WORDS Michael Ross
Driving on San Francisco’s Polk Street in the early nineties, you might have noticed a large sign reading, “Anything done well is Art.” While “anything” may be pushing it, the statement makes sense when listening to Cocaine & Rhinestones, Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about twentieth-century country music. The attention to research detail and smooth narrative flow, combined with Coe’s clear, impassioned reading, raise the form to the level of—if not Art with a capital “A”—then certainly art on a par with that of a great chef, for it is Coe’s masterful blending of ingredients: anecdotes, hard facts, opinion, humor, and attitude, that make Cocaine & Rhinestones compulsive listening for even the casual country music fan.
Subjects like The Louvin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, Buck Owens, and Wynonna Judd are covered in episodes running anywhere from one to two hours, often over multiple episodes, allowing C&R to delve deep into the strange, fascinating lives of these country legends. But Coe is not merely dealing in individual biographies; the genius of this podcast is in how it connects the dots between artists and places them within the saga of this uniquely American music.
The son of outlaw country legend David Allan Coe, Coe the Younger was destined to be a performer of some kind. “I was born into the entertainment business,” he says. “When I was a toddler, my father took me on Nashville Now,” says Coe. “There are probably videos of me crawling on Ralph Emery’s desk. He had me singing with his band before I was in kindergarten. I don’t know how I was ever going to be a medical researcher or accountant.”
As a teenager, Coe got into more than his share of trouble. To avoid being sent to military school, he officially joined his father’s group. Having dabbled on guitar at home, he was now required to up his game. “It’s embarrassing to fake it around a bunch of people who are good at what they do, so you get good,” he recalls. Good enough, it turns out, to give guitar lessons for a while, in what would become a quest for a meaningful means of earning a living.
A move to Nashville, where Coe had some connections, and a talent for marketing and public relations led to freelance work for clubs like Mercy Lounge, Exit/In, Marathon Music Works, and the High Watt. Ultimately, those marketing skills led to the creation of Drunkmall.com. “It’s like SkyMall, but for people who get drunk and do online shopping,” Coe explains. Despite the site’s success, he realized that automation would eventually make human curation obsolete.
“I needed to do something else and didn’t know what,” he says. “Then I discovered podcasts. I’ve always been a writer and fascinated with communication and language in general.”
He was initially inspired by Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This series about Hollywood. “Country music is way more interesting than Hollywood, but there were no podcasts, no translation of this library of stories,” says Coe. “The country music websites are more like BuzzFeed’s ‘10 times a country singer got arrested.’ That’s not the story. Who is this guy? We all know his name, but why is he a person anyone cares about? Let’s start there.”
David Allan Coe was a devout scholar of country music, and he instilled that passion in his son. “With all the short-form content these days, it doesn’t seem there is any personal investment,” he says. “I get emotionally involved when I write. It matters that I get the story right, that people understand why this thing is so remarkable. It takes a lot of context to do that. You have to talk about Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression, the Great Mississippi Flood and the race relations that came out of that, all of which impact this country to this day. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time; no one’s going to truly understand this country song if they don’t know all this other stuff.”
Coe’s podcast is designed to grab you from the first episode, in which Ernest Tubb shoots the head of the Grand Ole Opry. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” Coe explains. “I couldn’t think of anything that made more sense than Ernest Tubb getting drunk and deciding to shoot this guy. You find out it’s because of the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival. Why did Ernest Tubb care so much about the Jimmie Rodgers Music Festival? Take another step back, and you find it is because he’s been obsessed with Jimmie Rodgers for his entire life.”
And so it goes, through Spade Cooley’s horrific murder of his wife, through the epic tale of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” and beyond. Listening to Cocaine & Rhinestones is like reading a book by a great music writer like Peter Guralnick or Robert Gordon, which begs the question whether Coe has considered releasing these amazing stories in book form. “I’m waiting for someone to approach me about it,” he says. “Each script has between 7,500 and 10,000 words in it, so the first season is a book that’s already written, sitting on my computer.”
For more information visit www.cocaineandrhinestones.com.