Over the past half century or so, the country music machine in Nashville has morphed (metastasized?) into a beast barely recognizable to those who once bared their souls at the guitar pulls all around town. There’s still a vibrant songwriter scene in the city, but those with something to say are relegated to the shadows in the smoky bars while those with something to sell are pitching cuts to Keith Urban and the ubiquitous Female Flavor of the Month. The music business Hunter Thompson so viscerally decried in his classic quote has somehow, in Nashville, further devolved into a monolithic force of mindless clones moving in lockstep to a line dance beat. We, Robots. Somebody call Will Smith.
It wasn’t always thus. It was never as innocent as we want to think, but there was a time when the sounds from the Exit/In and its venerable predecessors were at least simple and heartfelt. After Hank and his crowd, there came a different band of wandering minstrels searching for like-minded souls. Richard Friedman was there, deciding to call himself Kinky, and singing everything from “Sold American” to “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” Harlan and Billy Joe and Kris and Waylon and Willie were finding their voices, and a common synergy was evolving. It didn’t much matter who or what you’d been before you got to Nashville; the cover charge was simply passion for the music. So in 1967, when David Allan Coe left the Ohio State Penitentiary with a new lease on life, the little Tennessee town seemed a good place to start. No one there was particularly concerned in ’68 with where Coe had been the previous year. They just wanted to hear his songs. And naturally, he obliged.
Coe wound up writing for Pete Drake, who at the time was also paying Linda Hargrove and Buzz Rabin to put songs together. It was the usual system, where writers would spend the day with a guitar and a sheet of paper trying to capture in tangible form the thing that was bursting within their chests demanding to be heard. As with most writing groups there were ups and downs, but this group made waves. Hargrove scored hits for Lynn Anderson and Johnny Rodriguez, and Rabin wrote a tune picked up by Ringo Starr. Coe got some tracks recorded here and there as well, by singers as diverse as Billy Joe Spears and George Jones. The way it worked was pretty simple – you lasso the song, get it onto a cassette, call it a demo, and start handing out copies to anyone you think might understand. As one might expect, the sound was raw. This wasn’t the mass-produced pablum overpowering country airwaves these days. No, sir. It was exactly what Harlan called it, just three chords and some truth. And as luck would have it, Pete Drake’s widow, Rose, and a man named Steve Popovich Jr. recently found fifteen of these demos performed by David Allan Coe between 1971 and 1974. What’s interesting here is the timing. It was in ’74 that Tanya Tucker made a pile of money singing Coe’s “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone).” That got him a record deal of his own with Columbia, and helped launch possibly the most misunderstood career in the history of country music. But I digress.
“For the Soul and For the Mind, Demos of ’71-‘74” is, on one level, quite simple. Just fifteen tunes crafted and recorded in hopes someone would listen close enough to buy them. The collection Rose and Popovich have gathered isn’t an album in the strictest sense – the songs weren’t born together, didn’t spring from some focused effort by an artist compiling his next release. Rather, they were crafted individually, like a fine cask of single barrel whiskey. What’s interesting is the illumination they provide on the mindset and skill of the man who may be the most overlooked songwriter of his generation. There is an authority in these demos that belies the artist’s youth. Maybe prison made a man out of Coe. Maybe he was a man before he went in. Don’t know. But what he wrote in these three years wasn’t kid stuff. And in this collection of fifteen tracks are the foundations of a stunning career, eerie precursors to some of the best work the man has done in the 21st century – where he’s remained astonishingly vital as a songwriter and a performer.
So much ground to cover it’s a challenge to capture it in a review, and challenging further simply because the spark in these songs is so vital and primal that one can’t do them justice with anything less than a listening ear. What’s the value? There’s the Americana ethos of “This Old Truck,” a metaphor-riddled anthem of pragmatic optimists in love with the country being torn apart at the seams while the ‘60s became the ‘70s. “Teardrops and Wine” covers familiar stone-country ground, replete with well-worn bartender and jukebox to match. “So Tired of Honky Tonks and Wine,” on the other hand, shows a side of David Allan Coe that the frat boys and weekend warriors stuck on “Jack Daniels If You Please” never knew existed.
Well I’ve met most all my women in a barroom
And all they wanted was a one-night stand
But I need love much more than satisfaction
A love that’s sealed with a wedding band
What’s that? You didn’t know Coe had that side to his personality, either? Then where are you going to go with “The Bottle”? Sure, it’s another drinking song. But as usual with Coe, it’s one that acknowledges the pain behind the thirst, and that refuses to get lost in the fiery burst of whiskey in the throat. It’s bare-knuckle honest, and the fact is with its rippling steel guitar backdrop it sounds an awful lot like something George Strait would have recorded back when he had a clue how to get to Amarillo by morning. How’s that for a comparison nobody saw coming?
But that’s all just appetizers and finger food. Anyone who ever heard David Allan Coe sing “Old Man Tell Me” or watched the “Heartworn Highways” compilation knows the man’s got a spiritual side. But listen to him sing “When Jesus Was a Rumor,” and you’ll find a quickening in your breast you haven’t felt in years. By far the rawest demo on this disc, in terms of sound, it’s also one of the most poignant.
Free love was the way to live
But love was all we had to give
The music never let my blood run cold
They took everything I had
Laughed and said that I was mad
I realized that I was getting old
I just want to get lost
In some good old country music
Take me back to days gone by
It’s where I wanna be
Listening to the old songs
And believing in their message
When Jesus was a rumor
And my long hair made me free
Listening to that song is like stepping into a time warp – what once was is clear again, and what now is takes on a wistful shape. This is Coe at his insightful best, using his simple clear prose to elicit a picture of threadbare hope beating within a world-weary chest and in the midst of all the longing tears still fully expecting to take over the world. Maybe that’s the essence of the man’s music, its intricate simplicity. There’s more of the same on the next track, “No Place Left to Run.”
My daddy was a travelin’ man
He roamed around the world
His life’s ambition was to be a star
I grew up on collard greens
Pork and beans and fatback
Listenin’ to my dad play his guitar
I recall the times he used to sit me down
And tell me
Why you see this guitar, son,
I’ve had it quite a spell
Now the kind of life I live
I know I’m going to hell
‘cause me and this guitar
we’ve been through hell
I can’t say I like your kind of music
I guess I’ve always been a simple man
Well this guitar’s old but
I want you to have it
Why maybe someday, son,
Why the length of your hair does not matter
I don’t care what kind of songs you sing
Don’t let anybody tell you different
Don’t let anyone step on your dreams
Believe in what you do and do it well, boy
And don’t let anything stand in your way
‘Cause it’s not the way you look
that makes folks listen
it’s the kind of songs you sing
and what you say
The song ends with Coe picking softly in a graveyard, explaining to the officer just why he’s standing near a tombstone with a guitar. The letter’d come too late, you see, and he’d missed the last goodbye, and so now
No kinfolks will be there to lay him under
‘Cause me and this guitar was all he had
so you see, officer, that’s
why I’m standing in this graveyard
Me and this guitar’s
Just playin’ for my dad
So much of what’s here for the listening seems to tell the story of David Allan Coe. There’s never an easy way to distinguish between the art and the man, but the threads interwoven throughout just reek of lived-in observation. It’s the soundtrack of a truly lived life, as is always the case with Coe’s music, but in this case it’s actually precursor to the catalog we know today. And therein lies the genius. It’s as if the man was born in Nashville as the ‘60s ended, fully formed and molded, voiced with a passion most of us will never comprehend. What he recorded back then set the stage for what was to come, and as you listen to this collection of demos you’ll hear the foreshadowings of the various stages of Coe’s career. Fittingly enough the final track, “Don’t You Cry,” was recorded in 2001 in Coe’s living room in Ormond, FL. As with his “Will You Remember Me,” captured grippingly on the Live at Billy Bob’s CD, it’s a reflection on mortality as the end comes into view for a life fully lived if not fully understood. In this one, Coe’s son Tyler fills in backing and harmony vocals that complete the arc begun in the ‘70s when “No Place Left to Run” showed us a man reminiscing about the dad he’d lost. Even for David Allan Coe, the journey has its cyclic rhythms.
Maybe that’s the case with country music and with Nashville as well. Who knows. We’ve seen the pendulum swing from country to countrypolitan to new traditional to Garthfictional and culminate in today’s hodgepodge of interchangeable bellybuttons and biceps. Maybe Toby Keith’s serious with this new outlaw thing, shining the spotlight back on Billy Joe and Merle and David Allan and bringing Jack Ingram into the mix. Maybe it’s just another gimmick from the man who’s long been the token outlaw in Music Row’s marketing schema. We’ll see. But the truth is, well, it’s still out there, even in Nashville. It’s in the music made by the people to whom it matters. David Allan Coe set the stage for it in his career when he recorded this collection’s title cut. The truth’s in the old guitars and the good friends. In Nashville in the early ‘70s, fresh out of prison and aiming for a better life, Coe captured its essence like this:
There’s nothing like the good times
When the bad times are all gone
Sittin’ round in Harlan’s place
Singing’ some old song
Me and Billy Joe would sit
And never make a sound
Watchin’ all them other pickers
Pass that old guitar around
When there was good old country music
For the soul and for the mind
When those sweet vibrations got
Out of control you could not find
A greater bunch of poets
To sit down and pass the time
Playing good old country music
For the soul and for the mind
NOTE -This record also contains a 3-song DVD, essentially a promo ad including video footage and song clips from the early period of Coe’s career. It’s rough, and maybe only for true fans. But then again, if you’ve taken the time to get the CD and listen, you’ve become a fan. So maybe it’s just for you.
~ Dave Pilot
Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs. When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline. When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.
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