The Terrors of Nashville

Photo by Mitchell Baughman

Back in the mid-1970s, Shoney’s coffee shop on Nashville’s Music Row was an inevitable destination for stars, groupies, fans, and shady promoters who would set up in a booth with a telephone and an electric adding machine. It was the site of numberless escapades (Faron Young reportedly once stripped a waitress’s uniform clean off with a single flourish), but few could rival David Allan Coe making a loaded 10 a.m. entrance — rhinestone suit, shoulder-length hair, tattoos, earrings, and a venomous greeting for any civilian gawker: "What’re you lookin’ at? I’m David Allan Coe, motherfucker!"

Coe is the King Kong of country music, an 800-pound guerrilla so outrageous and seemingly out of place in Nashville that his considerable accomplishment there could have sprung only from skills even the most conservative record exec couldn’t ignore. When he arrived there following his 1967 release from prison — a series of incarcerations had consumed almost a third of his 28 years — Coe set up shop in an old hearse, picking guitar, pitching songs, running with the likes of fellow troublemaker Billy Joe Shaver and generally manifesting the most disorderly destiny Music City ever suffered through.

Ultimately, Coe had great success as a songwriter, enjoyed a very respectable decade or so of his own chart records and traversed an equal stretch of confrontational run-ins with just about anyone who dared to look at him askance. His first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry pretty much sums up his Nashville experience.

"That was quite interesting," says Coe. "I called Bill Anderson to tell him I was cutting his ‘Get a Little Dirt on Your Hands,’ and he said, ‘That’s great — can I sing on it?’ It went to No. 1, so he invited me to guest on the Opry. When I got there, they wouldn’t let me in, just laughed and said, ‘You don’t know Bill Anderson.’ I argued, they finally went and got him, but the guy who was the head at the time took one look at me and said, ‘You know what, Bill? We’re just about out of time on this segment.’ So Bill said, ‘Fine — I just won’t sing today.’ Well, we went on and got two standing ovations. After the show, all the same guys who wouldn’t let me in wanted to have their picture taken with me."

But Coe is more complex than the foulmouthed, Stars and Bars–brandishing wild man who rampages on the bandstand: Born September 6, 1939, in Akron, Ohio, to a Mormon father and an Amish mother (a distinct break from the Southern Baptist background so prominent in country), he was raised in poverty and emotional distress; while his criminality showed early in charges ranging from assault to possession of obscene materials, music was always a significant force. "I grew up with a lot of music — my parents listened to Spike Jones, the Dorsey Brothers, Bessie Smith. Then I got into R&B very heavily — Jimmy Reed, Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland. And that was what I started cutting."

"Blues Unlimited voted my Penitentiary Blues album best of the year — they didn’t even know I was white. I was on tour with B.B. King, and he told me, ‘David, you are the best white blues singer in the world, but nobody wants to hear a white boy sing the blues.’ Then I met Kris [Kristofferson], and I just started writing more country-type songs. I liked bluegrass and old-style country, but I didn’t write them kind of songs. I wanted to have something more to say — ‘Jack Daniel’s if You Please’ was a far cry from what was on the radio at the time."

Coe’s work covers an extraordinary spectrum. "Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone)" is a superb example of his metaphorical poetics; written for his brother’s wedding, it assumed a new dimension of psychosexual gravity when 15-year-old Tanya Tucker took it to No. 1. "Longhaired Redneck" is a stream-of-consciousness glimpse at survival in the honky-tonks. The plainspoken commonality of "Take This Job and Shove It" resonated with millions. "Heaven Only Knows" is a bleak update of the broken-family ballad (daughter works in porn, son OD’s, wife dead). And Coe sits on a hundred equally powerful explorations.

Yet his lurid reputation always precedes him; his between-song patter does, after all, feature more motherfuckers than a Wu-Tang Clan show. "I’ve been a member of the CMA for 30 years, and they never once asked me to be a presenter," says Coe. "When I won a Grammy for ‘Take This Job and Shove It,’ they just sent it to me, wouldn’t even invite me to the show." Now 65, Coe still works about 49 weeks a year, drives his own bus, sells out most every date, and always delivers a mesmerizing display of the raucous and the profound. He has little choice but to play the road slave — the rights to his prime songs were lost in a bankruptcy proceeding, and the catalog was sold: "They sent me the first check by mistake. It was for $38,000." Asked to speculate on what lies ahead, Coe responds with one-percenter pragmatism: "I tell everybody the same thing — I just hope there is a future."

Shaver: Eddy, we hardly knew ye. Photo by Sarah Jorgensen

Billy Joe Shaver followed a similar, even more troubled route of drunkenness and brawling, but the self-promotional M.O. of this brilliant singer-songwriter, composer of "Honky Tonk Heroes" among many others, was far more aggressive. Ambushing song publishers on the street to demand they sign him, crashing into Waylon Jennings’ recording sessions and threatening to kick his ass for not cutting his songs, Shaver became a legendary annoyance. He eventually gained recognition as one of country’s most artful craftsmen, and when he joined forces with his long-estranged son, Eddy, in the early ’90s, the result was some outstanding music. Eddy’s pyrotechnical, Dickie Betts–inspired guitar work and the scarcely adorned beauty of Joe’s lyrics elevated their work to a singular altitude. But Eddy’s fatal New Year’s Eve 2000 heroin overdose seemed a down-for-the-count blow.

Shaver took it head-on, resurrecting the solo tracks Eddy had been working on and completing them with his own newly written lyrics. The result, Billy & the Kid, is an unprecedented masterpiece of raw emotion and metallurgic guitar expression, signifying not just the agony of loss and a quest for personal resolution, but an almost metaphysical dialogue that at times seems to bring together our waking life and the unknown realm awaiting. Not exactly the most comfortable territory to visit, but it’s tempered with a successful if unusual mixture of two different, highly creative minds that emphasizes the strengths of each.

Billy & the Kid’s postmortem nature thrusts the listener into a shadowy landscape lit by a guttering torch that reveals glimpses of father and son, two lost souls reaching for a mutual point of contact. When Shaver sings, "In the spirit world I see him with his crown of solid gold . . . God only knows why I’m still living . . .," he generates not just an empathic response, but a tremendously effective musical depth and atmosphere. Alternating aesthetic delicacy and guitar swagger, the pair’s ultimate collaboration is at once a stern warning and an uplifting celebration, a confluence of dark circumstance and illuminative passion that is altogether remarkable.

David Allan Coe plays the Key Club on Thursday, December 16.


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