An Exclusive Interview with: DAVID ALLAN COE

The 'Original Rhinestone Cowboy'

    icon Jan 01, 2003
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I hate most Country music, but I love the country music of David Allan Coe. My musical tastes have always been firmly rooted in Rock 'n' Roll. So, why DAC (his affectionate acronym)? Well in Rock music, lyrics are generally a necessary evil to a rhythmic beat and catchy pop hooks. Country music has largely been about storytelling. David's a lyrical prodigy whose words immediately burn of truth, passion, tenderness, anger and sorrow. Never mind that his lyrics are occasionally as raunchy and colorful as his storied past. I've remained intrigued by his 30-plus year career. So, when I heard DAC was coming to Bay City, I made every effort to make personal contact with him.

Full credit for that connection goes to Danny Sheridan. Danny was a member of Eli Radish a band out of Ohio that David joined at the inception of his musical career. David went on to fame and fortune. Danny went on to a series of musical projects that put him on the West Coast and in the arms of Bonnie Bramlett (the ex-wife of the 1970s' musical duo, Delaney & Bonnie and Friends.
Within a few days I got a call from Kim Hastings, (DAC's backing vocalist and David's current girlfriend, inviting me down to their tour bus they'd parked in Wal-Mart's lot in Bay City, a mere 10 minutes from my home. Off I went with my camera. I was invited on the bus and very warmly greeted by David and Kim. We talked shop for nearly an hour on his traveling museum of a bus, that's as colorful as David.     
REVIEW: You were born in the industrial town of Akron, OH, home of rubber and Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, not exactly “Country” territory. Your music's always been Rock influenced, but why were you influenced by Country and Blues at a time when most of your peers were into Rock and Roll? What was it about Country music that interested you so much?
DAC: I never really got into Country music until after I went to Nashville. I was into Rock 'n' Roll and Rhythm and Blues. I was listening to Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Hank Ballard & The Midnighters.  I also listened to my mother's music, which was Big Band music like the Glen Miller Orchestra and Tommy Dorsey. Spike Jones and his band was a big influence on me.
I don't really know what it was about Country music that appealed to me. My personal taste was one thing but as a songwriter it was a totally different thing. I was into Bluegrass music. That's why I prefer listening to Bluegrass music. I didn't really care for some of the Country music until people like Kris Kristofferson and some of those people started writing songs. They had a little more to say than just, “Oh baby I miss you,” or whatever. I don't do anything halfway. Once I got into Country music I went back and researched it and learned everything there was to know about it. I could do impersonations of Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Marty Robbins, just about anybody. I knew just about all there was to know about Country music.
REVIEW: You have a Michigan connection from early in your life. Wasn't your first gig in our fair state at the Starr Commonwealth For Boys in Albion? How did you end up there?
DAC: That's correct. It's a strange story. My father remarried. My stepmother already had two sons and said she didn't need another boy. She wanted my sister but she didn't want me! She basically told my father to take me down to the courts and tell them that he couldn't control me. My parents actually paid for and drove me to this place. It was like the rich people taking their kids and dropping them off at camp or military school. They took me there to make me a man, to give me manners, and discipline and all that stuff. It had a great affect on me. They had this wooden paddle with holes in it there. When you did something wrong you had to hold your hands out and they'd beat your hands with this paddle until your hands would bleed. After being there about three weeks they sent you out to live and work on a farm - for nothin'. It was my job to milk the cows. This guy came by in a van once a day to pick up the milk jugs. I ran away from that place and hid in a barn but I got caught. I escaped there again with some older boys and stole cars. From there I went to detention homes, and reformatory schools and penitentiaries. Later in life I married Jody Lynn Benham from Laingsburg, Michigan. Come to find out, the man that used to pick up that milk when I was a little boy, was her father! And the barn that I hid in was her uncles!     
REVIEW: It's no secret that you spent much of your youth in reformatories and prison. Your résumé reads like a rap sheet. However, over the years some have questioned your claims to the extent of your crimes and time served as being exaggerated for the purposes of creating an image. Most people wouldn't want to advertise that they have a criminal record so why did you?
DAC: Most of my life I had never heard of one ex-convict that was successful. The only ex-convicts that I ever saw were the ones that were coming back to prison. The only ones I ever heard about were the Charles Manson's in this world. As a founding member of the Seventh Step Foundation, which was a re-motivation program for ex-convicts, I wanted to be an example to men in prison. I wrote a book called Ex-Convict. I wanted to let men in prison know I was there for 20 some years but I got out and I became successful. So, if you're an ex-convict and you own a machine shop, or gas station or whatever, don't hide the fact that you're an ex-convict. Set yourself up as an example to other men in prison so that they can see there is a light at the other end of the tunnel. To me prison is…
REVIEW: If you're confined your not free.
DAC: That's exactly right! When I was married to Jody she would say, “People think you're lying because you were just in them little reform schools. That's not prison!” I told her, “If you don't think it's prison you go lock yourself up in a closet for a week and then you tell me if you think that's a prison or not.”
REVIEW: What crimes were you convicted of and do you feel you were guilty or innocent?
DAC: The most serious crime I was ever convicted of was possession of burglary tools. They found a screwdriver in the glove compartment of my car. A screwdriver was a burglary tool? To me it was just a screwdriver. There was no crime committed. But I was an ex-convict. It was a parole violation. When you have no money and you have no one to go to bat for you, you're just a whipping post.
REVIEW: What gave you the confidence to feel you could stay out of trouble and make it as a musician?
DAC: One of the reasons I kept going back to prison was because in prison I was somebody. I was the guy who won all of the talent contests. I was the singer. Everybody knew me. I was as famous in prison as Elvis was on the streets. But when I got out on the street I was just another asshole that sang and played guitar. You've got to find somethin' to take the place of all of that.
My mother was a lot of my problems whether she knew it or not because my mother would say things like, “Why don't you just rob somebody and go back to prison then.” In prison I was her little boy that she could send letters and cigarettes to and come and visit. When I was out on the streets she would ask, “Where are you going? When are you going to be back?” and I'd say, “When I get here!”
REVIEW: When did you feel like you'd really 'made it' as a musician?
DAC: The first time I saw a 45-record with my name on it I thought I'd made it. It was on Cabut Records in 1968. There was a blind man that had a little studio in his garage that I cut the record in. It was called A Prisoner's Release backed with A One Way Ticket To Nashville. To be able to actually see that record and hear it on the radio -- nothing has ever surpassed that feeling of having gotten out of prison and being able to do that.
REVIEW: You're credited as having started a whole new genre of Country music called Outlaw Country…
DAC: Lies have been told by the same people for so long that they seem to believe them. There's a writer for one of those Country magazines in Nashville, who was on Waylon Jennings' staff, that claims that she's the one that coined the term Outlaw Country music. In Waylon's book he says that's how it came about. I never cared enough to bring it to their attention but the truth is that Waylon, and Willie Nelson and I played at an outdoor festival called 48 hours in Atoka, in Oklahoma. When we got there we'd been several women were raped and several people stabbed! There was a lot of alcohol and drugs or whatever. I told my band, “Don't worry about it. We'll provide our own protection.” At that time I was in the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. I had my Outlaws' colors on, and I had my pistol in my pocket and I rode my motorcycle up on stage while Waylon was singing. I got off my motorcycle, and went out and started singing with Waylon. And then Willie came out and sang with us. There was a picture of us in the paper that had an arrow pointing to the pistol in my pocket and another arrow pointing to where it said, “Outlaws, Florida.” The headline said, “The Outlaws came to town.” That's actually how it all started.
The reason that Nashville called us outlaws was because they had taken Ray Price and added all of these strings to his music. The New York lawyers and publishers had gotten involved and they were lookin' for crossover music to reach a larger audience and make more money. We did not wanna do that. Waylon, and Willie and I all said the same thing, “I can't pay all these guys to go out on the road with me, and it's not fair to somebody that buys my records for me to go out there and not sound like my records.” So, we wanted to record with just our bands. I was the first one who ever did that, and then Waylon and Willie also started doing it. They became more famous so quite naturally they got the credit for doing it.
REVIEW: Weren't you also the first Country artist to use an all-female backup band?
DAC: Yes. Not only was it an all-girl band, but they were from New Jersey! Seven years later Porter Wagner had his TV show, and had an all girl band and that was a big deal. Porter was famous so he got the credit for being the first to use an all-girl Country band. Nobody paid attention when I did it. I wasn't famous - and it didn't matter to me. 
REVIEW: You're also known as the Rhinestone Cowboy. While you're appearance is certainly colorful I don't see any Rhinestones anymore. Given your appearance and background it was pretty ballsy of you to wear rhinestone outfits in Nashville at a time when they'd become the bane of Country music. How'd that moniker originate and what made you go in the opposite direction?
DAC: God, everything you say about that's true. I guess it all boils down to Mel Tillis who gave me my first rhinestone suits. I used to hang out at the Grand Ole Opry. I'd go backstage and run in the hallway and get all sweaty, and come out, and look like I just got offstage and people would ask for my autograph. I'd sign it, 'The mysterious rhinestone cowboy.' When Larry Weiss wrote the song Rhinestone Cowboy he sent it to me but I turned it down! I thought it was a great song but I thought it would be too egotistical to record since I was calling myself the Rhinestone Cowboy at the time. I still wear my rhinestone outfits occasionally. It depends on the situation. I wear a lot of different kind of clothes.     
REVIEW: You've been hanging out with Pantera and you've struck up quite a friendship with Kid Rock. Why do you think that you appeal to those people? 
DAC: I think it's just because of honesty and being real. We were on tour together and we've written some songs together. It's nice to have Kid Rock as a friend. Like I've told him, he isn't my friend because he's Kid Rock. He'd be my friend if he wasn't Kid Rock. He's just a good ol' boy. That's the truth of the matter. He rides four wheel bikes and he likes old cars. He likes to go hunting and fishing and be in the woods.
REVIEW: What other artists today do you admire and enjoy?
DAC: I like Edwin McGuinn -- I like him a lot, Uncle Kracker and of course Kid Rock. I still like Grand Funk Railroad. I've always liked that band. 
REVIEW: I don't think it would be an overstatement to say you are one of American's greatest and most prolific songwriters. You've written songs for dozens of the famous including: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, The Oakridge Boys and Johnny Paycheck. How many songs have you written to date?
DAC: I don't really have an idea of how many songs I've written - in the thousands I guess. I've also written songs for the Dead Kennedy's, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker - just a lot of people. I write all of the time.  I've got notebooks and notebooks full of stuff that I've never gotten around to recording.
REVIEW: What inspires you to write songs? Do they just come out of nowhere like with some writers or do you sit down in a very deliberate way and grind them out?
DAC: It's something that just happens. I write the words first but I usually have a melody in my head. I write on guitar and sometimes on piano. I can write at the drop of a hat. If someone tells me they will give me $10,000 to write six songs about peanut butter, they would have them in 15 minutes!  
REVIEW: Do you own the publishing to your songs?
DAC: All of my songs up to 1984 were sold in a bankruptcy proceeding for like $25,000 from the bankruptcy court because nobody told me they'd been put up for sale! Basically the IRS claimed I owed them $100,000. I was living at a place and we had a flood and everything was destroyed. They knew I didn't have any records - any proof of what I did have and what I didn't have. So I just filed bankruptcy. Willie Nelson chose to deal with them. I chose not to. I'm totally straight with them now. The only income I have is the money I make on the road performing and from my new songs that I own. Now that Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker are cutting my songs there's some activity there. Though I'm not on a major label anymore I still sell a lot of records.
REVIEW: One of your best known songs is Longhaired Redneck. Do you consider yourself a longhaired redneck?
DAC: It was terminology that I'd made up at the time. I was trying to tell people that not everybody with long hair was a hippie. Not everyone was the kind of person that thought you could punch them out, take their money and that they'd say, “I won't do nothin' about it.”
REVIEW: Prior to your performance recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you were confronted by about 100 protestors, including a local DJ who organized the protest, accusing you of being a racist. They claim you've recorded songs with racist lyrics under the pseudonym of Johnny Rebel. You've denied this on your official web site. You had the courage to confront these protestors face to face and vehemently denied these rumors. Yet the accusations persist. Why do you think that is?
DAC: I think those people were using me for whatever their cause was at the time. As far as the Johnny Rebel thing goes? It's not me! I've never sung or wrote songs under any other name but my own. 
REVIEW: Do you know who Johnny Rebel is?
DAC: My girlfriend Kimberly has that information. What I'm gonna do is write the guy a letter and say, “Hey, if you really feel this way, why don't you contact these people and tell them you don't like black people, and that you are Johnny Rebel, and that David Allan Coe is not Johnny Rebel and take the credit for the things that you do instead of letting me take the heat for it.”  
REVIEW: I've seen you perform a number of times and never heard or seen anything in your performances that would lead me to believer you are a racist. Your current guitar resembles a confederate flag. Some people feel that flag's a symbol of racism. What are you trying to express with that?
DAC: Dimebag Darrell of Pantera had the guitar built for me as a gift. We'd done an album together called, Rebel Meets Rebel that hasn't come out yet. It has no other significance than that!
REVIEW: One of your hits You Never Even Called Me By My Name is one of the greatest satires on country music ever written. It was written by the late Steve Goodman, in part upon your advice. How does a man who's been accused of being a bigot and a racist collaborate with a small, frail, Jewish kid from Chicago?
DAC: Stevie was probably one of the greatest people I've ever known. To know that he was dying of Leukemia and to have the disposition that he had and to write the great songs that he wrote - I've never met a finer gentleman in my life!
REVIEW: To go from the stir to stardom in a few short years must have been a real shock on your system and taken some getting used to. How did you deal with that transition to stardom?
DAC: I never got involved in that whole “celebrity” thing. It's always been an alienation thing to me - the autograph thing - the meet and greet thing. I've never done that. I never did interviews when I was younger either. 
REVIEW: You wrote for and recorded a song with your good friend Johnny Cash. Why was Johnny such a good friend?
DAC: I think John was attracted to me because I'd been in prison so long. Over the years he, and Kris Kristofferson and Willie (also Connie Nelson, his wife at the time), always seemed to turn up and come back into my life when I needed someone the most. We made movies together and ended up writing songs together.   
REVIEW: Do you still perform magic?
DAC: No. It just became too much. At one time I had three eighteen wheelers and four buses on the road. I was carrying my tigers and my chimpanzee and you need all kinds of permits. You've got to take care of the animals.
REVIEW: There are a lot of your fellow musical stars like The Dixie Chicks, Willie Nelson and Toby Keith using their celebrity and stage to expound their political positions. Given your outspokenness and difficulties in life, you're lyrics and performances have been surprisingly non-political. Why is that?
DAC: I live in my own world, not thee world. I just write songs about what affects me in everyday life. At one point I wrote a song that was sort of a protest about when they were talking about drafting women into the military. It was about my son making it past the draft, but my daughter didn't. And I've done Farm Aid.
REVIEW: You're known for your clever quips and quotes. There's one I love in particular, “Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. My family didn't have enough closets for all of their skeletons.” Are there any other words of wisdom you find have stood the test of time?
DAC: Well, I was also the guy that wrote the line, “Today's the first day of the rest of your life,” but I never got credit for that. I also wrote the line, “Your children are your future,” and I never got credit for that either.
REVIEW: How important do you consider religion and spirituality to be in your life?
DAC: Not very important at all. What I believe in is principle. A man is only as good as his word. Whenever your name is spoken, whatever is said about you - that's what's important. So you should always strive to have a good name and do what you say you're gonna do. I live totally by the Jesus Christ theory of principle. There's God's law and there's man's law. They're totally two different things. I've never cared much for man's law. God's law is basically pretty simple. It's unchanging. You can't move the sun one inch. You can depend on it. You know it's gonna rise here and set there. It's the laws of cause and effect of nature.
REVIEW: What are you most proud of in your life?
DAC: That my children like me.
REVIEW: What is your biggest fear in life?
DAC: Death!
REVIEW: You're also a tireless road warrior traveling around the country in your personal museum of a bus doing on average around 250 shows a year. Now at age 65, don't you get a little road weary? What keeps you going? It is love of what you do, the money or both?
DAC: I'm still doin' fine. It's the freedom. I enjoy it. It's the only thing I know how to do. I don't care anything about money.
REVIEW: With that many shows a year how do you keep things fresh and exciting for your audience and you?
DAC: I never do the same show twice.
REVIEW: What do you like to do in your down time?
DAC:  I do what I'm gonna do right now. I'm going to the casino and gamble.
REVIEW: You've got a new CD and DVD out, Live At Billy Bob's Texas as well as a double CD audio book called Whoopsy Daisy.
DAC: Anybody that grew up in the 1950s should be able to listen to Whoopsy Daisy and get a lot from it. There's a lot about my personality in it. Live At Billy Bob's Texas - same thing - the music and the interviews are a pretty good representation of David Allan Coe.
REVIEW: Thank you so very, very much David. It has been enlightening and a pleasure. 
The photos of David Allan Coe and this interview are by the permission of, and the product and property of Kristofer Engelhardt. Engelhardt is a resident of Bay City, MI and author of the books: Beatles Undercover and From Grand Funk To Grace (The Authorized Biography of Mark Farner). Copies of the Grand Funk book signed by Mark Farner and the author, and the Beatles book are available by calling 989 686-1807 or e-mail:

For more information on David Allan Coe and his products visit only his official web site at: 

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