David Allan Coe’s recent brush with death in a nasty car accident has us all reflecting on the man and his music. Thankfully, Coe has been discharged from the hospital and is recovering with non-life threatening injuries. Dave Pilot has given us this introspective piece he wrote on Coe several years ago that actually garnered him a Thank You call from the Rhinestone Cowboy himself. Have a read.
Do you think, like some, that he’s an uneducated racist spewing hatred with his twisted lyrics? If so, you haven’t listened closely to those lyrics over the years. Do you think he’s an overrated honky-tonker, stuck on “Jack Daniel’s (If You Please)” and “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”? Say yes, and I’ll tell you to listen to his priceless slice of America in “Old Man Tell Me” and see if it doesn’t grab you every bit as hard as Merle did when he nearly cried his way through “Kern River.” Country radio and barroom DJs have made some of Coe’s cuts the retread staples of our beer-stained days and whiskey nights, but they’ve left the real treasures unmined and if you haven’t done some digging you’ve missed one of the best singers and songwriters this country has ever produced.
In a stunning twist of irony, a German label a few years back re-mastered and released some of Coe’s older albums, some for the first time on CD. It is insane and unbelievable that a label in Hambergen, Germany understands the heart and soul of American backwoods country music in ways that some of us in the land which birthed it never will. But I digress.
This double album re-release, neatly printed on one long-playing twenty-song CD, is a gem and a steal at twenty bucks. It covers a wide variety of Coe songs, some of which you’ve probably heard, and includes his version of Guy Clark’s classic “Desperados Waiting for A Train.” That damn song about mama, and trucks, and trains, and prisons, and gettin’ drunk with that Steve Goodman fella is also here as the last cut, obligatory, I suppose, but then again sometimes I do like to crank the volume on that sucker and pour me a double shot of Jack. The CD is a stunning retrospective across the cross-sections of Coe’s styles through the years. These two albums, The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy and Once Upon A Time, were released fairly early in his career, and looking back it’s amazing to realize the tone they set for what would follow.
“It’s all show. There’s two personalities. David Allan Coe is a Virgo, quiet and laid-back. That was ‘The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy’ up there on stage. Coe could never do that.”
David Allan Coe, talking about himself to Country Music Magazine ca. 1974.
There’s an interesting line from a man whose stage persona and songwriting have always proclaimed his willingness to unabashedly be his own man regardless of the critics and fans and enemies and ex-wives. Interesting to wonder how the stage lights, neon and smoke transformed a “quiet and laid-back” man into The Rhinestone Cowboy. Hard to believe it at all, actually, given Coe’s penchant for self-promotion and exaggeration over the last three decades. But who knows. Maybe it’s true. There are certainly lyrics in his archives that support the thesis.
He shakes his head from time to time
And rambles somewhere in his mind
Mumblin’ ’bout the Civil War
And how we should have won
Settin’ up his battle plans
On checker boards at his command
Watchin’ all his gallant kings go fallin’ one by one
And Son, he’d say, there’s not much time
For you to straighten out your mind
But you never listen to the things I try to say.
And I just turn my head and cry
Never understanding why
He’d set up that checker board
When he knew I couldn’t play.
There’s the tender side of Coe, through the eyes of a boy straining for manhood and taking his lessons at the knee of a battered soul still crushed by Appomattox. Three stanzas and the truth for millions of Southern country boys over the last hundred and fifty years, the raw nerves exposed for salting and a quiet dignity still aching for Dixie while paying taxes to D.C. Through that lens David Allan Coe can be clearly seen as a tragic figure, as raucous as Charlie Daniels and Dwayne Allman and the Marshall Tucker Band, but more willing to lay down the screeching guitars and sing with honest clarity about the pain behind the defiance. Perhaps that willingness is what separates him from the crowd. It is certainly part of what drove him to fan the flames of his stage persona and helped him achieve a notoriety few country acts can claim. At times that persona has been his cage, but in the scope of a career it is his triumph.
From The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy liner notes:
“People talk to me about freedom. . . I’ve been a prisoner all my life. This album is my third attempt at baring my soul and maybe my last. My music is free now but I haven’t forgotten those chains, those bars and those demons that danced inside my brain.”
The cover art for this CD is compelling; a sequined Coe stares at his reflection in the shattered remnants of a mirror perched on the concrete wall of a cell. The past staring at the present, aiming for the future that can’t fully escape that damned past. A pop psychologist or high-falutin’ art critic could have a field day with this pose. A country boy with welts on his knuckles simply understands it in his bones.
The CD kicks off with Coe’s composition “A Sad Country Song,” one you’ve heard a-plenty on the radio. Every last call you’ve ever faced alone is in these words, and Coe’s voice, soft and rough at once, is the whiskey at the bottom of the glass that steels your nerves for that solitary walk to the truck. It’s followed by “Crazy Mary,” a song that haunts the senses long after the last note fades. Children in the twilight, running helter-skelter past the widow’s house by the graveyard, spinning tales of witchcraft and taunting her with insults and childish catcalls. A quiet smile from Mary, and nothing more, save legends growing of spells she cast “to turn us into donkeys.” But abruptly, in a stanza, the years have passed, and
So it seems that older now
We stand upon this wind-swept moor
The lonely grave before us
Testifies that Crazy Mary sings and dreams
Her dreams somewhere
But not where little kids can follow after
And on the stone, these words, dear friend
Please write me down as one who loved
The raven-haired and laughing lads
That swore that they would marry me
And soon their sons came running by
And here I lie, forgotten, Crazy Mary. . .
On through “River” and “The 33rd of August” the track list follows a familiar path for Coe, longing for the freedom in the memories that stop so cold at the bars of the prison windows. A reflection, a prayer, a memento, a regret, a personal reconciliation. Here lies the fertile ground that spawned so much of Coe’s later work, and still shades his persona today. These are songs you cannot tear yourself away from, and the fact that Mickey Newbury penned the second makes the universal knell of the cellblock locking down reverberate more soundly in the singer’s autobiographical tone. None of us really know if David Allan Coe ever killed that man he once claimed to have finished, but it’s a fact he was in lockups from Ohio to California. It’s been said that you can’t be a real country singer unless you’ve done hard time. I don’t buy that, but in Coe’s case the time served equals lessons learned and put on public display for generations to come.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this
You just can’t shake hands with a fist
But I once did my talking with a gun. . .
Coe’s rough ways and firm convictions, both religious and personal, combined with a singer’s roadhouse lifestyle, fostered and killed several tumultuous marriages over the years. In his natural style, Coe never faltered at the thought of laying those wounds and lessons open in song for strangers’ ears. On this disc, those stories are told through B.J. Bourgoin’s “Bossier City” and Coe’s own original “Atlanta Song.” The first finds the protagonist confronting a cheating wife, the second dealing with the aftermath in all the stupid ways a lonely man is wont to pursue. Only David Allan Coe travels these disparate coasts in back to back songs. From here:
Now you’ve got the nerve to ask me where I’m going
And I don’t believe I’d tell you if I knew
I’ll be gone when the sun comes up tomorrow
I believe it’s time to say goodbye to you
I met her in Atlanta
She was a-dancing in a café
With a price tag on her body
And a tombstone in her eye
Crushing heartache to calloused disregard in the space of six minutes. Classic Coe. But one of the tests a great songwriter must pass is the ability to layer and texture songs as they take form and give them the ability to grow and change with the passing years. The best way to do this is often to keep them simple at their core, and “Atlanta Song” is a prime example. Heard in your early twenties, the song’s description of the dancehall girl is actually punch-line funny. A few years down the line, with a relationship or two looming in the rearview and child support on the horizon, the same four lines are a damning judgment against the callous immaturity that sucks the life from so many who walk among us. This is the mark of a an artist, the telltale footprints of one who understands too intimately what this life’s gods can hurl and has the gift to mark the way.
From this point the CD continues through the aforementioned “Old Man Tell Me” through “Desperados Waiting For A Train” and then another chicken-fried Coe composition titled “I Still Sing The Old Songs.” Ancestry and heritage are hallmarks of Southern living, and a life in Dixie shares equal time with ghosts and living beings. Here the ghosts are all around, from Grandpa to Daddy to Mama to Robert E. Lee; the words of every Faulkner antihero swell in unison with the closing stanza:
And I still sing the old songs that you taught me
And I still pray to Jesus now and then
And just like you I wish that He would save me
To see the day the South will rise again
The album closes with the old country standard “The Old Grey Goose Is Dead.”
From there, the tracklist segues neatly into Coe’s Once Upon A Time album, which covers ground much more familiar to the casual listener. There’s “Jody Like A Melody,” “Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)” and the ubiquitous “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” There’s also the quiet but caustic “Another Pretty Country Song,” a snapshot of life on the road that most of us could not survive for more than a week at best.
Well, I’ve got to take a drink to keep from shakin’
Motel rooms ain’t nothin’ like a home
Money can’t make love grow any stronger
When you leave your woman home alone. . .
One of the longer cuts on this disc, the song takes you through the days and nights of an artist successful on the stage and tormented in the dark. Coe finds a way to acknowledge the joy his songs bring to the fans who storm his shows, but he makes it clear that the price of another pretty country song in another roadhouse hell is his own chance at the life the listeners go home to at 2am. And he does so without casting judgment or anger on those fans-he knows they buy the gas to the next town, and he’s addicted to the ride anyway.
Then there’s another original, the haunting “Loneliness In Ruby’s Eyes.” Is it your girlfriend? Your wife? Your ex? Dunno. But I promise you it fits. . .
She does not have the body of the woman I once loved
But she’s still the girl that I once idolized
And, I swear, I see a little bit of every girl I’ve known
In the loneliness of Ruby’s eyes, in the loneliness of Ruby’s eyes
Face it, you know the David Allan Coe jukebox rockers by heart. You know about Jack Daniel’s and Harleys and rhinestones and long hair in places where bikers stare at cowboys who are laughin’ at the hippies who are prayin’ they’ll get out of there alive. You know about please come to Boston and that bottle in his hand. But I wonder if you know the man who wrote the lyrics that basically comprise this long-winded review. I wonder if you know about the soft pedal steel and the strings and the whiskey-scrubbed voice that sings so soft of things but half-remembered. I wonder if you’ve ever really listened.
David Allan Coe was a true redneck son of the South, I’ll grant you that. And yes, I remember the line about workin’ like a nigger for your room and board. I also remember the line from his “Recommended for Airplay” CD, released in 2000, that simply says “Color does not matter, not white red or brown, it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round.” As always, Coe continues traveling the sometimes cosmic arc of his sometimes-troubled sometimes-triumphant life with unabashed vigor. Unafraid to learn, unafraid to grow, unafraid to expand. Maybe like a white dwarf sucking in the oxygen from the hapless matter surrounding it David Allan Coe will one day simply explode from the experience. I don’t know. But as a man born in Arkansas, raised in Texas for years, who later lived in Pennsylvania and has seen the best and worst of both sides of that Mason-Dixon line, I do know this: The pains of Reconstruction remain today, even in the polished and corporate New South of 2001. The suits leave their high-rises at 5pm and scatter to the old dives for okra and collard greens and grits. It’s New because, as should be the case, a black man can now work in those corporate palaces and then eat his dinner next to me and mine without fear or discomfort. It’s the South because an underlying defiance still bubbles and the wish to truly live free in a nation of, by and for the people where states’ rights prevail in matters of government simply will not fade away. It is a culture unique in this land, and for all its shameful past it still embraces a culture that in the end allows a man to be a man in his own stead. No one has a better handle on that South than David Allan Coe, penning songs full of strength and pain and triumph and hunger and defeat and defiance and – – in the final tally – – a hospitality that only comes from fully knowing oneself and accepting your neighbor whether he has found that place or not. It is true that over the years Coe has made his errors, and that his exaggerations and statements from time to time have been bullheaded, wrongheaded, sometimes plain ignorant. That’s also true of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and George Jones, as it was true of Hank and Lefty before. Our country heroes emerge from hardscrabble origins to pen lyrics and melodies that remind us we came from the same, of how our grandparents and daddies and mamas worked all day to make sure we had a shot at beating this cold hard world. Coe belongs in that pantheon of country legends, if not for the few chart-climbing hits he had, for the vast body of work that holds its own in that company but wasn’t widely heard because of simple prejudice- – the very thing enlightened 21st-century intelligentsia claim so often as the reason Coe’s work should be disallowed.
Buy his old CDs and listen for yourself. You make the call. I’ve already made mine on this one, I reckon.
~ 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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