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August 19, 2008

'If it ain't country' ...

Before the concert last Friday at Expo Five, a buddy and I sat down at the Old Taylor Bar in Shively. As we sang along with a few David Allan Coe hits from the juke and watched Team USA dismantle the competition in women’s gymnastic floor exercises, I continued to wonder why country music matters to me. 

What is it that I actually identify with? I’m not a cowboy. I rode a horse once in my life and had to pee the whole time. It was terribly uncomfortable. When I was young, my dad said, “Don’t get any tattoos, and don’t ride motorcycles.”

This one swift and efficient papal bull basically hobbled my prospects of becoming an outlaw. I am lactose-intolerant and mildly germaphobic. Not exactly a good ol’ boy. And I love country music. 

My tastes, placed on a spectrum, start with the weakling milquetoast country-politan of Eddy Arnold and end somewhere within sniffing distance of the burning oil-drum smells of Outlaw country, where David Allan Coe staked his claim, with heavy company, after many years of trying to find a home.

www.officialdavidallancoe.com: David Allan Coe in an undated live shot.
www.officialdavidallancoe.com: David Allan Coe in an undated live shot.

I’ve listened to DAC’s big hits. I’ve seen some amazing concert footage of him in the early days, an interview with him from the mid-70s, and I went to one concert. Even with this minimal exposure, a person would have to be dense to miss the fact that Coe is one incredibly complex mercurial cracker and, if you’re given to sympathy, something of a tragic figure whose popular work only partially defines him. 

He has been a bigot.

He has been a misogynist.

He was in and out of prison for 20 years from age 9.

He has written some amazing songs.

He killed a guy.

He is a big-ass redneck. 

Coe is an actual outlaw who’s lived in the hinterlands, outside the boundaries that most of us agree on daily.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that what he’s wanted most is to feel legitimized by his peers and fans, and has consequently been pigeonholed (at least by hacks like me) to become a sort of cartoon version of himself. It seems like he’s become hopelessly tangled up in the black leather fringes of Outlaw, the brand. This aspect of his career is most intriguing.

To make sure I wasn’t the only one mystified, I called in the cavalry in the form of my friend and future poet/songwriter laureate of Louisville, Brett Eugene Ralph.

He is an English professor at Hopkinsville Community College, a member of the country music cognoscenti and was quick to point out that without a deeper awareness of his back catalogue, my perceptions about Coe were incomplete, or worse.

While I admit to only a cursory familiarity with Coe’s work, I respectfully submit that a spade is a spade.

We agreed on several key points: 

1. DAC is as crazy as a shithouse rat now, and probably has been for some time. 

2. He is/was capable of much more than what’s heard on his greatest-hits records and at his concerts in the past several years. 

3. He’s sold himself short to get radio play (which he doesn’t get), to please his audience (who are largely unable or unwilling to engage his more subtle abilities) and to get street cred he already had.

Mr. Ralph and I spoke at length about DAC, about my perception of the sometimes invisible line between fiction and fraudulence in songwriting and art in general, the commodification of country and the difficulty that any genre has of avoiding redundancy after an initial and crucial explosion of “outlaw-ness,” of otherness, be it country, punk, hip hop, etc.

The concert at Expo Five last Friday was underwhelming for me (in the most David Lynch-esque way that a thing can be underwhelming). I had labored under the assumption that I could re-listen to this guy’s big hits, go to one show and figure him, and myself, out. Wrong. But I am starting to get a better picture of how, why and to what degree I love country music. 

And I love country music. 


Joe Manning is a singer-songwriter from Louisville.