Born on September 6, 1939, in Akron, OH; married twice; children: one daughter. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10019, website: http://www.sonymusic.com. Website--David Allen Coe Official Website: http://www.officialdavidallencoe.com.

Country performer David Allan Coe is "a bold and inventive artist," according to Alanna Nash of Stereo Review. Yet it is debatable whether he has had greater success as a singer or in writing songs for other country stars. Tanya Tucker's "Would You Lay with Me" and Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It" are both Coe's compositions. As for his own recordings, Coe is perhaps best known for the humorous "You Never Even Called Me by My Name" and "Long-Haired Redneck." Those two hit the top of the country charts during the mid-1970s, but his later work has also received much critical acclaim.

Coe's path to country stardom was difficult. Born on September 6, 1939, in Akron, Ohio, he came from a broken home. Because of his early antisocial attitude, he was sent to a reform school in Michigan when he was nine years old. Coe spent most of his youth in several similar facilities; every time he was released, he managed to do something to get incarcerated again. His early crimes included possession of burglary tools and car theft.

Eventually, at the age of 20, Coe began a series of prison terms in the Ohio State Penitentiary. During one of these, he killed a fellow inmate who made homosexual advances towards him. Despite a possible self-defense motive in the incident, Coe was sentenced to death. While on death row he was reunited with his foster father, who had also been convicted of murder. Coe had found the time during his various prison terms to learn to play the guitar, and he and his foster father occupied themselves by writing songs.

Released Debut Album

Before their sentences could be carried out, Ohio repealed the death penalty and Coe's term was commuted to life. Thus reprieved, he began to take an even greater interest in his music, and was allowed to perform for his fellow inmates. This constructive activity made the parole board look favorably upon Coe, and they freed him in 1967. He headed straight for Nashville, Tennessee. He slept in his old car and sang and played for food. Coe tried to sell the songs he had written in prison; his lyrics reflected his experiences, and were often seen as too raw and harshly realistic for country music. Even so, he was soon signed to the small SSS label and released his debut album, the aptly titled Penitentiary Blues. It was not a popular success, but it received favorable notice from many music critics. Two singles from Penitentiary Blues got a fair amount of airplay---"Tobacco Road" and "Two Tone Brown."

Coe switched to the Plantation label during the early 1970s, recording a spoof called "How High's the Watergate, Martha?," and a minor hit, "Keep Those Big Wheels Running." But he received his first major attention when other artists began recording his compositions. Many famous country singers had gradually begun adding Coe's songs to their albums or performing them in concerts, when his "Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)" was selected for one of Tanya Tucker's albums. The tune became a huge hit for the young Tucker in 1973, and major record companies noticed its composer.

The Perfect Country Song

One such company was Columbia Records, which asked Coe for some demonstration tapes. Satisfied with what he provided, Columbia signed him, and Coe released his first major album, The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, quickly followed by The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy Rides Again. Ironically, his first smash hit, 1975's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," was not one of his own compositions, but rather Steve Goodman's. Something of a novelty, the song featured Coe's imitations of various famous country singers, including Merle Haggard and Charlie Pride. But it might not have fared as well with fans without the last verse that Coe added. Apparently Goodman had told him that "You Never" was the perfect country song; Coe allegedly replied that Goodman had left out several elements essential for making that claim--getting drunk, rain, prison, trains, trucks, and Mama. So Coe threw them all into a final verse, which described being drunk while driving his pickup truck through the rain to get his mother, who had just gotten out of prison. Unfortunately, he arrives to find that she has just been run over by a train.

Coe's follow-up hit was 1976's "Long-Haired Redneck," which satirized the trials of a performer whose image does not fit the public expectation of what a country singer should be. Though he released other singles during the late 1970s, such as "Willie, Waylon, and Me" and "If This Is Just a Game," perhaps one of his greatest triumphs was when Johnny Paycheck recorded his composition "Take This Job and Shove It." The tune struck a chord with many fans, and received a Grammy nomination for Best Country and Western Song of 1978.

Country Music Outlaw

During the mid-to-late 1980s, when critics considered many of country music's outlaws to be in artistic decline, Coe continued to make meaningful music. Son of the South, Coe's 1986 album, prompted Nash to exclaim, "It's startling just how good ... Coe can be when he cools his King of the Weirdies act and gets down to the business of music." She went on to praise the songs "Love Is a Never Ending War" and "Cold Turkey." But Coe appeared to return to his usual eccentricities with the following year's A Matter of Life ... and Death---the album cover featured a photograph of his dead father in his coffin, wearing a shirt advertising one of his son's concert tours. Nevertheless, Nash was pleased with this album, too, citing especially the song "Child of God." As he had before, Coe dug into the fabric of his own life, paying tribute to his late father, Donald Mahan Coe. "Coe may have had some hits," wrote Thom Jurek in All Music Guide, "but it's records like this that make one wonder if there wasn't a conspiracy to marginalize him and make him fail."

Following David Allan Coe Live: If That Ain't Country in 1997, Coe released Recommended For Airplay, an album including characteristic songs like "Drink My Wife Away" and "Drink Canada Dry." In 2003 he released another live album, Live at Billy Bob's Texas, and returned to the Top Country Albums chart for the first time since 1987.

In 2002 Coe released Whoopsy Daisy, an audio version of an autobiographical tale originally recorded in 1997. In the book, he tells stories of his own past, from his skirmishes with the IRS to his broken marriages. "Coe comes off not as a complainer," wrote Jurek, "but as a man who has done virtually everything and lived to tell about it." Coe also continued to battle the impressions created by his outlaw image. "Over the years," he noted on his website, "people have gotten the impression that I am prejudiced. ... Sure, I have this thing about controversy. But I don't dislike anybody because of their color or sexual beliefs or whatever."

Although styles in country music have changed a great deal over the course of Coe's career, he has never had difficulty maintaining a fan base. He continues to play as many as 200 dates a year, filling college auditoriums, roadside bars, and state fairs. Coe's website noted, "Each new generation of Rednecks, Kickers, Pickers, Preppies, Skinheads, Deadheads, Hippies and Bikers come to hear David's music."

In 2005 he released For the Soul and For the Mind: Demos of '71-'74, a collection that returned to the start of his career when he worked as a staff songwriter for Window Music. As with his later, better-known material, Coe's songs have revealed his ability to craft hard-hitting lyrics that deliver an emotional wallop. "Say whatever the hell you want about David Allan Coe," wrote Jurek, "but he's one of a kind as a singer, songwriter, and performer."

by Elizabeth Thomas and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr

David Allan Coe's Career

Spent time in juvenile correctional facilities from age nine to age eighteen; and was in and out of prisons, including the Ohio State Penitentiary and Marion Correctional Institution, until 1967; singer and songwriter, 1967--; cofounder of Captive Music Publishing Company; signed to Columbia Records and released Once Upon a Rhyme and The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, 1974; released a string of well-received albums during the 1970s, including Longhaired Redneck, 1976, and Human Emotions and Family Album, 1978; reached number one with Johnny Paycheck's "Take This Job and Shove It," 1977; continued to record for Columbia through 1987, releasing Invictus Means Unconquered, 1981, Son of the South, 1986, and I Love Country, 1987; resurfaced on Columbia with Recommended for Airplay, 1999; released audio autobiography, Woopsy Daisy, 2002; released Live at Billy Bob's Texas, 2003, and For the Soul and For the Mind: Demos of '71-'74, 2005.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources

Books PeriodicalsOnline

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 8 years ago

I got to this site by searching for David's imatations of other country singers. A friend shared his imatations with me many years ago and I consider them the best imatations I have ever heard when he imatated Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams and probably others I can't recall. I will continue searching for them. Thank you and may God bless you on this day that has never been lived before.