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When he first began playing his redneck-meets-white-boy's-blues in the late Sixties, David Allan Coe billed himself as "The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy." He wore a mask and refused to reveal his true identity. Critics, naturally, dismissed the hulking, bearded, bemasked, country-grit singer as cheap gimmickry. But Coe maintained he was simply forcing his audiences to accept--or reject--his music on its own twangy terms, without being prejudiced by the man.
He was serious. And he had his reasons.
Although the Outlaw movement was said to have been born with Willie Nelson's landmark Red Headed Stranger album in 1975--with Waylon Jennings and wife Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser and Willie as its most visible constituents--David Allan Coe will be happy to correct those who subscribe to this most errant notion.
"I did it," Coes says slowly, deeply, without apparent rancor, during a phone interview from his Nashville hotel room. "I was singing that stuff for years. I was living it for years. Willie, Waylon--they just got more famous.
"I was the original outlaw," says David Allan Coe.
As usual, Coe speaks without blinking, with the same bluntness that, then and now, makes the cheap suits in Music City totally nonplussed. But, truth be told, two of Coe's more infamous songs--Long-Haired Redneck" and his anthemic "You Never Even Called Me by My Name"--were released in the same year. And while Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings--both longtime pals of Coe's--knew how to work the paneled rooms along Music Row, David Allan Coe wasn't compromising for nobody. And unlike Willie and Waylon, he had a r‚sum‚ that proved his claim as the Real McCoy of the country-music bad boys.
In fact, in the wee Seventies, Coe spent a spell riding a Harley by day with an Outlaws motorcycle chapter and playing honky-tonks at night--he asserts that that is how the alternative-country genre got its tag. Even more than the carefully scruffy Nelson and Jennings, Coe very much looked the part. He had heavy-metal long hair, a big beard, earrings and tattoos. Lots of them. Not those multihued, artsy-fartsy renderings of butterflies and whatnot, but a bodyful of crude, telltale, bluish inkings. The kind you get in prison.
Coe spent nearly two decades behind bars, much of it in an Ohio penitentiary. The exact reasons, as related by David Allan Coe, for his incarceration have varied over the years. He currently says something about burglary tools and bad behavior, but wants now to de-emphasize past claims of having killed a man in the pen.
"I was never convicted of anything like that," is all he'll say these days.
Coe was released in 1967. Then came his two-year career as the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy--a moniker his legion of fans still reverently employ. Once he found that his music was working, however, off came the mask and on came the legend-making. He rode onstage on his Harley and openly boasted of having nine wives (at once). With all that hair, beard and tattoos and that mean-looking curl about his upper lip, he nurtured the reputation as a don't-mess-with kind of dude. In short, he was not the kind of clean-cut country boy that would pass a traditional Nashville muster.
But his 1970 album Penitentiary Blues caught the ears of the likes of Willie and Waylon. The album successfully transformed the grim events of Coe's confinement into a raw, growling collection of hard-core, Caucasian-country blues. In addition to admiring his deep, dark delivery, those in the know--and willing to overlook his foreboding presence--also recognized his writing abilities. In 1973, Tanya Tucker launched her career with Coe's haunting ballad, "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)?". Later, Johnny Paycheck cashed in with the now-infamous "Take This Job and Shove It"--which was also recently covered by the Dead Kennedys--and Dave Loggins took his personal 15 minutes of fame with Coe's beautiful "Please Come to Boston."
Of course, Coe will forever be known for his jukebox standard, the Steve Goodman-penned "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." You know how it goes: "Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison . . ." In all, Coe managed 26 albums for Columbia and more than two score in toto, spawning such hits as "Jack Daniels if You Please" (many bars where he plays still pour free shots of the black-labeled beverage when he sings it), the tender "Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile," and his last chart-topper, 1985's "The Ride," a gee-tar-string bender wherein he picks up an ethereal hitchhiker who turns out to be the late Hank Williams, a true Coe hero.
His shows were the stuff of legend, however self-made. He often wore elaborate costumes--bishop's robes, pirate drag, etc.--and would also color his hair (he's currently a stone blond). A memorable visit to PBS's Austin City Limits found Coe doing a fun and absolutely funky Motown medley. His inspired rendition of "My Girl" brought down the house. His inimitable stage work earned him the allegiance of many in his business. Among others, Guns N' Roses' Axl Rose has called Coe his "all-time favorite artist."
About a year before "The Ride" hit, however, the cumulative effect of three failed marriages with a fourth foundering badly, bankruptcy, a reputation as a bar brawler and the constant pitched battle with Nashville finally felled the big outlaw.