Some people seem most at home in crowds. Not necessarily happiest, but that’s not necessarily what home is for. It’s about having your own slot—on my crowded record shelf, for instance. “Can’t you see?” David Allan Coe asks the crowd at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth on 1997’s brickhouse Live—If That Ain’t Country. “Ah’m a desperate man.” And on his latest album, Recommended for Airplay (a/k/a Fat Chance), he’s still throwing grubby songhooks to the wolves of anxiety, like prime ’60s Dylan, Lou Reed, Kid Rock, anybody who’s ever been worthwhile.
He first appeared in the end-of-the-’60s/
earliest-’70s Morning After fog. Fresh outta prison, he was the kind of country singer who slept in a hearse parked in front of the Grand Ole Opry, when he wasn’t touring with Grand Funk Railroad. The kind of country singer who meant
to bumrush Nashville, pointman for a three-or-four’s-a-crowd bandwagon of self-(over)dubbed Outlaws whose coattails he soon had to ride.
Born in Akron in ’39, he was considered a little old for a potential music star. So were his colleagues, but they never claimed to spend their youth on death row…Willie and Waylon and Kris & Coe, all burrowing out of a pile of old records (and their own newfangled unsold eight-tracks)—blinking at the Sundown Breakfast ghosts of Hank and his posse. So Coe’s always seemed a bit grizzled, ‘n’ frazzled, too—a bit anxious. But he’s prowled around enough to guess the most likely, bearably bumpy ways to get his ashes hauled, and he’s more consistent fun than other Outlaws, even though Willie’s a genius. To go deep you gotta get narrow, and Dave comes off more as a baggy-pants character actor, even if he does tuck ’em into some thirsty boots.
As you might guess from the Grand Funk connection, he had audiences who crossed from grassroots rock to country long before radio did. “Living on the Run” (from 1976’s Long-Haired Redneck) was one of the earlier (listenable) melds of Allmanic guitar with fiddles, steel, and as replenishing a mountain spring of female vocalitude (thoughtfully subdued on the subsequent polygamy song “The House We Call Home”) as you could find, east of Tupelo Honey Van Morrison. He even drew balm for his aching being from Caribbean rhythms
deeper than Jimmy Buffett’s. But this was no happy-hippy blend; it was impending tattooed dues-payin’ motorsickle dust in the depresso-itchy windbag inspiration of Cougie Mellencamp malcontents, travelin’ waaay down south through the Heartland.
Despite some performances behind a Lone Ranger mask and a debut concept album about life behind bars, his early vibe was more ominous than blustery. 1974’s The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy was snowbound Southern Gothic—the sound of somebody who’d clearly spent a lotta time contemplating. “The 33rd of August” is indeed stuck-inside-of/hung-up-on/pushing-against its impossible stopdate—when Coe finally bleats “Looks lahk rain!” at the very end, it actually comes as welcome comic relief, each time I dare listen. But it didn’t sell, and, like another David, he had to go Glam, matching the glittery (cowboy) suits with more macho music. Y’all want theatri-cull? His most notorious (nonbootleg) number (from the aptly named Human Emotions) is “Suicide,” actually about shooting his unfaithful wife and her lover—but he yowls like a parody of Hank Jr. with a mouf-ful of pills ‘n’ beard, the music’s ZZ Top as carnival ride, and basically this here’s his Slim Shady moment, in 1978.
You could say DAC’s Permanent Glam, still running gender-convention redlights, unashamedly and frequently asking, in effect, “No, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” But isn’t this actually a certain Country Male Tradition? Especially if you leave out “Country”? (On Rides Again, he slips right from “Under Rachel’s Wings” to “[She Was] Greener Than the Grass We Lay On,” not so much confessing or boasting as spilling the Male Psyche beans just like that—Securitahh!)
One thing that helps him get over (musically, at least) is the way he manages to take just the right elements of other, more inherently distinctive voices. He often sounds like Waylon, but without the almost-blubbery vibrato. There’s also a drying and drawing out of mawkish phrases, which tendency I identify with Merle Haggard: those long whitefolk-nostrils spear excess sentiment, but the sandy Waylon-tones guarantee love’s left enough sediment for pipedreams and homefires.
Coe’s new Recommended for Airplay is actually, in its autumnal cool, and even (initial) political correctness, a seeming curveball for those expecting vintage outrage. Despite the usual dry runs, “The Price We’ll Have To Pay” manages quite a reproachful undertone (yes, he’s picked a trick from wimmen!), “She’s Already Gone”‘s pedal steel breathes unearthly joy (Joy might even be the backup singer, exuding her own inscrutables), and “Drink My Wife Away” is so fun it’s almost Bubblegum. Yet “Let Me Be the One You Turn To” is the soulfullest, r’n’b–est thing I’ve ever heard him do, his “In My Life” moves me like the Beatles’, “We Can Talk” (rhymes with Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”) somehow sustains insinuation via epic guitar, and “Sweet Rebecca” is convincing just cos it’s so concisely (yet Skynyrdly!) in love. Okay, so it’s got his ol’ heartshaped tattoo beating like a question mark. So what? If that ain’t country, he’ll kiss your ass.