Born David Allan Coe, September 6, 1939, in Akron, Ohio; married twice; has a daughter from his second marriage. Addresses: Record company --Columbia Records, 51 W. 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.

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 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 tops 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 more difficult than most. Born 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 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 twenty, 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.

Before their sentences could be carried out, Ohio repealed the death penalty, and Coe's term was commuted to life.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 his first major attention came through other artists recording his compositions. More 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 woman in 1973, and it made major record companies notice its composer.

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 the 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 his last verse, which describes 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 satirizes 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.

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 apparently Coe was back 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."

Despite his success, Coe has not forgotten his less fortunate days. He still performs for prison audiences, and is the founder of a music publishing company called Captive Music that seeks to gain exposure for imprisoned songwriters. He has also written his autobiography, Just for the Record.

by Elizabeth Thomas

David Allan Coe's Career

Was in and out of juvenile correctional facilities from age nine to age eighteen; 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.

David Allan Coe's Awards

"Take This Job and Shove It" (a song he wrote) was nominated for a Grammy for Best Country and Western Song of the Year, 1978.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…