo says. “My regular Friday and Saturday night hang out was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I had an open door every time I wanted to go out there. It was kind of an ego-swelling event for me.”

Bo’s boot designs are as varied as the many clients he’s served over the years. He is best known for pointy-toed masterpieces with sharply under-sloped heels. More often than not, his boots are inlayed and overlaid with roses, stars, bucking broncos, eagles and other designs.

While Bo’s boot making career was taking off, his music career suffered. “I had gone to Nashville in 1990 to be a songwriter and got so busy making boots I didn’t have time to do the music,” he says.

Bo braces himself while stretching boot leather over a last. Although best known for outlandish creations for the stars, Bo's stock in trade is made-to-fit custom boots for ordinary customers. A basic pair of custom boots costs about $600 while the highly ornate stage wear the stars prefer often costs more than $2,000 a pair.

His personal life wasn’t doing any better. His first marriage ended in divorce and his mother’s health was failing. Bo moved to Summersville, Mo., to be near his parents and later married his junior high school sweetheart, Nyla.

After Bo’s parents passed away the couple moved to Batesville, Ark., when Nyla’s job transferred there. Bo concentrated on songwriting while filling his backlog of boot orders. Early in 2004 Nyla’s daughter moved to the Springfield area to open a beauty shop and the couple followed.

Bo opened his Ozark shop in August. He still makes boots for Nashville’s elite. Mostly, though, he downplays his celebrity reputation and caters to normal customers in search of well-made, custom-fitted footwear.

“A lot of times John Q. Public thinks I’m out of their range. In reality, $600 for a pair of handmade boots is not out of range,” he says. “You pay $200 for an off-the-rack pair that’s not made as well, won’t last as long and won’t fit as well.”

Besides making and repairing boots Bo has begun crafting seat covers to match the paint schemes on custom motorcycles. Bo is also building on his 30-year reputation, negotiating with a name brand company to produce a line of Bo Riddle designed boots. His primary effort, though, is to keep trying for that hit song.

“My goal when I went to Nashville was to be a professional songwriter and that hasn’t changed,” he says.

In addition to traditional country tunes Bo has written two Christmas tunes that, he says, have received limited airplay. One, “Mrs. Santa Claus,” is the story of the woman behind the jolly old man of the North Pole. Another, “Camouflage Santa Claus,” Bo sees as the next great Christmas novelty hit.

Bo says that while he hopes his songs will someday top the charts, he’s willing to wait for success.

“I’m OK with where my music is right now,” he says. “I’m frustrated in that I don’t have major label cuts yet but I’m not unsettled about it. I’m very patient and know that it’s all in God’s timing. When I’m in a position to handle it, it will come to pass.”

Customer Phil Leininger brought Bo a pair of boots for repair and, while in the shop, examined the flag boots. These boots were a featured exhibit at the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library museum.

His attitude reflects an overall change in his life. It’s an outlook, he says, shaped by the excesses of Nashville and the experiences he’s endured since.

“I’m a different person than I was in Nashville,” he says. “When I got away from there I got closer to my family and closer to God. I realized it’s not about me.

“I have life in a true perspective now. I’ve lived a lot. I’ve lost a lot. I’ve lost my dad. I’ve lost my mom. I went through a divorce. You experience things in life that make you look at life a little differently than when everything is roses.”

Although he longs for a day when his songs are heard on every country music station he’s content with what he’s accomplished. The customer with the worn half sole may not know he’s in the presence of greatness, but Bo Riddle has earned his place in the boot maker’s hall of fame.

“My attitude is that I’m already pretty well known at what I do. That doesn’t make me rich and famous. That just makes me a known name in this field,” Bo says. “I’m one of the few poor and famous people in the world.”

Bo Riddle’s shop is located at 517 N. 21st St. in Ozark. His phone number is (417) 582-2668.

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