Arts and Entertainment

Talkin’ country

‘Cocaine & Rhinestones’ is finally launching its second podcast season, with a host who’s as unconventional as ever
Tyler Mahan Coe of the country music podcast “Cocaine and Rhinestones” in front of a card catalogue in the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

NASHVILLE — At 1:37 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Tyler Mahan Coe, son of the outlaw country singer David Allan Coe and creator of what is easily the best country music history podcast ever made, put on his headphones and launched into a lengthy segment about ice cream. Ice cream?

Season 2 of “Cocaine & Rhinestones” is supposed to center on legendary singer George Jones. But with blankets hanging over the sides of a small sound booth he bought online, Coe leaned into a microphone in his apartment and delivered an opening sequence that referenced 16th-century Italian noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici, the true meaning of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” — hint, it’s not about something served at Baskin Robbins — and the waffle cones sold at the 1904 World’s Fair.

Finally, after 11 minutes and 32 seconds, he circled back to Owen Bradley, the late producer he believes was unfairly overshadowed by Chet Atkins as the creator of the famed “Nashville Sound.” The “C & R” theme came next, a slowed-down version of the fingerpicking intro to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and then Coe’s catchphrase: “I’ve heard these stories my whole life. As far as I can tell, here’s the truth about this one.”

It’s an odd tag considering how exacting Coe, 36, is when he talks about truth. In the crowded music podcast market, “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” which launches its long-awaited second season Tuesday, stands out for its host’s devotion to setting the record straight through a show that could be filed under educational if it wasn’t so entertaining.

In interviews or his free-flowing Twitter feed, Coe has no problem calling out those he feels have failed, either because they were overfunded dilettantes (Ken Burns), pompous hacks (Malcolm Gladwell) or simply fell for the false narratives fed by record companies, lazy writers and sometimes the artists themselves. The best way to honor the music, Coe believes, is to properly acknowledge the innovators by researching, analyzing and presenting their stories. To that end, he doesn’t cut corners, accept conventional wisdom or care if it takes more than 10 minutes to wind into his intro. There is plenty of time to get to the birth of the Grand Ole Opry, the formation of Nashville’s “A-Team” and why “Jingle Bell Rock” is as country as it gets. The second episode of Season 2, with a working title of “Owen — Ice Cream,” clocks in at 124 minutes and 14,318 words.

Coe goes through the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame while researching record producer Billy Sherrill for his podcast “Cocaine and Rhinestones.” (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

“He is the ‘War and Peace’ of country music podcasts,” says Elizabeth Cook, the singer and Sirius XM Outlaw Country station host. “Nobody has the patience for nuance, the patience for long term. But he’s insisting on it. That the details are important. I grew up steeped in this culture, I’ve played the Opry hundreds of times, and the episode he did on Loretta Lynn — oh my gosh, I had no idea.”

That episode, about Lynn’s 1975 ode to birth control, “The Pill,” came out on Oct. 31, 2017 — a lifetime ago in podcasting terms. Which speaks to another aspect of Coe’s approach: Even with the stunning success of Season 1 — its 14 episodes topped the iTunes chart, earned a rave in the New Yorker, and led to approaches from big-brand distributors — there was nothing that could make Coe rush out Season Two. He wouldn’t hire a research assistant or even recruit an intern to so much as press the record button. “Even I have said, ‘Is there anything I can do to help you?' ” says Aileen, Coe’s wife of 17 months. “No. He just knows that it’s his mountain to climb, and he’s not going to let anybody else do it.”

That goes for taking on investors. Coe has lived off the $1,000-a-week he says he’s getting from supporters on Patreon, the artist-funding platform. He had plenty of chances to sell out after his first season, which he says has been played millions of times. But Coe barely listened to the pitches as soon as anybody raised the idea of buying his intellectual property.

“Oh, I could definitely be a millionaire right now,” says Coe. “It’s not an exaggeration for me to say that. But if someone is coming to me with that much money in their hand, it’s because they think they’re going to get that much money out of it. I don’t care to spend my time arguing with them about all the ways they’re not going to do that.”

David Allan Coe holds his son Tyler Mahan while talking to William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. (Family photo)

Sitting on his daddy’s lap

Tyler Mahan Coe is fretboard thin, just under 6 feet tall and 160 pounds. He favors western shirts and boots when he’s posing for photos or DJ’ing at clubs or country cruises, but is just as likely to be wearing a Black Sabbath T-shirt and a hoodie when he’s at work on the podcast.

He did not finish high school, though he eventually earned his General Education Development diploma. And his thirst for books is obvious as he fluently shifts a conversation from psychologist Carl Jung to eastern religions to demographics to country singer LeeAnn Rimes. The deep reader also comes through in his writing for “C&R,” which ranges from punchy and conversational to richly descriptive analogies.

“Run through these early sessions and you can hear the layers of paint being sanded away until the natural grain starts to show through,” he writes of George Jones early in the new season.

Coe’s mother, Jody, was 22 and working at a bar at the Opryland USA theme park in Nashville when a friend introduced her to David Allan Coe in 1983. The singer was twice her age and had already been married multiple times. He had also done time for petty theft and earned a reputation for writing heart-wrenching ballads (“Would You Lay With Me [In a Field of Stone]”) as well as swaggering send-offs (“Take This Job and Shove It”).

This would not be Ozzie and Harriet. To hear his family tell it — the 81-year-old Coe declined a request to talk about his son — David Allan Coe’s admiration for Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson included the way they incorporated family into their careers. Tanya Montana, his younger sister and one of Coe and Jody’s four children, would inspire a 1987 single named after her.

“He would introduce us onstage and then he’d barely say anything to us,” Tanya says today from Nashville, where she runs a boutique and records her own music.

And that’s Tyler on the cover of 1986’s “Son of the South,” a toddler sitting on his daddy’s lap, wrapped in a Confederate flag.

Tyler Mahan Coe was featured on the cover of his father's 1986 album “Son of the South.” (Lila Hempel-Edgers)

“His use of the flag was always in the ‘it means rebellion, not racism,’ way,” says Coe. “It’s totally ignorant and divorced from the actual meaning, but it’s the same thing all kinds of people still believe and repeat. If I was a little older than 2, I probably would have said it was dumb and we shouldn’t do it.”

The marriage would last just over 10 years, much of it with David on the road.

Of all the kids, Tyler seemed to have figured out a way to connect. He was a straight-A student in school, Jody remembered, though she never saw him open a book. What she didn’t know was that he was loading up Fruitopia bottles with her pink zinfandel so he could get sloshed at school. One day around his 15th birthday, Coe came home and found that a friend of Jody’s had mailed her a pamphlet for military school. She never intended to send him, but he didn’t know that. The boy left home and had a talk with his father that led to him joining his dad’s band for the next 12 years. Coe recalls this exchange:

“You been practicing your guitar chords?” David asked.

“Yeah,” Tyler said, lying.

“Good. I’m recording a live album in three days. You’re on it.”

Tyler Mahan Coe poses at No Quarter, a pinball bar in East Nashville, in 2019. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

Suited up like a toreador

On a Friday night in Nashville, pre-pandemic, Coe is at one of his favorite hot spots, the pinball bar known as No Quarter. Coe sips a mineral water between pumps of the flippers. He will occasionally get a beer when he’s out at a bar or having a burger, but he doesn’t drink much. He lost his license after a drunken-driving arrest in 2012, a bad decision that he’s still embarrassed about.

Pinball is more than a game for Coe. It has been a diversion since he was a kid. After his parents broke up, Coe would be sent to spend summers with his father. They didn’t go fishing or play catch. They would go to casinos. David Allan Coe liked to gamble. While he played, he would give his son a roll of bills for pinball and dinner. It may not be surprising that Episode 1 of Season 2 opens with pages of history on pinball and how it connects to the birth of the country music industry.

As he plays, Coe explains why he decided to devote an entire season to George Jones.

There is Jones’s status as the greatest country singer of all time, a man with a voice so expressive he could capture heartbreak like no other. Jones, who died in 2013 at the age of 81, is also the only person to chart in the country Top 40 across seven decades and therefore an ideal vessel through which to proceed across much of the 20th century. And then there’s the personal stuff: the drinking, the relationships, the way the singer tended to brush off any deep self-reflection in interviews.

Coe also focuses on Jones’s important partnership with Tammy Wynette. They got married in 1969, not long after her biggest hit, “Stand by Your Man.” Together, the two stars allow Coe to delve into all the themes of the show, including the dangers of fame and sexism in country music and the difference between the real world and mythology.

Tammy Wynette, left, sings with George Jones in Nashville. (The Tennessean/AP)

“There have been five books written about George and each of them has their faults,” Coe says. “There’s probably a full decade of his life that he doesn’t remember. And the other problem is that the period that is most famous is marrying Tammy Wynette, and the problem with Tammy Wynette is that she was a pathological liar. That’s one of the protagonists in the story. The other is a blackout cocaine addict. Just from a pure storytelling standpoint alone, that’s a nightmare. But this is a podcast about music, and you’ve got two massive discographies to process and contextualize and say interesting things about. It’s a huge project.”

He also explains how he came up with the title for “Cocaine & Rhinestones.” It is meant to get at some of the central themes of country history, including the way authenticity has been turned into a marketing tool.

“To me, cocaine and rhinestones as physical substances are extremely artificial things,” says Coe. “You can chew cocaine. You can walk out of your house wearing a suit. You can walk out of your house wearing a suit covered in rhinestones. It’s creating your own reality. You know where it came from, right? Bullfighting. The suit of light. The toreador. I would not presume to speak on the cultural relevance or significance of that suit, but I do know that that’s the direct correlation. And to me, that implies a lot. That implies painting a bull’s eye on your chest and making as much noise as you can. That’s a rhinestone suit. To me, it says if I’m willing to get up here looking like this to do this, I must mean it.”

Tyler Mahan Coe takes the stage with his father in 1992. (Family photo)

The performer’s biggest fan

For years, Coe thought he would always be in his father’s band.

Early on, he had barely been able to play. But by his later teens, he was comfortable and felt a sense of responsibility standing there with his Gibson SG, trying to keep one of his musical heroes on track.

David Allan Coe was not the easiest person to play behind. Covered in tattoos and a waist-length, dyed wig, he would sit in a chair with his guitar cranked up to overcome his hearing loss. His tax problems — he would eventually be forced to pay more than $1 million in back taxes to the IRS — meant he had to keep up a robust touring schedule, even when he’d rather be home in Florida playing the slots.

The senior Coe often sang only snippets of songs, or a single medley, or walked off after only a few minutes. He had gotten married to Kimberly Hastings, and she and Tyler didn’t get along, partly because Tyler didn’t appreciate her taking the microphone during performances. He had stopped riding on his father’s bus, preferring to hang with the band and Coe’s longtime road manager, Bruce Smith. Even if his siblings, back home and estranged from their father, sometimes looked at his relationship with envy, Tyler describes a dynamic that could hardly be considered paternal.

“I showed up on day one and he said, ‘Anything you need?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I need some cigarettes.’ So he’d just have somebody go out and get me some cigarettes. It wasn’t that it was bad parenting; it was no parenting. When it comes down to the parent-child relationship, especially after I started taking control of things, it really felt like I was the parent and he was the child, especially when I was in the band.”

Smith watched Coe grow up on the bus. In the early days, the kid was “an ornery, little s---,” he remembers. Later, it was Coe who would be the peacemaker when Smith, feuding with Kimberly, threatened to quit.

Father and son in a limousine in 1986.
Tyler plays sidestage in 1986 while his father plays onstage.
LEFT: Father and son in a limousine in 1986. RIGHT: Tyler plays sidestage in 1986 while his father plays onstage.

Smith says two incidents continue to bother him.

First, there was a hotel room bust in Illinois in 2010 when police, answering a report of marijuana smoke, found Tyler’s stash of acid and charged him with possession of a controlled substance. What happened next, Smith says, is why Coe now has a felony on his record.

“I would have hired the boy a real attorney and got him off, but his dumb daddy told him not to worry about it,” says Smith. “‘Take the felony and go; it’ll go away some day.’ His dad got him an attorney all right. It was David’s wife’s ex-boyfriend; that was his attorney. Tyler would have been better off with Pick ’em, Lick ’em and Stick ’em.”

Then, in 2013, David Allan Coe was home in Florida when he ran a red light and got hit by a semi-truck. The photos of his smashed SUV made the rounds and the singer would cancel a slew of shows. Smith and Tyler Coe say they wanted to visit, and Coe says he shared a record company’s offer to produce a tribute album for his father, but they suspect that Kimberly did not relay their efforts. (Kimberly Coe did not respond to interview requests.) At Willie Nelson’s annual July Fourth picnic, David Allan Coe showed up to perform and announced from the stage that his manager and entire band had abandoned him after his accident. “Everybody quit me,” he said. “Except my wife.”

In November of that year, Tyler Coe posted his side of the story on his blog. He also included a link to an annotated list of what he considered David Allan Coe’s 50 best songs.

“Despite my clarifications within this article, many people seem to think I’m lambasting my father and criticizing his career,” Coe added at the top of the post. “That is not the case. I’m a bigger David Allan Coe fan than you are — hands down, no question.”

Coe has been known to show up at a new friend’s house with a stack of his father’s records. But the last time the two men could have crossed paths — at Tanya Tucker’s 60th birthday party at the Westin Nashville in 2018 — the younger Coe took off when he heard his father was going to be there later.

“I want his career to flourish,” says Coe. “I’m a big fan of his music. But him as a person is not something I need. I will never try to talk with him again.”

“Nobody has the patience for nuance, the patience for long term. But he’s insisting on it,” singer and radio host Elizabeth Cook says of Tyler Mahan Coe. (Erika Goldring/Getty Images for Americana Music Association)

Someone had to tell it

After splitting with his dad, Coe paid his bills by donating plasma twice a week and teaching guitar. Back in Nashville, he launched a marketing business and, in 2015, created DrunkMall, an online shopping site playfully based on SkyMall, which scored a plug from Johnny Knoxville.

Creating a podcast was not a lifelong dream. In fact, when you hear Coe describe his decision to make “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” it almost sounds like a chore. Something “daunting” that he “had to do.”

“If I didn’t make ‘Cocaine & Rhinestones,’” he wrote on the website, “it was never going to exist and I couldn’t bear the thought of it.”

It started when Coe tried to find a good country music history podcast to listen to. He says there were none, so he ordered a microphone and recorded his first episode, on western swing star turned murderer Spade Cooley.

As he progressed, Coe established his approach. He used dozens of song clips each episode to illustrate his points. He never interviewed others, whether experts or the artists themselves. There was also The Voice.

Coe delivered each line with a twang-less, overpronounced clarity, as if he were being paid by the syllable. The pacing also marked a departure from Spotify-trained attention spans. For his episode on the Louvin Brothers, Coe opened with the swirling sounds of ocean waves, slid into a series of plucked guitar strings and finally played a clip of a Mongolian throat singer. This was meant to help explain the difference between two regular people singing together and the otherworldly, blood harmonies of Charlie and Ira Louvin. Coe’s deliciously stuffed 64-minute show on Bobbie Gentry began with an apology. “About halfway through this episode, you can hear my voice start to give out,” he said. “I’ve never talked this much in my life. I set a schedule for this podcast and now I have to stick with it so this is just something; it happened. I will try to take better care of myself.”

Coe has resisted offers — and a lot of money — to take his podcast to a larger platform. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum)

The podcast’s heroes were essential but not always famous, including steel guitar player Ralph Mooney, producer Shelby Singleton and singing brothers Rusty and Doug Kershaw. And when they were a big name, Coe explored rarely traveled paths. The Gentry episode opens with a discussion of the price of fame, showcases the “Ode to Billie Joe” singer’s genius, and then tears a Tallahatchie River-sized hole in Jim Ford’s claim to have written the chart-topper. As Sarah Larson wrote in the New Yorker in early 2018, Coe came off as “a progressive guy with an arsenal of doggedly presented research.”

“I’ve never heard a story that Tyler has told that I haven’t heard before, but they’re all rumors,” says Frank Liddell, whose production credits include Miranda Lambert and Liddell’s wife, Lee Ann Womack. “And he has this uncanny ability to keep asking the questions and chronologically putting it together.”

The George Jones season is similarly paced. The first three (of 18) episodes are meant as setups, with Coe documenting the history of Starday Records, Owen Bradley and the “A Team” of players who helped define the music coming out of Nashville in the 1950s. He’s particularly proud of one Jones legend he’s largely avoiding. In his autobiography, Jones wrote about his wife, Shirley, wanting to keep him from driving down to the liquor store, so she hid the keys to all of their cars. Jones hopped on his riding mower and made the three-hour round trip.

“Way too many people think it’s a funny story instead of disturbing,” says Coe. “I’m going to scare the s--- out of people because Jones’s addiction was truly terrifying.”

Season 2 also sounds better. Coe is no longer using an iMac. He borrowed a recorder from his brother-in-law. He also found a quiet spot at home to record, particularly if he tracks during the early morning hours.

But there is one thing that Coe says isn’t changing.

After Season 1, an editor at the podcasting company Gimlet sent Coe an email offering to staff the show and give him a salary, benefits and a percentage of profits. “All that said, we are interested in owning the IP for the show,” she wrote. “That’s primarily because we’d be bringing high monetization to the product, and it’s standard practice for us at Gimlet on shows like this to own the IP.”

Coe’s two-word response came 73 minutes later: “No thanks.”

The second season of Coe's podcast, “Cocaine & Rhinestones” will focus on country music legend George Jones. (William DeShazer for The Washington Post)

Read more:

Q&A with Jacob Collier: Growing up in a room packed with instruments, learning from Quincy Jones and finding his voice

The last show: 27 entertainers on the disbelief and despair that took over when covid-19 shut down their world

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