David Allan Coe is one of the most celebrated and controversial artists to emerge from the outlaw country movement; a gifted songwriter and a charismatic performer, Coe is also a man who has followed his own path even when it meant traveling the hard way, and his life has been full of bad luck and misadventure. Few artists in any genre have as many tall tales and wild allegations attached to their name (some of which have been spread by Coe himself), and there are plenty of fans who love him or hate him for reasons that have nothing to do with his music. Despite it all, Coe's songwriting reveals a greater intelligence and emotional range than his reputation would suggest, and his best music is a bracing mixture of country, blues, and rock & roll.
Coe was born in Akron, Ohio on September 6, 1939. The product of a broken and unhappy home, he had a troubled childhood, and at the age of 9, he was sent to a reform school in Albion, Michigan. Through most of the next 20 years, Coe was in and out of various correctional institutions, having been convicted of crimes ranging from possession of burglary tools to auto theft. (Coe has also claimed that he killed a fellow prisoner in an Ohio penitentiary and at one point was facing execution, but no one has been able to substantiate this story.) While behind bars, Coe took up songwriting, claiming he was encouraged by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, supposedly a fellow inmate at the time. In 1967, Coe was out of prison and he was eager to break into music, so he headed to Nashville, living in his car and occasionally camping out in front of Ryman Auditorium (the home of the Grand Ol' Opry) in hopes of getting noticed. Coe's early music was strongly influenced by blues and R&B (he's often cited Hank Ballard as one of his favorite vocalists), and when he landed his first record deal, with Shelby Singleton's SSS Records, he cut a tough blues-based effort based on his experiences behind bars, 1969's Penitentiary Blues. The album earned enthusiastic reviews despite thin sales, and Coe hit the road in support, headlining clubs and opening dates for rock acts like Grand Funk Railroad. Coe's second album, 1970's Requiem for a Harlequin, was an introspective, poetic effort which attracted little notice. Coe's music began to evolve into a hard, honky tonk country sound, and his single "Keep Those Big Wheels Running" gained some C&W airplay, but he and Singleton soon parted ways.
While Coe's recording career wasn't making much impact, he landed a contract with a Nashville publishing house, and in 1973 Tanya Tucker scored a breakout hit with Coe's song "Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)." As Coe began making a name for himself as a songwriter, he revamped his on-stage persona, wearing rhinestone-studded suits (Coe said they were given to him by Mel Tillis) and a mask, calling himself "the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy" years before Glen Campbell scored a hit with a similar title. In 1974, Coe signed a deal with Columbia Records, calling his first album The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy. With his second LP for Columbia, 1974's Once Upon a Rhyme, Coe scored a hit single of his own with a cover of John Prine & Steve Goodman's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name." After losing the mask and the suits, Coe's career as a performer took off.
He was soon making regular appearances on the country charts with tunes like "Longhaired Redneck" and "Waylon, Willie, and Me," and in 1977, Johnny Paycheck scored a massive hit with his version of Coe's song "Take This Job and Shove It." Paycheck's recording crossed over to the pop charts and was even adapted into a feature film, featuring Coe in a supporting role. By this time, Coe's outlaw credentials had been solidified by his frequent statements to reporters about his years in the penal system, as well as bizarre rumors about Coe involving booze, drugs, and polygamy, not all of which he seemed in a hurry to deny. Coe relocated to Florida, and Caribbean influences began to seep into his music. He was also a devotee of biker culture, and in 1978, he released Nothing Sacred, a self-released album primarily sold through ads in Easyriders magazine. Nothing Sacred was devoted to wildly tasteless songs about sex, and Coe released a follow-up in 1982, Underground Album, which threw racial humor in with the blue material; Coe rarely performed material from his X-rated albums on-stage (and in time stopped performing the songs altogether), but they would create a lingering PR problem for him, leading to frequent charges that he was a racist and misogynist, both of which he's strongly denied.
In the early '80s, Coe's recording career enjoyed a resurgence; in 1983, his song "The Ride" rose to number four on the C&W charts, followed by "Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile," "It's Great to Be Single Again," "She Used to Love Me a Lot," and "Don't Cry, Darlin'." Coe also did more acting, appearing in a pair of made-for-TV movies with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, The Last Days of Frank & Jesse James and Stagecoach (both aired in 1986). In addition, Coe had developed an interest in magic and began incorporating illusions into his stage shows. As the '80s wore on, Coe's outlaw image became more pronounced, as he sported larger and more elaborate tattoos, began braiding his beard, and eventually adopted a dreadlock hairstyle. By 1990, Coe's contract with Columbia came to an end, and an unpleasant divorce and troubles with the IRS made a mess of his finances and private life; one of the more colorful tales about Coe alleges that after the IRS repossessed his house, he took to living in a cave for several months, though the veracity of this story is widely questioned.
From the '90s onward, Coe survived as a road warrior; he released albums periodically through several small labels (including his own Coe-Pop), and even charted with his 1997 concert set Live: If That Ain't Country. But after losing his publishing rights in a legal battle with creditors, live work provided his primary source of income, and at various times his band included members of Confederate Railroad, future Allman Bros. and Gov't Mule guitar hero Warren Haynes, and Coe's son Tyler. In 1999, Coe met Dimebag Darrell, guitarist with heavy metal outlaws Pantera, and their fast friendship led to a collaboration. Dimebag, bassist Rex Brown, and drummer Vinnie Paul teamed up with Coe to cut an album, Rebel Meets Rebel; recorded over the space of three years, the record wasn't released until 2006, after Dimebag's death. Coe also won new fans thanks to the endorsement of another fan, Kid Rock, who namechecked him in the song "American Badass," and then invited Coe to open his 2000 concert tour. Coe and Rock began writing songs together, and one of them, "Single Father," appeared on Rock's self-titled 2003 album. In March 2013, Coe was involved in a serious auto accident when his SUV was struck by a tractor trailer truck; despite suffering broken ribs, head trauma, and bruised kidneys, Coe was back on the road in a matter of months, performing at Willie Nelson's annual Fourth of July picnic. ~ Mark Deming, Rovi