Week 34: David Allan Coe, The Self-Promoter

Week 34: David Allan Coe, The Self-Promoter

A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.

David Allan Coe is the closest thing to a hip-hop artist I’ve covered for this column. He spent many of his formative years in jail, then greatly exaggerated both the nature of his crimes and the severity of his prison sentence. He’s a shameless self-promoter who manages to insert his name into seemingly half his songs with a fervor that puts Mike Jones to shame. He’s piggybacked on the popularity of more popular artists by constantly associating himself with icons like Hank Williams (he’s written two songs about his ghost and one about his son), Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. He’s collaborated with Kid Rock. He bitches about being considered too real and authentic for the spineless saps over at commercial radio. He’s gotten into trouble for throwing around racial epithets and abusing the n-word. And he’s transformed himself into a larger-than-life caricature, a brash, brawling country cartoon. 

Shit, Coe is practically the hillbilly Rick Ross. Or maybe that comparison isn’t apt, since there’s a sly, winking edge to Coe’s music: He’s a subversive social satirist masquerading as a hillbilly shit-kicker. Or perhaps a subversive social satirist who is also a hillbilly shit-kicker. Coe constantly invokes Waylon, Willie, and Hank, but I think he’s more of a smartass social commentator in the vein of Randy Newman and Kinky Friedman. As with Friedman, it’s hard to say where Coe’s persona ends and the man begins. 

The legend of David Allan Coe, however, begins with prison. It’s the cornerstone of his reputation, the subject of his first album—1969’s Penitentiary Blues—and the source of much of his street credibility. As with much of Coe’s well-wrought mythology, the legend seems to have usurped the reality. Everyone concurs that Coe spent two decades of his early life shuttling in and out of reform schools and prisons for armed robbery and auto theft, but Coe maintains that he spent time on death row for killing a fellow inmate who tried to sexually assault him. This last contention has proven awfully hard to corroborate. 

It’s easy to draw a straight line between Coe the prisoner and Coe the musician, even though Penitentiary Blues sounds little like the songs that made him infamous. As the title suggests, Coe’s debut is a straight-up blues album that finds Coe moaning, wailing, shouting, and murmuring about the hardscrabble life of a luckless prisoner. But while Coe quickly abandoned the sound of Penitentiary Blues, it shares with the rest of his oeuvre an obsession with prison, a self-conscious streak of bad-assery and a dark, smartass sense of humor. “Death Row,” for example, is sung from the perspective of a death-row inmate who tries to outwit the authorities by requesting an endless series of impossible delicacies for his last meal.

In the 1970s, Coe reinvented himself as a country outlaw. Coe’s signature single, “Longhaired Redneck,” epitomizes his genius for self-mythologizing. It begins with Coe reaffirming his outlaw credentials and the establishment’s fear of him in the most literal manner possible: “Country DJs know that I’m an outlaw / They’d never come to see me in this dive.” He then reminds audiences of his jail stint, something he never lets them forget: “Loudmouth in the corner’s getting to me / Talking ’bout my earrings and my hair / I guess he ain’t read the signs that say I’ve been to prison.” And he engages in gratuitous name-dropping: “Johnny Cash helped me get out of prison,” and “I can do ya every song Hank Williams ever wrote.” And of course, he drops his very favorite name: “They tell me I look like Merle Haggard / And sound a lot like David Allan Coe.”

Coe undercuts the rampant self-aggrandizement of “Longhaired Redneck” by delivering the lyrics with a wink in his voice and a light touch. While mapping out his country bona fides, he adopts an outsized parody of trembling sincerity when he brags, “I cahn sang all them soooongs about Texaaas / And I still do all the sad ones that I know.” On “Longhaired Redneck,” Coe indulges in a form of hillbilly minstrelsy, turning himself into an outsized spoof of the ultimate country shit-kicker. If people thought country singers were drunk, rowdy, criminal hillbillies, then he’d be the drunkest, rowdiest outlaw in existence. 

“Willie, Waylon And Me” and “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” are cut from the same cloth as “Longhaired Redneck.” “Willie, Waylon And Me” finds Coe engaging in one of his favorite endeavors: juxtaposing his career with those of the most successful country-rockers in the world. He somehow manages to reference The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles, The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, and of course, the greatest of all outlaws, David Allan Coe. Actually, I take back what I said about Coe being the hillbilly Rick Ross: he’s actually more like the country version of The Game, only with wit, talent, and personality. 

That wit is evident in “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” which was written by Steve Goodman and an uncredited John Prine. Given the importance Coe places on his name, the song title represents the most serious accusation he could bring against a lover. As with many of Coe’s songs, it’s sung with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as he complains about a woman who doesn’t have to call him Waylon Jennings, and she don’t have to call him Charley Pride. Heck, she doesn’t even have to call him Merle Haggard anymore, even though she’s on his fighting side. But goddamned it, he sure would appreciate being called by his own damn name. Once again, Coe plays it both ways: “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” is both a kick-ass tear-in-your-beer tale of heartbreak, and a clever parody of the same. Everything is pitched defiantly larger than life, like when Coe moans:

Well, I’ve heard my name a few times in your phone book
And I’ve seen it on signs where I’ve played
But the only time I know I’ll hear “David Allan Coe”
Is when Jesus has his final Judgment Day. 

But the kicker is the final verse, which represents the ultimate in both self-parody and Coe’s redneck minstrelsy. Coe talk-sings his way through a spoken-word section where he says his friend Steve Goodman bragged that in “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” he’d written the perfect country-and-western song. Coe is quick to correct him: How could he have written the perfect country song without a single reference to “Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk”? So Goodman redeems himself with a verse that nicely sums up every country cliché imaginable:

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in the pickup truck
She got run over by a damned old train. 

“You Never Even Called Me By My Name” is so irresistible that a gentleman named Doug Supernaw got everyone Coe namedrops on the song other than himself—Jennings, Pride, and Haggard—to contribute to a cover of it. 

Coe tapped into a potent vein of working-class anger with “Take This Job And Shove It,” a fist-pumping anthem/revenge fantasy made popular by Johnny Paycheck. It was even turned into a movie with small roles for Paycheck and Coe, so audiences could actually see the titular job being taken and then shoved (by country icon Robert Hays, naturally enough). But rather than show that, I’m instead going to feature this clip from the film involving the legendary monster truck Bigfoot: 

Behind the brash façade, Coe is capable of more thoughtful, introspective work as well, like the tender love song “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field Of Stone),” which was a huge hit for Tanya Tucker in 1974 and was later covered by Johnny Cash for American Recordings III: Solitary Man. Coe is also known for reverent covers of Jackson Brown’s “These Days” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” (Unsurprisingly, Coe also recorded tribute albums to Johnny Cash.) 

Coe’s white-trash provocateur persona made him a cult hero, but also one of the less-esteemed outlaw members of the outlaw county movement. Coe mixes comedy and tragedy, darkness and light, and autobiography and self-mythology on “If That Ain’t Country,” another defiant working-class anthem that doubles as a character study of the protagonist’s father, a tattooed, prison-hardened veteran who was vicious yet proud, hard-working yet self-destructive. On “If That Ain’t Country,” Coe sings of “working like a nigger for my room and board,” which raises the defining question of Coe’s career: was he a racist, sexist, homophobic monster? 

At the behest of his good friend Shel Silverstein, Coe decided to record two albums of X-rated joke songs (1978’s Nothing Sacred and 1982’s Underground Album) awash in racial epithets, profanity, and lyrics designed to offend just about everyone. It’s strange to think of Silverstein, a prolific country songwriter, poet, and famed children’s book author, perhaps best known for writing The Giving Tree, as the demon on Coe’s shoulder whispering sinister advice into his ear.

There is, of course, a long, dirty tradition of musicians blowing off steam by recording intentionally offensive music. Back in the day, Jewish songwriters used to record ribald joke-songs riffing on anti-Semitic stereotypes, songs with titles like “My Yiddisha Mammy,” “Cohen Owes Me Ninety Seven Dollars,” and “When Mose With His Nose Leads The Band” as part of an underground movement now known as “Jewface.” And gangsta rap has certainly been known to exploit (some might say subvert) racist stereotypes. 

But there’s a big difference between Jews and African-Americans making self-deprecating jokes about their cultures, and Coe releasing songs like “Nigger Lover.” Coe has ample license to riff on redneck culture; the same cannot be said of other cultures. Coe’s defense centers on the following evidence: 

  1. His drummer is a black man married to a white woman. (This reeks of “Some of my best friends are…”)
  2. He never made a cent off these albums. 
  3. They were joke songs for bikers, not meant to be taken seriously. 
  4. He’s always embraced black culture by rocking dreadlocks, and in his own turn of phrase, dressing like a “New York pimp.” Besides, wasn’t Coe’s first album a more-than-respectable collection of low-down, dirty blues numbers? 

The controversy regarding Coe’s underground albums reignited when he began selling CDs of the albums in question at his shows, which prompted New York Times critic Neil Strauss (whom you might know from his creepy books about pickup artistry) to describe the albums as containing “among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.”

I don’t have either of the albums, so I can’t really cast judgment on them—though you can get a taste by watching the clip below of Coe performing on Midnight Blue in the 1980s—but it seems to me that they’re an extension and magnification of Coe’s cartoon persona rather than the feelings or prejudices of the man himself. As is the case with much of Coe’s output, it’s a mistake to take it too literally. If nothing else, the controversy that still surrounds Coe even as he’s entered his 70s proves he’s one of the few country artists capable of getting under people’s skin. If that ain’t outlaw country, I don’t what is. 

Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Waylon Jennings
Loretta Lynn
Townes Van Zandt
Buck Owens
Shania Twain
Johnny Paycheck

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