THE ORIGINAL OUTLAW: DAVID ALLAN COE
by Michael Buffalo Smith
Let’s face it, David Allan Coe defies categorization. For three decades, Coe has performed virtually every type of American music known, from country to hip hop. And he always does it on his own terms. The last of the original outlaws, Coe has served as an inspiration to a whole new breed of outlaw rock and country artists like Kid Rock. Besides being a singer, songwriter and guitarist, David is also a magician, deep sea treasure hunter and movie star. His movies include Stagecoach, The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James, Lady Grey, Buckstone County Prison and Take This Job and Shove It, to mention a few. David signed with SUN Records in 1968 and recorded his first album Penitentiary Blues, containing all songs that he wrote in prison. In 1973 Columbia Records bought David's contract from Sun and he recorded his first album The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy (several years before Glen Campbell had a hit with the song "Rhinestone Cowboy.")
Just a few of David’s many accomplishments include playing Farm Aid and touring with Neil Young, Willie Nelson and the aforementioned Mr. Rock.
David's song "Take This Job and Shove It" has received a Million Airplays Certificate from BMI. His Greatest Hits album was certified platinum and his First Ten Years is gold. He has had sixty-three songs on the Billboard Singles Charts, including "Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile," "The Ride," "Please Come to Boston," "Willie, Waylon and Me," "Jack Daniels If You Please" and "You Never Even Call Me By My Name." He has written songs for Johnny Paycheck, Tanya Tucker, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Charlie Louvin, Del Reeves, Tammy Wynette, Melba Montgomery, Stoney Edwards, The Oak Ridge Boys and Kid Rock. Both "Would You Lay With Me" and "Take This Job and Shove It" are million seller songs penned by David. Johnny Cash recorded David's songs including "Would You Lay With Me." His tour schedule is a neverending list of sold out shows. He performs both country and rock shows depending on the venue. David also plays in many casinos where he does his Las Vegas-type shows. If you ask David what he does he will likely tell you he is a songwriter, followed closely thereafter by “an entertainer.”
GRITZ spoke to David about his rich musical history, his friends and the Coe-Pop Records label he founded with friend Steve Popovich.
Tell us for people that might not know, where you were born and raised?
I was born in Akron, Ohio and spent most of my youth in reform schools and penitentiaries. By the time I was 9 years old I had been in prison for two years.
Who were your earliest musical influences, or those that made you want to get into doing music?
Oh, well my musical influences span a pretty big horizon. My Mother was a singer and she was into the big band thing so through her I grew up listening to Glen Miller, Spike Jones and Tommy Dorsey and that kind of music. Then I got involved myself with Bobby Blue Bland and Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Reed and Howlin’ Wolf, mostly blues singers. Then I got involved with groups like Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and then Hank later on became one of my best friends. Then I listened to group music, and of course I went through the Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis phase. It’s kind of funny because I was never a country music fan, or person, until I went to Nashville and then that is when I got involved in the history of country music and I learned about all of those people and everyone from Lula Bell to Bill Monroe and I was involved in bluegrass music. I don’t think that there is much of any kind of music that I have not been involved in, except for opera. In my early days, Willie Nelson, Waylon and I were managed by the man who managed Miles Davis. We were big into Miles’ music. I was in prison with Sonny Logan Rollins, a great saxophone player and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. My musical influences just spanned such a wide range. Then, of course, these days, being in the music business, involved like I am, as a songwriter I have become aware of so many different kinds of people singing my songs. Like I never knew who The Dead Kennedys were and then they covered “Take This Job and Shove It.” Then I did an album with Pantera and started getting into the heavy metal scene. Then I wrote some songs with Kid Rock and went out there with Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker and wrote songs with them and got involved in that kind of stuff there. There has been a wide range of musical experience.
Just about everybody.
Yeah, that is why my songs and music are so different. I am not stuck in any one style of music.
That is what definitely makes you “one of a kind.” I have been listening to your stuff for so long. How did you first hook up with Kid Rock? Didn’t he just cut one of your songs?
He cut two of my songs on his newest album. So did Uncle Kracker. I met Kid Rock through my oldest son, Tyler, who plays in my band now. He is 19 now, but when he was 15, I was a single father and he traveled on the bus with me. He read in a heavy metal magazine that Kid Rock said that I was his favorite songwriter in the world. So I called my management company and asked them to call his management company and give them my phone number. He called me the next day and we talked for about an hour on the phone and we just happened to be going to Detroit and he came out to the show and he invited us out to his house. We stayed there for about three days and wrote some songs. He has a studio in his home. Then he asked me to go on tour with him and we have been friends ever since.
You guys have been collaborating on some good rock and roll music. “59 Cadillac/57 Chevrolet” rocks out!
Yeah, that is a good song, and “Reckless” is another song that we wrote together. Both of those are on the Live from Billy Bob’s thing. Then he and I and Kracker wrote “Free My Mind.”
Oh, I liked that because you mentioned The Marshall Tucker Band in the song.
Oh yeah. Oh, yeah. Definitely.
Jumping back a little bit, I wanted to ask you about where you originally came up with the idea of the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy.
Well, I guess I have to blame it on Mel Tillis. I met him when I first went to Nashville and he had an office down on Music Row. I was over there talking to him in his office and he opened up the closet to get something and he had a whole closet full of rhinestone suits. I just freaked out on that.
He looked at me and said “You like that shit, I don’t even wear those, if you want ‘em take ‘em!” He gave me those rhinestone suits and I wore them everywhere. Then I got the mysterious rhinestone thing from my father. He asked me,”You know the only way that The Lone Ranger can go into town? I said, “No I don’t know what you mean.” He said that he has to take his mask off. I thought, what is my dad talking about and trying to tell me? He said, “Well son, you have to wear a mask and then when you don’t want to be David Allan Coe you can take your mask off and go anywhere and not be like Elvis with people messin’ with you all the time.”
That’s how that came about. I wore the mask for the first two years. I wanted people to like the music rather than me personally. It seems like over the years everyone writes about me rather than about the music.
Yeah, focusing on personality rather than the music. Well, I am trying to touch on a little bit of all of it. Your songwriting is astounding and I am still waiting for them to put you in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I don’t understand why that has not happened yet.
I am in the Walkway of Stars, they have me in that. But I have never been asked about the songwriting. Nashville has always been kind of shitty to me. I was nominated for a grammy award for “Take This Job and Shove It” and they sent it to me in the mail and didn’t even invite me to the Grammy Awards. I have been a member of CMA for almost 40 years and they have never asked me to even be a presenter at one of their award shows.
This leads me to the next question. It seems like you have been more on the outside of that Nashville establishment, on the fringe. Do you think that has helped or hurt your career more?
Well, I don’t know but there have been some people in Nashville that has been very good to me. People like Ralph Emery. Ralph was great. Bill Anderson is another and Marty Robbins and Minnie Pearl were awful good to me. They all helped me along the way and they were interested in the music rather than anything else. Ernest Tubb was very good tome as well.
Speaking of the music, tell us about “Take This Job and Shove It.” Is it true that Paycheck kind of snubbed you on national TV and didn’t give you any accolades or anything. How did that happen?
Yeah, I mean even when the guy died it said Johnny Paycheck “The Working Man’s Hero” and it didn’t say anything about me writing the song.
Tell us about the incident on the Tonight Show.
Yeah, at that time my mother had Alzheimer’s disease and then it got much worse and she eventually lived to be 103. When she was having a good day and called me to tell me that Johnny Paycheck was on TV and singing my song. The thing about my mom was that when I was in prison for 20 something years, she was the only one that stuck by me. All her relatives told her to leave that boy alone and he would never amount to anything. She used to say “someday that boy will prove y'all all wrong.” She was the one that stuck with me. She called all the people at the hospital and told everybody to watch because her son’s song was being sung on TV.
I think it was on Johnny Carson, or Joey Bishop, one of those guys asked him who wrote the song and he said he didn’t know but it was “some guy in Nashville. Then, on another show I heard him say that he got the idea from his grandfather for the song.
I didn’t even know you were his grandfather. (laughs)
(Laughs) I don’t even know his grandfather!
I didn’t talk with him for years and then when he went to prison, me and my band, which is now called Confederate Railroad but they were the David Allan Coe Band at that time and I had been in that prison and knew the warden. I called him and asked him if I could come in and do a show for the convicts and that I wanted to call Paycheck out of the audience and get him up to sing with me but that I didn’t want him to know we were going to do it. So, we did that. Then, not long after that I read a story that he went in to the warden and he got permission for me to come in there and all that stuff. (laughs) He must have had a little man’s complex or something.
I didn’t know about Confederate Railroad being your band. Those are some good guys.
Yeah, that was my band for years.
With all the songs that you have written, could you tell me a couple of your personal favorites that mean the most to you?
Songs that mean a lot to me are not necessarily the big hit songs. “Jody Like a Melody” is probably one of my favorite songs because as a songwriter, up until I had written that song, I had been writing songs in three chords you know, real simple stuff. In that song I wrote the string arrangements and key changes and everything, you know. It opened up a lot of doors for me. That same day I wrote "Jody Like a Melody,” “Would You Lay With Me In a Field of Stone,” and “Would You Be My Lady.”
In the same day you wrote those?
Those are a couple of my favorite songs you have written. You have also done a lot of songs that have been written by other people. Like “Please Come to Boston.” What are some of your favorites?
I like to interpret other people’s songs and over the years I have done several things that I have considered to be pretty good. On King Records I have got an album out called Johnny Cash Is a Friend of Mine and I did all of John’s songs and I did an album called Ghost of Hank Williams which is a song I wrote about Hank, and then I did all of Hank’s songs. Then I did David Allan Coe sings Merle Haggard, and I did all Merle Haggard songs. As a songwriter over the years I have always found some great songs.
Here’s a question out of left field, this is something I would like for you to put into your own words for anyone who might say that David Allan Coe is prejudiced or racist, what would you say?
Anyone that would look at me and say I was a racist would have to be out of their mind. I have dreadlocks down to my waist with earrings in both ears and my beard is down to my waist and it is in braids. People that read my books or whatever can see how I talk about living with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and we had an apartment together and I have a whole big feature story on him in my book. I lived next door to Charley Pride. I am a songwriter, you know, and to me it has always bothered me that actors in the movies can say whatever they want to say, kill people, rape people and do things and no one ever accuses them personally of being that way. But when you write a song and then all of a sudden you are being accused of something. To me, songwriting is painting a picture and all you have to work with is words. In my new DVD I tell a story in there that there are certain things that I grew up with all my life hearing, “lazy as a Mexican,” “stingy as a Jew,” “working like a nigger,” or “dumb as a Polock.” It’s stereotype stuff that you hear growing up that immediately puts a
picture in your head. Being in prison for 20 something years, when I first got out I didn’t even know I was white. I was in prison with 87% black people and I hung around with black people and learned to sing music with black people. It was ironic that in prison the white guys called me a “nigger lover” and now I write the word “nigger” in a song and I am all of a sudden a racist. It is pretty ironic.
Did I hear that you got your beads from Bob Marley or did I just dream that?
When Willie Nelson and I were over in Europe I was there at the time Nelson Mandela got out of prison and we were going to the large party they were having in celebration. Jermaine Jackson, Michael’s brother, came over in a limo to pick us up and take us over there and then we went to Bob Marley’s place and hung out with him and he was just very impressive to me. The things that he said in his music and the beliefs he had were admirable.
If you had to pick a couple of highlights of your career so far, what would you say?
Being on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Anderson as his guest. That was very important. And being on tour with Kid Rock, that was an important thing. Willie Nelson’s Farm Aids and Picnics were special in my life, and then the movies. Meeting my friends Kris Kristofferson, who is of course one of my best friends. Between him and Johnny Cash and Waylon and writing the liner notes for Johnny Cash’s album, that was a big deal in my life as well as singing a duet with Johnny Cash. There have been many great things.
What album was that duet on?
On Johnny’s album, Precious Memories -- I wrote the liner notes on that album and wrote a a song called “Cocaine Carolina,” for John and he and I sang it together.
Could you give me some of your thoughts on the state of the music industry today? Tie that in with who you like to listen nowadays.
I am not too involved in the business part of the music business. But I know that my partner Uncle Kracker and Kenny Chesney have the number one country record in the world and it has been number one for three weeks in a row. It is called “When The Sun Goes Down.” I think it is great that these people like Toby Keith and Willie did “Whiskey For My Men, Beer For My Horses.” Then Kid Rock and all my rock and roll friends are getting involved in country music. Some of the music that I like is a band called CKY -- and I like Edwin McCain.
He’s from right here in Greenville and has a studio about a mile from here. He is involved in a music studio here and does countless shows for charity. He is a good songwriter.
Yeah, I think he is a great songwriter. I think that Dolly Parton is one of the most underrated songwriters of the world. People get hung up on what she looks like and I don’t think they see what a talented songwriter she is. Emmylou Harris is a great interpreter of songs. Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Billy Jo Shaver are some of my favorite songwriters.
We had Billy Joe on the cover this time last year and sold all the magazines out. I am a big fan of Shaver, too as far as songwriters. I wanted to ask you about Warren Haynes and any fond memories of him playing in your band?
I got Warren fresh out of high school and he was with me for about 7-8 years. He is a good person and great guitar player. I have read several articles where he gives me credit that if it hadn’t been for David Allan Coe I would have never gotten into the Allman Brothers because David knew Dickey Betts and Gregg Allman and he called them up and got me an audition with them.
I can vouch for that because I had done an interview about Gov’t Mule for Goldmine magazine and he said that very thing.
I was one of the first people to cut one of his songs. As a songwriter he had not had anyone cut one of his songs.
Do you remember which song it was?
Yeah, I think it is called “I Don’t Want To Be a Memory.”
There is another guy that I wanted to ask you about that played with you, Mr. Ray Brand.
He is a great guy.
I told him that I was going to interview you and he wanted me to say hello to you. Can you sum it up on the kind of musician he is?
Well, he is a great guitar player, dedicated and serious and practiced a lot. Like all my guitar players. Warren, Ray, they all were different and had their own style. They pretty much had their on thing going. Ray never made it sound like a bar band.
Let me ask you about The Songwriter of the Tear album...
Well, Songwriter of the Tear to me is a great album. The songs that I have written in the last five to ten years, I don’t think that you can find a bad song. Not being with a major record label now it is hard to get the radio to play your music. But that was an album radio could have played. It's on the Coe-Pop label.
It seems like now that Clear Channel is buying up lots of radio it is hard to get anything played on the air. It seems like the internet has helped people find out about a lot of good music, too.
Some people have been talking to me about doing a radio show live from my tour bus.
That would be cool. A couple of your friends that passed away recently were a couple of my real heroes, give me just a little brief thought on Waylon and then Johnny Cash.
Well, right before Waylon died, I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and we had gotten put on a show with him. Waylon had gotten there late and they pushed him onstage in a wheelchair and he couldn’t hold his guitar and he couldn’t play it. I spent some time talking with him and then he had his leg amputated and I knew after that he wouldn’t last long. Who would have ever thought he would have been one of the first one of us to go. Like Willie says you would have thought Waylon would have been one of the last of us to go.
Johnny’s death is a heartbreaker. I am a gambler and when I am gambling I play slot machines and everyone that works with me knows when I am playing not to bother me. One day I was playing the machines and my girlfriend Kimberly came down and she said, “Honey, your daughter Tonya just called and said that Johnny Cash just died.” I started crying and had to leave and then I went up and called my management company to find out when the funeral was. They had not heard anything about him dying. They called his sister and he said that he was very much alive. Then I called my daughter and asked her and she said that she was at a friend’s house and saw it on TV. What they actually saw was the guy that owned Sun Records, Sam Phillips had died but they had put Johnny Cash’s picture up and people just assumed that Johnny Cash had died. So when he really did die, I was already prepared for it because I had already been through it!
One of your songs I always liked was on the Son of the South record called “Gemini Girl.” My wife is one and I just wanted some comments on gemini girls from you.
You know Hank, Jr. is a gemini. Not a girl, but a gemini. That song was about one of the weirdest relationships that I was ever in -- with the gemini person. I never was able to catch onto the whole “twin thing.” You have to understand that when they are one, they are not the other.
(Laughs) How well I know. What sign are you?
I am a Virgo.
What is on the board now that you can tell us about in your career?
I have my own company called Coe-Pop Records and I am in partnership with Steve Popovich from Cleveland International Records. He is an old friend of mine. We have something going called the David Allan Coe Presents series; we have a Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, Roger Miller, Joe Tex, Conway Twitty and getting ready to do a Little Jimmy Dickens and Roy Acuff. Then I have my first audio book out called Woopsy Daisy and it is on the Coe-Pop Records label as well. I don’t sing, but just talk about growing up in the '50s and different things.
Thanks for the interview David.
Yeah, I wouldn’t do this for just anybody. I came up off the slot machines to do this. (laughs)