Tyler Mahan Coe thought he might cry when he first walked into the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville earlier this year. It wasn’t just the huge amount of material that could help fuel “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” his wildly entertaining podcast about the history of 20th-century country music. There was also an element of redemption for Coe, whose father is the controversial country singer David Allan Coe.
“He’s one of the industry’s true outcasts (not just an ‘outlaw’) and, by default, I’ve inherited that relationship with the country music institutions in this city,” writes Coe, 33, in one of a series of conversations by phone and email. The younger Coe spent 13 years on the road with his father, who scored consecutive country hits in the mid-1970s with outlaw anthems “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” and “Long-Haired Redneck,” before a falling-out in 2013. “To have any one of them open their doors to me is a prodigal-son experience, but to get in those archives, see what is actually in there (and nowhere else) and know that it’s now available to me? Much too much.”
“Everyone in country music is an amateur historian. You’re just hanging out and hearing these stories, and a lot of these old-school country music artists, these famous frontmen and women, George Jones or Tammy Wynette, in their autobiography, they’re all going to have a story that’s completely unrelated to them, because it’s a good story and they want to tell it.”
Access to such a cache of archival material is the next step in the evolution of “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” which Coe launched last October with an episode about honky-tonk singer Ernest Tubb, who attempted to shoot a music producer in the lobby of the National Life Building in Nashville in 1957 and missed. It was the first of 14 meticulously researched installments in Season One that also included explorations of Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill,” Merle Haggard’s misunderstood “Okie from Muskogee,” the Louvin Brothers’ famously fractious relationship, Cajun musician Rusty Kershaw’s influence on Neil Young’s 1974 album On the Beach. There was also a two-part episode examining the symbiosis between Buck Owens and his guitarist, Don Rich, and a string of episodes looking at Jeannie C. Riley’s 1968 hit “Harper Valley PTA” from three different perspectives.
“Cocaine & Rhinestones” is now the top music podcast on iTunes, and no wonder: The episodes are packed with colorful stories and, often, competing versions of the truth, which Coe narrates with clear affection for his material coupled with a bone-dry wit that cuts through the myth-making and cover-your-ass revisionism. But there’s so much more going on. “Cocaine & Rhinestones” offers a glimpse inside the machinery of country music, and the entertainment industry as a whole: how the money is made, the dark side of fame, what it means to be a woman in music, and a plethora of show-biz gimmicks. There’s really nothing else like it, which is what motivated Coe in the first place.
“I could not believe that it did not already exist,” he said. “I wanted it to exist. I wanted to listen to it, but it wasn’t there. When I realized it didn’t exist, the immediate follow-up realization was that I was going to have to make it.”
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Though Coe didn’t intend for the podcast to be political, there have been striking parallels between topics on “Cocaine & Rhinestones” and current events. Without revealing spoilers, the episode about Jeannie C. Riley, for example, echoes the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. The one about “The Pill” illustrates the double-standard that women face in country music—plenty of male artists had recorded songs about sexual freedom, but Lynn’s ode to reproductive control was the one that got banned. Coe’s examination of country music’s relentless quest for crossover pop success in an episode about Wynonna Judd foreshadows Shania Twain and, more recently, Taylor Swift. And revisiting “Okie from Muskogee,” Haggard’s 1969 song spoofing a certain brand of Vietnam-era flag-waving, prompted a wave of outraged responses. “It felt like every time I came out with an episode, there was a major news story with themes that were very connected,” Coe says.
As Coe notes in the introduction to each episode, he’s heard these stories his whole life. He grew up in country music, thanks to his father. David Allan Coe has released dozens of albums and is probably best known for writing the No. 1 hits “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone),” among other tunes. He also recorded a pair of obscene “underground” albums in the late 1970s and early ’80s. The elder Coe, who was sent to reform school at age 9 and later served several prison terms, began his music career in the late ‘60s in Nashville, where he was living in a hearse. Coe, who called himself “the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy,” soon became known for his unpredictable live performances and for addressing sexually explicit and controversial topics in his music.
Tyler Coe first took the stage with his father before he was in kindergarten, and later dropped out of high school to join his dad on the road. He more or less learned his instrument onstage when David Allan Coe appointed him rhythm guitarist at 15, a gig the younger Coe held until his father replaced the entire band in 2013, seemingly in a fit of pique. The two haven’t spoken since. (David Allan Coe couldn’t be reached for comment. According to his website, he was hospitalized in late February, apparently with an inner-ear infection.)
“He probably holds some sort of record for burning bridges,” Tyler Coe says. “My bridge was the one that never got burned until one day it did.”
But David Allan Coe “was obsessed with all these stories,” his son says. “And as I got older, the stories got better.” Musicians have plenty of time to kill between shows, and the guys in the band passed long stretches on the bus by recounting infamous incidents, a pastime that ramped up when groups would intersect on tour, or gather for events like Willie Nelson’s annual Fourth of July Picnic concert and swap stories backstage.
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“Everyone in country music is an amateur historian,” Coe says. “You’re just hanging out and hearing these stories, and a lot of these old-school country music artists, these famous frontmen and women, George Jones or Tammy Wynette, in their autobiography, they’re all going to have a story that’s completely unrelated to them, because it’s a good story and they want to tell it.”
When he found himself without a band in 2013 and living in Missouri, Coe’s options were limited. “I was left in the position of never having filled out a W2, and never having had a job, and having acquired a decent criminal record,” he says. “I cannot pass a background check, you know? I’m unhirable, essentially.” He managed to pay his rent by teaching himself enough music theory to give guitar lessons, “donating blood plasma twice a week” and, before long, doing freelance digital marketing. He moved to Nashville when his lease was up, and continued with the digital marketing until he started working on “Cocaine & Rhinestones” last May.
It’s actually one of two podcasts Coe is involved with. He and his friend Mark Mosley started the other one, “Your Favorite Band Sucks,” around the same time. “It was pretty handy to have, for several reasons,” Coe says. “One, I had no experience doing a podcast, and two, I had almost no experience with audio editing software.” But where “Your Favorite Band Sucks” is flippant and off-the-cuff, “Cocaine & Rhinestones” is exhaustively researched. Episodes can stretch well past 90 minutes, and they include a “liner notes” segment in which Coe explains where he got his information, offers clarifications and corrections, and refers listeners to the “Cocaine & Rhinestones” website, which features a full transcript of the episode, his source material and links to hear and buy the songs he mentions. Each episode takes about two weeks to research, write and record, Coe says, and he had scripts for all 14 episodes completed before he posted the first one last October.
“It’s intimidating, obviously,” he says. “I’m not a historian. I dropped out of high school when I was 15, I got my GED. No one told me I could do this. But also, I try to remind people every now and then that i’m not trying to set myself up as the be-all, end-all authority on all this. I could be wrong.”
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His attention to detail has attracted notice. “I mean this in the kindest possible way, but it takes an absolute freak to put that much time and energy” into it, says Peter Cooper, senior museum writer, editor and producer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and a former music columnist at the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. “He reminds me of one of my favorite writers, Peter Guralnick, because like Guralnick, Tyler is unafraid to call bullshit, yet he’s completely respectful of artists and their art.”
Coe is currently working on the second season of “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” and has a third mapped out as well. And though the podcast has begun providing him with income, thanks to a Patreon page (he won’t go into specifics), Coe says he’s motivated as much by a sense of obligation as anything. “It wasn’t so much that I saw an unfilled niche as it was I saw something that I felt the music world needed, didn’t have and very likely still wouldn’t have 10 years from now if I didn’t get to work.”