David Allan Coe’s stained legacy
When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy,” wrote William Hazlitt, “it ceases to be a subject of interest.” Apply that maxim to country music legend David Allan Coe, and you’ll get a mixed bag of love and hate. At one extreme, you have the guy who wrote Tanya Tucker’s tender love song, “Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone).” At the other end you have songs like “Masturbation Blues” and “N*gg*r Fucker,” just a couple titles from Underground (1978) and Nothing Sacred (1982) — two albums that, despite their obscurity (you could only order them from the back of Easyriders magazine), stained him with a racist reputation he still can’t shake. Out of print today, bootleg discs are fetching a hot nickel. (A used copy of Nothing Sacred lists on Amazon for $199, while Underground is going for $75. One reviewer wrote, “I was a little confused when it arrived in the mail with more warning labels than the anarchist cook book [sic].”)
So inflammatory was the language that in 2000, New York Times writer Neil Strauss felt compelled to call them “among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.” A wave of accusations followed, pegging Coe as a white supremacist, a label he still defiantly rejects. Refuting the charges, he pointed out that his drummer, Kerry Brown (son of late blues great Clarence Gatemouth Brown) was black and married to a white woman. Moreover, he asked why he was condemned for pushing the envelope with creative license while Eminem was praised for similar explicit lyrics.
It’s a good question. And whether you like his music or not, you have to respect the kind of blunt candor expressed by someone who feels no shame wailing on an electric guitar emblazoned with a Confederate flag. And aside from his ever-growing fan base, Coe’s industry peers appreciate him unconditionally. Guitar great Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule fame cut his teeth as Coe’s lead guitarist from 1980 to 1984, and Johnny Cash recorded “Would You Lay With Me” in Rick Rubin’s living room for his final album. Meanwhile, Coe’s most recent achievement was more than 10 years ago when he joined heavy metal guitar god Dimebag Darrell Abbott, along with Vinnie Paul and Rex Brown from Pantera, for Rebel Meets Rebel, which fused Coe together with the most popular hardcore metal band of the day, creating a country-metal hybrid that had the critics singing praise while the slingers slung their mud. (The group recorded the album from 1999 to 2003 but didn’t release anything until 2006, after Abbott’s death.)
Not that you’re gonna hear any of those X-rated songs streamlining the radio dial anyway. Or even anything else from Coe’s repertoire for that matter. At least not in the Clear Channel galaxy. You can’t put a bearded hillbilly freak with muddy tattooed sleeves side-by-side with lady-inwhite Taylor Swift without some confusion. If you want to hear Coe on the radio — aside from his hits “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and “Take This Job and Shove It” — your best bet is Sirius Outlaw Country, which embraces him wholeheartedly as the cultural architect he is. Especially Mojo Nixon, the controversial DJ whose anthem is Coe’s “If That Ain’t Country (You Can Kiss My Ass).”
As an American cultural phenomenon, Outlaw Country was born in the 1970s, when fringy songs about prison, hell-raising and bad women birthed this particular strain of country music as a genre in its own right. But it was country music Hall of Famer David Allan Coe with his rhinestone suit, Cadillac hearse and ex-con stature who gave it the mean-streets texture. Incarcerated for everything from car theft to armed robbery over the years, one of Coe’s main boasts is his 20-odd years spent in reform schools and prisons since age nine — a persona that gelled his status as country music’s hardcore mantelpiece.
So why tour now? There may not be a new record, but he’s one of the last outlaw country legends of that generation still touring. And with 26 albums’ worth of wide-ranging material to pick from, the 71-year-old beer-gutted crooner certainly won’t be phoning it in. He has too much respect for both his fans and a hardearned dollar to cheat them of what they came for.
Coe is an entertainer in the old-school sense, and, finally rolling into the late-career acclaim that so often befalls country stars-turned-icon, he’s living proof that for the next generation, there’s still plenty of ore to be discovered and mined.
On the Bill
Allan Coe plays the Grizzly Rose on Friday, April 2. Doors at 6 p.m.
Must be 18 to enter. Tickets are $12 to $15. 5450 N. Valley Highway,
Denver, 303-295- 1330