By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Troy Farah
By Roger Calamaio
By Mark Deming
By Glenn BurnSilver
By Brian Palmer
When a white man writes and publishes a song with the N-word in the title, the racist label tends to, you know, stick.
Tell it to David Allan Coe. For three decades, the 70-year-old country music bad boy has stubbornly disavowed any feelings of ill will toward blacks, despite authoring the 1982 poison pen ballad in question. His explanation: The N-word was just something he started using in prison, while fraternizing with black inmates. A term of endearment, you see.
It sounds like bunk, and it probably is, but Coe — most famous for writing the 1978 crossover country smash "Take This Job and Shove It" — is probably not a race-hater of any meaningful conviction. No, he's something else, something less monstrous and arguably less interesting:
He's a taboo-breaker, a provocateur. He's the 2 Live Crew of country singers, and if that marginalizes his accomplishments, well, them's the breaks.
Coe started his songwriting career while incarcerated in the Ohio State Reformatory in the late '60s, back when it was still considered avant-garde to write lyrics that glorified the born-to-lose lifestyle. He was a bluesman at the time, but his debut album, Penitentiary Blues (1969), borrowed heavily from the "outlaw" country aesthetic that would carry him to fame.
His follow-up effort, the politically charged psychedelic concept album Requiem for a Harlequin (1970), is a stylistic aberration, but it presaged Coe's fondness for the outré and counter-establishment. Here we see an Afro-wearing Coe honoring the birth of soul music, ranting against the KKK, and commiserating with other children of the "concrete jungle." It was Coe's Black Panther audition tape, his stab at radical chic.
Coe successfully reinvented himself as a country-outlaw guy during the '70s, culminating in "Take This Job and Shove It," which went to the top of the charts behind the singing of country crooner Johnny Paycheck. Tame by today's standards, the song was the "Me So Horny" of the economically dispirited late '70s. It was a funny, refreshingly ribald anthem that nailed the zeitgeist.
With the idealism and social upheaval of the '60s and early '70s now a matter of record, Coe started mapping out his next big "fuck you" to the mainstream, and it was, even by his own admission, a minor disaster. In 1978 and 1982, respectively, Coe released his so-called X-rated albums: Nothing Sacred and Underground Album, a pair of wildly vulgar white-trash manifestos in which the singer goofed on pornography ("Linda Lovelace"), sexual politics ("Pussy Whipped Again"), blowjobs ("Don't Bite the Dick"), and whatever else happened to peek out of his id — including the racist stuff.
The X-rated albums sold poorly, got him banned in several cities, and were quietly suppressed in favor of less crass songwriting, but they remain Coe's essential work. After all, this is a guy who still greets adoring audiences by flipping them off. Crassness is his thing. He didn't get famous by writing great songs — have you heard "Take This Job" lately? It's got no hook, no tone, nothing but an empowering lyric — the musicalization of the "fuck all" mentality. As such, it's hard to tell where his true sympathies lie. One moment he's telling anti-gay activist Anita Bryant where to stick it with the aptly titled track "Fuck Anita Bryant." The next, he's recycling the old yarn about how he killed a guy in prison for wanting a blowjob.
If Coe had been born a generation later, I think he would have gravitated toward the various "core" movements, with their florid misanthropies and loser-brotherhood mindset. And just as I doubt that horrorcore rap mainstays Insane Clown Posse really kill people with axes, I doubt that Coe is a white supremacist.
However, I do believe that Coe/ICP would make a righteous double bill. Maybe there's a spot for him at next year's Gathering of the Juggalos. 2 Live Crew went once.