An individual exhibiting such uniqueness or individuality that he or she will cause a roomful of bar cronies to exclaim, "That's one interesting motherfucker!" Actual sexual relations with one's mother are not required.
Like most decent Americans, I've never been a big fan of country music. It's always struck me as musically dull, lyrically trite, overly obsessed with its own themes and disingenuously traditional, as if writing songs about hopping trains in 2005 (or 1995 or 1985) is somehow relevant in some metaphorical way to the present human condition. Too many country artists have a penchant for avoiding any semblance of originality, sticking to the same cliché chord progressions and lyric patterns while rejecting any appearance of modernity as if it were a mail pouch of poisoned chaw. (Of course, even worse than classic country is this newfangled "New" country which embraces the worst aspects of modern pop and throws country's strongest feature, its authenticity, right out the of the saloon.) And while my opinion on country has softened as the years go by, as I've been in exposed to its grittier cousin, Americana, and found delight in the skills of country instrumentalists like Junior Brown and Danny Gatton, I still think a lot of the music that is considered definitively country, from Hank Williams to Patsy Cline to Johnny Cash, is vastly overrated.
But, you ain't heard country 'til you've heard David Allan Coe.
To those with only a cursory knowledge of country music (which is where I was a few years ago) Coe is a non-entity. It's doubtful his name would wander into the top-ten lists compiled by mainstream music magazines and his scrubby, unwashed face will never be carved into Country music's Mount Rushmore. Amid the titterings of polite conversations down in Nashville, Coe's name is whispered more than uttered, as if someone is discussing the family uncle with a penchant for drink or incest. And it's a damn shame, because David Allan Coe is America's greatest living country artist.
Let me tell you of the second time I listened to David Allan Coe. (Why not the first? Oh, we'll get to that.) I was driving down the long freeways of western Montana during a summer that was setting records for number of forest fires. The setting sun cast a rosy glow on the smoke in the air and I stopped at a gas station in the middle of nowhere for a cup of joe and a slice of beef jerky. At the checkout counter a "Best of David Allan Coe" cassette caught my eye and I purchased it for a mere $9.99. Setting back out on the open road I found myself listening to a montage of country crooning set to the polished backdrop of 70's Nashville production, tunes like "Longhaired Redneck," "Cheap Thrills" and "Willie, Waylon and Me." And something struck me. It wasn't the just timbre of Coe's voice, which manages to sound both amateurish and accomplished at the same time. Nor was it his witty lyricism as evidence by his ability to string together a verse like, "Country DJ's knows that I'm an outlaw, they'd never come to see me in this dive, where bikers stare at cowboys who are laughin' at the hippies, who are prayin' they'll get out of here alive," from "Longhaired Redneck." And it was not simply his iconoclastic status in the world of country music. Rather it was the combination of all these elements that made Coe stand out as a unique and exceptional musician and one willing to defy the conventions of his own genre to make his own mark.
The life of David Allan Coe is a large part unknowable because throughout his career Coe has made so many outrageous claims it's impossible to separate truth from fiction. It's reasonable to assume he was, as he says, in prison as a young man, less certain is whether he wrote the entirety of his first album, "Penitentiary Blues", there and downright doubtful is his claim that while locked up he killed a man who approached him demanding oral sex. Regardless, in 1968, upon release (of both Coe and the album), he started touring professionally as a musician. His performances were often wild affairs with Coe dubbing himself the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy and performing to a mixture of 60's counterculture types, Hell's Angels and true blue Southerners. In addition to playing live, Coe was writing music, lots of music, which found more success in the hands of others than himself. Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Willie Nelson all recorded his songs, but his best known hit from this period is probably Johnny Paycheck's rendition of the working man anthem of "Take This Job and Shove it." It wasn't until 1975 that Coe had his own hit, a song co-written with Steve Goodman* (best known for writing "City of New Orleans") entitled "You Never Even Called Me By My Name." It's a prime example of Coe's willingness to simultaneously mock and embrace the conventions of country. After a brief monologue where he bemoans that the song has yet to tackle standard subjects of the genre like "Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk" he gives a straight faced delivery to the final verse:
Well, I was drunk the day my Mom got out of prison,
With that, the flavor of Coe's mutant country music had been announced to the world and he moved forward with a stream of strange, often comical, sometimes sad, occasionally egocentric songs. In "Willie, Waylon and Me" Coe demonstrates his determinedly oblivious narcissism when he places himself along two of country music's undisputed greats. (A technique he uses again in the song, "Son of the South" where he effuses, "I'm into Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and David Allan Coe.") In "Jimmy Buffett Doesn't Live In Key West Anymore" he absolves himself of the sin of sounding like America's premier tropical musician. But when he wasn't playing country's court jester he showed he could deliver some genuinely affecting ballads like the alcoholic's lament, "Jack Daniels if You Please" or the sublimely vengeful, "I'm going to Hurt Her on the Radio" in which Coe promises an ex-lover that "She's going to pay me back in royalties, for bringing me down to my knees." And for a man who seemed at so odds with Nashville's staid worship of traditional Americana, Coe delivered the archetypical "If That Ain't Country."
Coe wasn't above doing other people's material and some of his best moments were arrived at during covers. "Please Come to Boston," is a swaying swan song to a love affair that never seems to get off the ground due to Coe's penchant for traveling. "Jody Like a Melody" contemplates the addictive properties of women. But most memorable, and perhaps my favorite Coe recording ever, is his rendition of "The Ride," a Twilight Zone-ish tale of a hitchhiking songwriter who gets picked up by what turns out to be the ghost of Hank Williams.
"Who is this?" I asked. "This," replied T-Dawg, "is David Allan Coe."
The source of these mp3s were a duo of controversial albums Coe put out in the seventies. While musically in the country vein of Coe's other tunes, the lyrics are the graffiti of a men's room stall come to life. Coe boasts of his enlarged penis size in the song, "I Made Linda Loveless Gag." He offers staid advice to the women in his life with "Don't Bite the Dick that Feeds You." He bemoans the loss of a lover with a gentle ditty entitled "Cumstains on the Pillow." He immortalized the act of sodomy with "Fucking in the Butt." He gives tribute to small-breasted women in "Itty-Bitty Titties." And in a dirty limerick set to music he lists "The Three Biggest Lies" which are, in order, "This'll only hurt for a little while, I'll only put the head of it in, and I promise that I'll never come in your moooouuuuuuuthhhhhh!" (The delivery of the final chorus is done in the context of a convicted criminal about to molest his prison bedmate.)
But the song that attracted the most controversy and landed Coe with numerous accusations of racism was entitled "Nigger Fuckers." Amidst a standard country progression, Coe croons about a woman who left him for a black man, chastening himself with lines like, "To think I licked the pussy where that big black dick had been," and ending the song with the dedication, "For all you nigger loving whores, this song's for you."
On its face, "Nigger Fuckers" isn't that exceptional a tune - one could probably find equitable verses in the Ku Klux Klan songbook. (It's worth noting that the co-author on "Nigger Fuckers" was children's author Shel Silverstein.) But what's stunning is that it was performed by a 70's Nashville star on the rise. Imagine if Kris Kristofferson had sung "Lets Kill All the Arabs" or Willie Nelson had crooned "I Hate Homos!" Never in the annals of the music industry has someone so flirted with career suicide. And yet, the X-Rated albums*, as they are called, seemed to have little affect either positively or negatively on Coe's career. Perhaps Coe was still enough of a non-entity that no-one cared when he made a racist, sexist album. Or maybe there were enough people who quietly approved to balance out those who were enraged.
* While researching this piece I picked up a copy of the compilation "The Best of Both X-Rated" albums only to find it was missing two of the more memorable tracks I remembered T-Dawg playing. One being "Fuck Anita Bryant" wherein Coe makes a vague attempt to defend homosexuals from the singer turned political activist and the other being another racist song whose title I don't recall. I only remember the lyrical nugget, "Lips that suck nigger dicks will never touch mine."
Now, of course the X-Rated albums confirm all the worst suspicions people have about country music and the South in general. For years the Nashville community and white Southerners* have tried to say that their racism, sexism and homophobia is overblown and then along comes little Davey Allan Coe singing a song called "Nigger Fuckers." (Some will no doubt accuse myself of the same charges being that I've have made no effort to actively decry Coe's music - indeed, I seem to be applauding it. So let me just say, yes, of course I'm opposed to racism, sexism, blah, blah, blah and blah but I've had an ongoing love affair with all things design to shock and fracture society's taboos and Coe's X-Rated albums did this delightfully.) And there's no doubt that, despite Coe's protests that "Nigger Fuckers" was a tongue in cheek ditty recorded with a black man playing drums, at its core is genuine racism*. He is laying to rhyme the white man's fear that black men are going to come and steal their women. It's not funny - well, actually it is funny, but it's also ugly and ruthless and real. Coe has dismissed the X-rated material (he never performs it live) and come close to apologizing for it, and acted as if it's all one big joke and in my opinion that's been his biggest mistake. In an industry that never met a overused cliché it didn't like, that prefers to sing amorphous metaphors so impotent as to be meaningless (I was the only person I know who thought the Johnny Cash estate should have sold the rights to "Ring of Fire" to a hemorrhoid commercial.) Coe made music that was eminently clear about what it meant. There was no second guessing here. The prime accusation leveled against country music - blandness in the first degree - could not be made against Coe. You can decry his racism, his misogyny, his ego (indeed, you should) but you can still respect the edge it took to deliver it.
*A number of people have contacted me to highlight the fact that Coe himself is not a Southerner, he was born in Ohio. It's a valid point, but I do believe Coe spent enough time in the South, and was embraced by the South in such a way that he deserves to be considered at least an honorary Southerner.
** A commenter on Amazon.com defends Coe, saying, "Whoever says David Allan Coe just hates black people is crazy. The man hates EVERYONE!! I work at a casino where he often plays. They dread his arrival because he comes in and treats everyone like they're nothing. He once walked out of one of his shows ten minutes into it because there was air blowing on him from the air conditioner."
That edge, to me, is what has made Coe country's best. Even with the slick Nashville production there was always a razor sharp blade in Coe's music that cut through the fluff and went for your throat. It's partly his lyrics (offensive or not) and partly the weathered appeal of his voice, and it's partly just the look of the man. Even in his youth, his sunbeaten face was starting to show the craquelure of time. Coe looks like his music - ugly, unkempt, scattered, but also mocking and defiant.
Now in his sixties, Coe still tours. (I actually just missed a chance to see him at Hollywood's Key Club.) The venues tend to be country bars and State Fairs. Browsing through the photo section of Coe's website one can see that the years have not be kind. Coe appears gnomish, withered and uses a sort of Indian headdress to recreate the long dreaded locks he was known for. There's no doubt that when Coe fades he'll get none of the fanfare of Johhny Cash or Waylon Jennings. Many people will probably be glad that he's gone. But maybe that's its own sort of a victory. Coe, at least, demands a reaction from people, whether it be love or hate, and whether Country music wants to admit it or not, it was lucky to have him.
Wil Forbis writes many strange and amusing things for a variety of top secret organizations like Entertainment Weekly.
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