X-Rated singer/songwriter David Allan Coe returned to Maryland in early February to play the Cancun Cantina.
Sheet yeah, muthas, this thing was a hella good time. You get where I’m coming from? No? Let me turn you on:
My buddy Crazy Carl introduced me to David Allan Coe’s music in the summer of 2006. The two of us were reading at a literary festival in Cleveland. We drove around listening to “Fuckin’ in the Butt” and “Don’t Bite the Dick” from Coe’s Underground album and “Lay me Down Some Rails” from Nothing Sacred. Even though Carl’s cassette was old and worn out, I enjoyed the hell out of the tunes. I smiled big as I tapped my feet to the bass-centric honky-tonk rhythms and laughed at the funny lyrics.
David Allan Coe is, of course, much more than his two X-rated albums. He’s recorded over thirty records and has written songs for Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Paycheck. He’s also co-written songs with Kid Rock. His sound moves from blues to rock to outlaw country and even a little rap. But the X-rated albums were a sort of gateway drug for me and soon I was exploring not only the rest of his catalog, but I was also digging on other outlaw country singers like Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver.
I didn’t know that Coe was playing the Baltimore area until the Monday before the show. I heard a commercial on the local classic rock radio station. Twenty-five bucks at a place called the Cancun Cantina in Glen Burnie, Maryland, about thirty minutes from Baltimore. OK. There was no way I was missing this.
There were two rows of chairs in front of the stage and a dancing area behind them. To the side, near the entrance, was the bar. My wife and I took two of the seats since she had worked about ten hours that day and, being a dutiful reporter, I had to take notes. Probably not the best way to enjoy an outlaw singer, but what the hell.
At fifteen minutes till ten, the band took the stage, followed by Coe. He’s using a cane now, something which he was quick to discard. He half sat, half leaned on a stool. And, another new touch, he was wearing glasses.
Coe started out playing a few old favorites, “Longhaired Redneck” among them. The song is a fun, bawdy send-up of country music tropes and stereotypes. When Coe sings that he can “sing all them songs about Texas / And I still do all the sad ones that I know,” we hear in his voice irony and sarcasm. Yes, he’ll play those kinds of songs, those standard themes demanded by a country audience. But he plays other styles too. But, later in the song, he sings, “my long hair just can’t cover up my red neck.” Coe is, and will always be, at root, a country boy.
Coe’s first two albums were blues records. In fact, he played a three or four song blues set early in the show. I enjoyed the hell out of the songs but it was definitely the biggest lull in the show. To put it mildly, the audience was clearly more into his country music. Most of them were drunk, all of them were white and some of the men were very, very, big. Still, those old blues songs remind us that in the 70’s and earlier, blues and country music shared quite a few common traits. If today’s country music is just too white, it’s definitely not Coe’s fault.
After the blues set, he sang, “Single Father,” the first single off his new album, DAC’s Back. It’s a pretty ballad. Coe sang, “Single Father, part-time mother / When I’m not one, then I’m the other,” glancing occasionally toward his son.
Tyler Coe plays lead guitar in his dad’s live band. He’s a thin guy in his mid-twenties, overall a good looking kid. He has a sort of faraway look of concentration on his face as he plays. He’s serious, unsmiling, committed to the music. I found out the next day that Tyler’s a hell of a songwriter himself. As Sleeping on Ceilings, he put out an album of ambient music called Our Winter Year. Tyler wrote on his website that he created the tunes “by recording only sounds produced by and through guitars and whatever ambient noise a mic’d guitar picked up.”
Most of the Cancun Cantina patrons had been drinking a good while before Coe came on. It looked to me like most of the audience was pretty fucked up. This made for some pretty funny side- scenes. There was the guy with a sort of Elvis pompadour and a mullet who danced a jig in front of the stage, waving an empty cup in the air. The bouncers quickly pushed him away from the stage, and, I presume, threw him out of the joint. Then there was the woman in extremely tight jeans who did the same thing, twirling like a drunk honky-tonk queen at a biker Woodstock. She didn’t block the stage long enough to annoy security and she quickly wandered off to get a drink or take a piss or whatever. Without changing his expression (he never smiled and always looked gravely serious, even when making a joke) Coe said, “That woman made me think of a song,” and went right into “I Made Linda Lovelace Gag.” I was pretty surprised. I’d read somewhere that Coe never performs his X-rated material live. I don’t know, maybe it was the venue. It wasn’t a tiny club, but it wasn’t huge either. Maybe he felt like we would get it. It doesn’t really matter, though. I was stoked to hear the song.
Coe told a long story to introduce his next song, another off his X-rated album, Nothing Sacred. He talked about the racist singer Johnny Rebel. Because of an explicitly racist song and several racist references on his X-rated albums, some people have pegged David Allan Coe and Johnny Rebel as the same person. Which is a shame because Coe’s albums were tongue-in-cheek joke songs, never meant to be taken seriously or as an indication of his personal views. Rebel’s songs, on the other hand, are so vile and racist that I’m not even going to give myself bad karma by writing any example song titles. I think it’s enough to say that Johnny Rebel takes his racism seriously. He’s hateful and stupid and Coe probably summed it up best when he said, “I don’t know this motherfucker and he pisses me off.”
Having said that, I still can’t really bring myself to write the title of the song he was introducing. Instead, I’ll share an anecdote that he used to illustrate his inspiration for writing the song: “George Wallace was the most prejudiced white man I’ve ever seen. I imagined what it would be like if he came home and caught his wife with the gardener.”
So there’s that. I’m actually pretty amazed that Coe still needs to defend joke songs he wrote nearly four decades ago. The title Nothing Sacred really should have been a first clue.
Coe played a bunch of covers throughout the show. He did some Toby Keith, some Uncle Kracker, some Johnny Cash. I sang along to his cover of Willie Nelson’s “You were Always on my Mind,” and winked at my wife, who was also enjoying the hell out of the song.
I hope I get to see Coe again. He said something about enjoying being in Maryland, adding, “I hope it won’t be the last time.” He wasn’t being morbid, of course. Just realistic. Coe’s in his early seventies, which is pretty young for an old bluesman. But he’s also a model of hard living. A biker, a hard drinker, a former prison inmate on death row, a lover and a fighter, Coe seems to have no regrets about the way he’s lived his life. He certainly makes no apologies for it. There are those of us who understand that we’re sacrificing a few years at the end of our lives for our good times today. And what do a few extra years mean anyway if you’re a boring sod? Like my friend the Mad Poet once told me, “Ain’t none of us going to heaven.” Anyway, there’s always the next life for sober living and sanity.
And for some additional perspective on Coe, here’s Penn Jillette talking about the big man: