A few thoughts on country music’s ultimate rebel
In the early part of last year, I wrote a few blogs detailing historical artists whom I felt had been overlooked by the worlds of country music and Americana. Among those I highlighted were The Big Bopper and Rick Nelson. I sat down at the computer this morning with hopes of writing a review of one of the best rockabilly records I’ve heard in some time (I know there’s not much competition in that regard, but…). Instead I got a song stuck in my head and realized it was time to talk about yet another important overlooked artist.
Before I reveal who it is, I want to remind all of you that if you heard the name Michael Jackson on June 24, 2009 it was probably as the punchline of a joke. The man was totally rejected by the music industry and was thought of as nothing but a washed-up R&B singer turned crazy eccentric. A day later he was being compared to Elvis Presley and the Beatles as the same media outlets who had helped tear him down sung his praises and new generation of fans literally came out of the woodwork.
I suspect a similar fate awaits the man who should be a proud member of the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, a man who’s average day should consist of fighting away producers hoping to be the next Rick Rubin or T Bone Burnett. I’m talking about a guy who charted six top 20 country hits, penned two of the seminal country songs of the ’70s, appeared on stage and on record with numerous legends of country music, and has been blackballed by the industry for years due to a misguided attempt at shock value.
After spending 20 years of his life in prison (and, if you believe his own stories, some time on death row), David Allan Coe emerged as one of the best songwriters in Nashville in the ’70s, penning classic numbers such as “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)?” and “Take This Job and Shove It” that became hits for Tanya Tucker and Johnny Paycheck, respectively. But it is his role as a performer that should be his true legacy. Creating his own blend of hard-driving honky tonk rock combined with lyrics drawn, mostly, from his own life experiences, Coe became a fan favorite for many in the late ’70s and ’80s and was seen as one of the last true beacons of hope as the urban cowboy movement took center stage. (I wonder if Jamey Johnson finds any of this familiar?) Waylon and Willie appeared on his albums. Johnny Cash name-dropped him in a song. He shared the stage with legends like George Jones and Merle Haggard and was even featured in Heartworn Highways, the 1975 documentary that told the story of outlaw country and featured the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and Steve Young among others. His compilation For the Record: The First Ten Years is one of those albums that should be in everybody’s collection.
Coe’s legacy has never been in question with the fans. Go to karaoke night at a rural bar and you are guaranteed to hear “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” “Jack Daniels, If You Please,” or “The Ride” before closing time. In fact, Coe was so popular in my hometown, that he was one of the very few country artists I was aware of during my rock period and this was half a decade after his last hit. Coe’s biggest strength was reaching the people Nashville didn’t care about, the poor and working class types who heard their own life story in songs like “If That Ain’t Country.” His biggest weakness, from a commercial standpoint, was never going after the suburban housewife demographic.
In the eyes of music writers and the Nashville establishment, though, his legacy is very much in question. It probably stems from his anti-authority stance, but that fails to explain why he hasn’t been embraced by the alt. country press. That probably stems from his two “underground albums” that were released without fanfare and for years were available only through a little known biker publication. But with the rise of the internet, nothing was secret anymore and a New York Times critic promptly declared the albums “among the most racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.”
Most of that statement is false, of course. Even if the songs were all of those things, they weren’t the worst examples on the market by any means. In fact 99% of the material on the albums were nothing more than X-rated novelty songs with titles like “Cum Stains on the Pillows,” “I Made Linda Lovelace Gag,” and “Let Me Fuck You One More Time.” Sure, they were in bad taste, but they were also the sort of tunes guys crank up to 11 on a night of partying and sing along to. There were even a few important topical numbers such as “Nothing Sacred” and “Fuck Anita Bryant,” which made Coe the first (and to this day, one of the few) prominent country artist to stand up for gay rights and reject organized religion.
Of course, there is the other 1% to consider. The song was titled “Nigger Fucker” and while I wholeheartedly believe it was simply a very misguided attempt at shock value, it will probably always remain a black mark on his legacy. With that one song, he unknowingly went from being a respected elder statesmen of country music to being a controversial underground act.
I’m no apologist for racism, but I can tell the difference between a bad joke and true feelings and have little use for political correctness and censorship. That’s why I’m issuing a call to all respectable independent labels and all talented producers to sign this man and let him have the comeback he deserves. I’m calling for the Opry to let him in and for the Hall of Fame to induct him, if not as a performer then as a songwriter. I’m calling on Nashville to release a mediocre tribute album with Toby Keith doing “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” Big & Rich doing “Long-Haired Redneck,” and (God help us) Taylor Swift doing “Would You Lay With Me.” And it’s also due time for the alt. country community to embrace the man and his music before it’s too late.