For some, country music just finds them at the right time. Maybe it was through listening to the radio with a grandparent or falling in love with a record someone gave them. Maybe it was a heartbreak that only George Jones could cure. For others, the music is right there in their blood from birth. Tyler Mahan Coe, creator of the country music history podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones, falls into the latter category.
The son of outlaw country legend David Allan Coe, Tyler was submerged in the world of country music before he could even talk.
“It’s just the world I grew up in. I didn’t have a choice,” Coe says, laughing. “There are pictures of me on (David Allan Coe) album covers before I could speak words. There’s no way out of that.”
So when he got the idea to do a podcast on the history of 20th-century country music — the first of its kind — it initially felt more like something he had to do rather than something he wanted to do.
“I wouldn’t say that desire had much to do with it at all,” Coe says. “I felt like I had to do it, and the reason why is I’m not sure that there’s anyone else out there with the general cross-section of interest that I have that could produce this.”
The untold stories
Coe spent over a decade playing guitar in his father’s band. During that time, he got an in-depth education on the history of country music from the folks who lived it, poring through autobiographies and listening to stories passed around backstage.
“Telling these stories is just as much a tradition of country music as learning how to play an instrument or learning how to sing a song or writing a song. This is what all your favorite country singers and musicians from the beginning of recorded history were doing,” Coe says. “You get to be backstage with your people — the people who do what you do and understand what it’s like. And this is what you’re talking about. Stuff like ‘Oh, did you hear the one about the time that this happened?’ Sometimes it’s firsthand stories — you know, the band that you’re in. Sometimes it’s a story you’ve heard from someone else.”
Cocaine & Rhinestones takes you into the world of backstage politics of the Grand Ole Opry, shady record producers, banned songs, murderous Texas Swing musicians and much, much more. Even if you’re a mega-fan of featured artists like Merle Haggard, Bobbie Gentry, Loretta Lynn or the Louvin Brothers, there’s a very good chance you’re going to learn something new.
Each show is written, produced and meticulously researched by Coe. And tackling something as expansive as 20th-century country music is daunting, he says.
“(It’s like) a detective show where they’re trying to solve a murder and they have one wall of a room that just has all kinds of papers and a timeline and strings connecting things here and there,” Coe says. “I feel like I need one of those sometimes.”
Three chords and the truth
And getting the story exactly right is the most important aspect, Coe says.
“I know this matters so much to the people that it does matter to. That’s another reason that I’m so obsessive about getting the details right in every story,” Coe says. “I know what it’s like to have someone from New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago come to a concert and ask you five questions and then go home and tell the world how backward you are. I couldn’t bear the thought of doing that to someone else.”
And while some corners of the media might choose to focus on tales of drunken benders, missed shows and stalled careers, on Cocaine & Rhinestones you won’t hear a story for the sake of shock value or a laugh, like that one about George Jones and the riding lawnmower. You know the one.
“I’m never going to tell that story on Cocaine & Rhinestones. I don’t care if I ever hear that story again in my life,” Coe says. “Of course I’m going to tell some funny stories and he did funny stuff, and that’s great, but I think anyone who tells that story without also addressing the reality of alcoholism is an asshole.”
Coe says the podcast is an opportunity to tell the lesser known, behind-the-scenes tales of country music. As the title suggests, there were plenty of vices and personal demons. But more importantly there were real people who devoted their lives to creating country music, even at their lowest moments.
“I would very much like to have these stories draw people in and also treat the genre like how Ken Burns would do a documentary on jazz,” Coe says. “He’s not trying to find a story about how Charlie Parker got robbed trying to buy heroin so we can all laugh about how funny the drug addict is. But that’s essentially what people do with the George Jones lawnmower story; ‘Let’s laugh at this drug addict.’ That’s really, really sad to me and I would never want to do that.”