Aug 31, 2014

For Whatever It's Worth: A Lost Interview

Tyler Mahan Coe's right hand

In April, I was contacted by a journalist about doing an interview, for a well-known magazine with designs on opening a Nashville branch to focus on "country" music. I did the interview, knowing the chances of it reaching print were very, very small. For obvious reasons, the piece was axed. I'm not in any way upset by that, so please don't take this post as any sort of "fuck you" to anyone. This is simply here for those who may be interested in what I have to say about Country music, the business, Nashville, etc.

What do you think about country as a genre and the direction(s) it has taken the last few decades?

Speaking from my own experience listening to and performing country music, it's the genre with the most potential for causing an emotional revolution in the listener, aside from instrumental/classical music. The lyrics of a country song are on full display to the world. That's a big risk for a person to take, baring their inmost thoughts that way, but when it resonates with others the payoff is huge. Any kind of music doing that is in the tradition of country music and the place it comes from. That's the really powerful stuff though. There are all kinds of songs within country music - joke songs, drinking songs, love songs, murder songs - but one thing they all have in common is that they're about something. You can't toss off some words that rhyme and send it to press; a song has to earn its keep in country music.

As far as where country music has gone the last few decades, well, it hasn't gone very far. The '70s were a really exciting time for the genre, of course. Gram Parsons and Waylon Jennings had a profound respect for country music and brought those sounds to a new audience by blending it with rock & roll. What began to happen in the '80s and became the standard in the '90s though, I don't know... Maybe people started trying to do it for the money rather than that they were inspired? Maybe what worked in the '70s, blending other genres with country, stopped being a good thing when those "other genres" were glam metal and bubblegum pop, or, later, hip-hop and grunge. 

Country music no longer exists in any mainstream capacity. I'm not sure if you're allowed to print that in your magazine or website or wherever this is going to be but it's just the truth. Your terrestrial radio options now are twofold. One, a station that's been playing Shania Twain's version of Cyndi Lauper since 1995. Two, some nightmare I can't wake up from... like someone threw the worst aspects of white trash culture in a blender with ego, bleached teeth and a drum machine... and it keeps thrusting its pelvis in my face while pyro flames rage in the background...

What do you feel are the essential elements that make a song country rather than, say, rock or folk or pop?

There's no One Thing a song has to have in order to be a country song, other than some form of integrity, whether that be honesty, philanthropy or, even and especially, a healthy sense of humor. The lines are blurry between folk and country, specifically. Townes van Zandt is the perfect example. His music is so powerful and capable of manipulating my emotions that I don't even like to talk about him, really, but it's hard for me to label it this genre or that. Everything about him is "country" but his favorite guitarist was a bluesman (Lightnin' Hopkins) and his lyrics were the absolute culmination of the poetic "fool" troubadour tradition of the Middle Ages. Add all that together and I don't know what you call it but it breaks me, sometimes.

If you ran a label (or a radio station), how would it differ from the way others typically do that job or jobs?

I don't know that I would ever do those things. It might be fun to curate a show on satellite radio for a year or two, where you could play whatever you want, but it isn't a career. It's got to be a strange time for those on the business side of recording music.

Who are your favorite current and/or old-time country stars?

As far as country music, it's difficult to get excited about anything new. What's mainstream isn't country or good and what's underground is either a rehash or boring. Why would I go listen to someone sing different lyrics over a Waylon Jennings song when my Waylon records still play?

I fucking live here, so I can't name names without having to sit with my back to a wall for the rest of my life, but every now and then the Nashville crowd gets all worked up about someone new and I never seem to see anything special in their music.

I do love Ray Wylie Hubbard. He'll definitely give me some shit for mentioning him in response to a question about "country stars" but he's still making amazing music, somewhere between Delta blues and Dylan. Cary and Michael from Shovels & Rope have some great songs, and I hear their influences, but I wouldn't call it country music.

I love Townes, Gram, John Prine, Gary Stewart, Roger Miller, Buck Owens, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Darrell, Jim Reeves... It seems like there was significantly more good country music than bad being made from the '50s through the '70s. The odds were in your favor, as a fan. Pity I wasn't alive to see it.

Do you think you will ever perform with your dad again?

No, I can't imagine a scenario where I would want to do that again. Without attempting to be cruel, that's a tough hour to get through, for reasons I've discussed at-length elsewhere, and the only reason I did it for thirteen years is I thought my father needed me. Evidently, I was mistaken in thinking that. 

What did you gain from the experience?

Oh, I don't know. I guess it was sometimes magical, feeling like I was doing something that really mattered to the people who lived in the towns we were playing, bringing something of value into their lives. But I don't like to live in my own past, so that doesn't bring me joy today, to sit around and talk about the things I used to do. I like the person I am right now and my time spent on tour made me this person, so I guess I gained myself from the experience. 

Where do you think he rates on the list of authentic country stars and why?

I think my father's music is amazing but he would agree with me that it's an oversight to label him as a country artist, even though he did make the most traditionally hardcore country music of his time. My father will talk your ear off about how great a songwriter he is but, for me, it's all about his voice. There is a conviction in his voice that says this song being sung right now is the most important thing to the person singing it

When he connects with a song, he sings like his life depends on it.

Now, it could be that I'm hearing what I know to be his pain from being abused and abandoned by his parents, the brutalities he experienced in prison and how devastated he was by the final split with my own mother... But I think the percentage of his audience that is unaware of that personal history speaks to the fact that we, as an audience, can often intuit when something is a Real Thing without knowing why. Roy Orbison is another example of this. Perhaps more incredible than his vocal ability is that he still wanted to sing after suffering so many personal losses and was able to make it through a song like "In Dreams" without breaking down into tears. 

If not him, who do you think is the most authentic older (or deceased) country star or stars and why?

I'll listen to any artist whose options were either sing, play or murder someone. I'll at least give their music a chance. Aside from that, I don't spend much time worrying about the fact that Johnny Cash didn't live the life he sang about.

Are there any top current stars you think are particularly authentic or inauthentic? Why?

It's difficult to know which atrocity is being committed by which talentless hack... I don't see a single unique voice in the whole crowd. That's another thing I love about country music. When you hear a Little Jimmy Dickens song, you know that is him singing. Same with Gary Stewart and John Prine. Your voice didn't have to fit a mold. If it sounded different than everyone else's then that was great! Anyway...

I had a shirt made for myself that says "FUCK LUKE BRYAN" on it because that "shake it for me, girl" song is the most offensive, insulting thing I've ever heard in my life, so I guess him but there are several others who are just as bad. 

What do you consider the most authentic country song or songs of all time and why?

"Long Black Veil" might be the first song that made me stop and consider the meaning of the lyrics. 

Looking back, it's obvious to me the realization that the narrator is singing from beyond the grave made a significant impact on the person I am today. And, now that Bill Monroe, who does my favorite version of the song, really is dead, listening to the song is even spookier, which is a good thing in my world.

I gravitate towards art that frightens me because I want to understand why it holds that power. 

What is your date of birth?

I'll be 30 this year.

Where are you from originally and what city or town do you now consider home?

I was born in Michigan because my parents were unmarried and separated at the time. I didn't stay there for long and I've lived a lot of places since but Nashville has always felt like home and is where I live now.

Are there other country stars or bands you've performed with aside from your dad?

I've never been in any other band besides the David Allan Coe band.



  1. Anonymous6:16 PM

    Tyler--a very well spoken article. We share an awful lot of the same views on music and especially on your Dad. Some of the times that I have heard him sing(to borrow a phrase) simply chilled me to the bone and literally tingled my skin. RWH is a wonderful talent and a great writer as is John Prine and I love Townes--You should add Mickey Newberry to your list as he wrote many amazing songs. In his prime DAC was the single best performer in country music--when he laid aside everything else and just wrote and sang. I worked with him in all aspects of the business including playing and singing, booking, managing,driving and everything else for over 16 years

  2. Anonymous7:19 PM

    Will there ever be more Sleeping on Ceilings?

  3. Rev. Jon Sander1:12 PM

    I appreciate your insight and your unique perspective on the current state of "country" music. You are one of the few who can speak on this topic from first hand experience. I believe your evaluation is 100% correct. As you know, the top priority for the Nashville music industry is turning a profit. I don't fault them for this, because every business exists for the purpose of making money. However, when the desire for money results in promoting talentless "artists" simply because they are "young and pretty," while new material from true country music legends goes largely ignored, I believe we all lose. Have the record executives forgotten that the artists they are currently ignoring are the very ones who paid for the buildings they work in? 20 years from now, no one will even remember the names of the people who are being played on country radio today (Luke who?). The reason that people like myself are so passionate about singers like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and especially about your father, is because whether these men are singing Folsom Prison Blues or the Star-Spangled Banner, there is raw emotion in their voices that you can feel. They sing from deep inside their souls, and because of that, everything they sing sounds like the truth. Today's breed of college boys with cowboy hats, and girls with cut-off shirts and belly button piercings might sell a lot of records, but the music they are making is plastic, hollow and empty. I have seen you in concert many times in the St. Louis area, and I have never been disappointed. I hope what is going on right now in your personal life will not diminish your love for "real" country music, or keep you from continuing to progress as a guitarist. I hope that in time, you and your father are able to make ammends and have a close relationship again. My father has been gone for 22 years (leukemia) and I still miss him every day. Speaking as a father of 3 sons myself, I can tell you that the love a father has for his son never falters, fades, or dies. Your father might be the Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, but he is still a flesh and blood man who loves his children just like I love mine. Good luck to you in all your future endeavors, and may God bless everything you put your hand to.
    Rev. Jon Sander