When Charlie Parker hung out in the bars he was well known for putting his dimes in the jukebox and listening to country music. Because he was Bird, none of his fellow jazzmen dared try to stop him; if Yardbird Parker wanted to listen to country music, then that’s what was going to happen. When they asked incredulously why he spent his time listening to that genre, his answer was always the same: “Listen to the stories, man.” A great artist–and make no mistake, Charlie Parker is on the shortlist of great artists of the twentieth century–understands that inspiration can come from anywhere and through anyone, whether that be Louis Armstrong, Shostakovich or Hank Williams. The reason I say all this is to highlight a podcast that has been preoccupying me for much of the past week: Tyler Mahan Coe’s Cocaine and Rhinestones.
Tyler Mahan Coe is the son of outlaw country musician David Allan Coe. Tyler spent his childhood years on his father’s tour bus, partying and listening to the stories as he heard them coming from the stage and the back of the bus. Father and son had a falling out somewhere along the way and apparently are estranged today. As Coe points out, everyone in country music is a historian because the music references its antecedents much more than most other styles. Plus, musicians have a great deal of time on their hands and spend a great deal of it swapping stories of what they have seen and heard along the way. Cocaine and Rhinestones wrapped up its first season of fourteen episodes earlier this year. So far I have listened to about 1/3 of those, starting with episode one about Ernest Tubb but skipping around after that. One of the things I like most about Coe’s sensibility is that he states explicitly that there is no purity test for what is and is not country music. Race, region, economic status, educational level: none of these are barriers for who is and is not a “country” artist. The only litmus test is sincerity.
He did an extraordinary job breaking down Loretta Lynn’s mid-1970s hit “The Pill,” explaining the sexism and hypocrisy that went into why more than sixty radio stations across the country banned it. Another episode explores Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee.” The degrees to which Haggard is parodying and/or paying tribute to Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority has been lost on less reflective listeners for the half century since the song’s release in July 1969. Coe’s conclusions about Haggard’s “Okie” are surprising, and I for one found his argument convincing. I felt Coe was unduly harsh on Herbert Hoover in the early part of this episode however, where he describes the early years of the Depression and the flight of the Okies from Oklahoma and its neighboring states to California. Hoover didn’t cause the Depression and he wasn’t the ogre people made him out to be. Every good story deserves a villain and Hoover was, then and today, the ideal scapegoat for Depression Era America.
Americans in that decade after the First World War began buying radios in record numbers, which transformed our culture much like the internet has transformed our own time. Without the radio there would have been no Babe Ruth as we know him today. The same goes for the music people listened to and shared. Someone, I believe it was Kris Kristofferson, once said that he never worries about country music, that its death has been greatly exaggerated and that it will always be here and move forward. Tyler Mahan Coe does a good job putting the music into historical and cultural contexts and explaining that the music business has always been . . . wait for it . . . a business. Greed, lust, abuse in its many forms, envy, shallowness and vindictiveness have intertwined with moments of great generosity, clarity and understanding within various artists and producers to create the canon that is country music. It’s a human tale, as old as Adam. One would be wise to listen to the stories.
(image/Library of Congress)