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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.
"I had a nervous breakdown," Coe admits simply, slowly. "I was living for months in a field in Big Water, Utah, totally lost, not talking to anyone. I had nothing." The always-inventive Coe, who is--no fooling--an accomplished magician, just couldn't conjure up a way out on his own, and he credits friends with rescuing him.
"June Carter Cash got a message to me," Coe relates. "It said that if I didn't call her or someone within three hours, she was sending the FBI in after me." But, truly, what put him back on track was his gradual realization that it was all right for the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy to share his life with wife Jody Lynn.
"I'd always loved her, but I had run from that love," Coe says frankly. "I was afraid to admit I couldn't make it without her."
It would take all of Jody Lynn's personal strength and business savvy--she runs all of the Coes' various ventures, including a publishing company and record label--to carry her husband through the next few, fragile years. After a couple of post-Ride" albums, Columbia dumped David Allan Coe, and he's been without a major-label contract since.
Perhaps the most devastating blow came just about a month ago, when the televised Country Music Association Celebration of Country Music--the latest in a pathetic series of Nashville's chicken-choking self-love fests--tapped John Anderson to perform "The Ride" in its tribute to Hank Williams. The slight shook Coe, who, since having been plucked from the wilds of Utah, has vowed to be a kinder, gentler Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy.
He's become the model father he'd always thought he could be--the Family Coe numbers six, with two of the four kids coming from one of his previous marriages. He's moved his clan to healthy-as-heck Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, and has performed magic and music in Branson. The Harleys are garaged. He's made a musicless videotape about his magic, which he continues to sell on the road--along with a couple of self-produced albums and his self-published novel, Psychopath.
Coe claims that despite its title, his novel is not autobiographical. Coe says that while in prison, his gym teacher was the celebrated Dr. Sam Sheppard, who in the Sixties was imprisoned for murdering his wife. According to Coe, Sheppard claimed to have seen a bushy-haired man wearing a ski mask running from his home. About a decade later, Sheppard was released for having had his rights violated, and died a couple of years later from cancer. The main character in Psychopath is based upon the man Sheppard says killed his wife.
In short, David Allan Coe is working harder than ever.
But Nashville is as long of memory as it is stunted of heart. Coe knows this, and wants to cool his Outlaw image as much as possible.
"I'm 53 years old, have a family to support, and I've made all the stands a man can make," Coe declares. "I've made up my mind to become a commercial success as a writer, singer, producer and everything else. I plan to achieve against all the odds. A year from now, I'll be at the awards shows."
Such a feat--for Coe or anyone else at such an age--would certainly be an odds-buster. Coe's favorite hobby is gambling--mostly horses and slots--and he's never been a fool. He knows the tenor in Nashville. Accordingly, he's tempered his vitriolic condemnation of that place a great deal--at least by Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy standards.
"There's not a lot of originality there," he says calmly, coolly. "It's been sold to Japan and New York. Lately, they've taken to creating stars out of nobodies. They've made a bunch of Fabians. It's all marketing. There are some great young artists, of course--Joe Diffie, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, my old band, Confederate Railroad, are the real thing. But all the older artists have been frozen out. Hell, most of those youngsters think Lefty Frizzell was a baseball player."
Despite his assertions that he is a changed man, there's evidence that some of the smoldering genius of the old Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy is back. The self-produced work of the past few years has largely been a failed exploration of sweetness and light. Those who remember Coe with his all-female band, the houses packed with bikers and the remarkable, unpredictable shows may have been put off by some of his recent work.
But band bassist Mike Graham provides some insight which suggests that the Mysterious magician has a trick or two still up his sleeve. The new album--available at his shows--contains " . . . that old, bad-ass David Allan Coe stuff." Called Standing Too Close to the Flame, this is the rambunctious, challenging Coe of old, especially the soon-to-be classics "Lead Me Not Into Temptation (I Can Get There by Myself)" and the hard-guitar "Desperate Man." Graham provides further evidence that David Allan Coe, despite protestations to the contrary, still walks to the beat of a different drummer. Well, so to speak.
"When our drummer [longtime Coe stickman Kevin Hudson] got sick, David simply decided not to replace him. Our tour motto is 'Drum-Free in 93.'" Of course, this is the same group that, when its 11-foot-tall equipment truck failed to successfully limbo a ten-foot overpass, began calling it the "No Clearance Tour."
Coe doesn't particularly like being compared with the Outlaw of old. But he knows, too, that garnering commercial success in Nashville will be no easy task.
"I'm working real hard to make it happen," Coe says, "but I know it ain't going to be a walk. It would've happened before. Willie and those guys who made all the money really aren't musically any better. They're just a little more controllable." He pauses briefly.
"I just could never really be that way.