Of Mormon Fundamentalism and Outlaw Country Music

By May 12, 2010

Over at Religion in American History, I put up a post this morning as part of an ongoing series on “surprising or otherwise interesting primary sources.” I’m cross-posting it here for anyone interested:

As a bit of background to this post, let me explain that I grew up in Texas, just outside of Dallas, and along the way acquired a taste for a pretty wide array of music: While indie rock has long been my preferred genre, I also developed a liking for hip hop, Latin American pop, classic rock, and like any self-respecting Texan, country. Only I never really liked what I saw as the commercial country of the 1990s. I liked what others derisively labeled the “twangy” stuff, and I especially liked the outlaw country music and musicians from the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s—Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Johhny Cash, Jessi Coulter, and Hank Williams, Jr. But my favorite was David Allan Coe.

Coe, as far as I can tell, was always something of an outsider among this group of outsiders. Not from the South (he was born and raised in Ohio), Coe’s semi-autobiographical music has always seemed like a self-conscious effort to simultaneously be part of this group of rebel musicians and to distinguish himself from them as more wild, more reckless, and more of an outlaw. He thus sang songs that emphasized his friendships with the other rebels (“Willie, Waylon, and Me”, “The Ride”, and “You Never Even Called me by My Name” all come to mind) while carefully crafting a public image that attempted to show just how radical he was and is. He spent his childhood in and out of reform schools, wrote of his supposed experiences in prison and on death row, claimed to have murdered more than one man, and boasted of being a polygamist. In spite of his rather beautiful baritone voice, Coe struggled initially to make it as a musician in Nashville, and recorded a series of X-rated albums (often under a pseudonymous name) to be sold at trucker stops to make ends meet. When he finally did make it big, he was known more as a song writer for others than he was for his own music. But he did enjoy some moderate success, and long after the rest of his rebel friends stopped making new music, Coe continued (and continues today) touring, playing in honky tonks and bars with both more traditional country musicians and younger southern rockers.

Knowing Coe’s background then, I was not surprised to come across this series of clips (warning: extremely vulgar language) on youtube a few months ago. It’s a 4-part interview of David Allan Coe on the late-night cable show Midnight Blue, hosted by Al Goldstein, pornographer and publisher of the magazine Screw. The interview itself proved less than interesting to me until I got to the very end of the first clip. Goldstein is discussing with Coe his noted ability to irritate and anger others (most notably Anita Bryant, for whom Coe wrote one his more vulgar and offensive ballads, entitled simply “F*** Anita Bryant”). At this point the conversation turned to religion of all things:

Coe: An example is, I started catching all this sh** from the Mormon church because I’m a Mormon and I’m telling people I’m Mormon and when you say you’re a Mormon they want you to think “Donny Osmond,” right? So I started getting all this bullsh**, “quit telling people you’re a Mormon, you know? So I wrote this song.

That song, embedded below, laments that “the Mormon way of life is almost gone” and positions Coe as one of the remaining real Mormons, determined by his continued practice of polygamy and (as the song’s title suggests) his belief in not only a heavenly father but also a holy (or heavenly) mother (full lyrics available here):

While the claims to be a polygamist should have tipped me off, I’d never heard anything about Coe’s supposed affiliation with Mormonism before. Digging around a bit more, I discovered that he was supposedly raised by a Mormon mother father and an Amish mother, and as an adult contacted Mormon Fundamentalists in Big Water, Utah about converting and becoming a polygamist (see Justin’s helpful comment 15). But the veracity of that claim (I haven’t tried to substantiate it yet) seems beside the point here. Coe’s claim to be a true practitioner of pure Mormonism, when viewed within the context of his carefully-crafted persona as an outlaw among outlaws, can be seen as yet another way of separating himself from the bunch.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Popular Culture


Comments

  1. Wow, that’s something else. Thanks Chris. Pennsylvania Dutch–I wonder if Steve’s got anything on that angle.

    Comment by David G. — May 12, 2010 @ 10:14 am

  2. Thanks Chris. I grew up on outlaw country (although, as a fairly literal kid, never understood Waylon Jennings’ “Was it singing through my nose that got me busted by the man” until I was a lot older).

    I drifted away, and certainly prefer jazz, classical, indie rock, and almost anything other than contemporary country, but I still won’t turn a good twangy outlaw country song off. I don’t think I’ve listened to any Coe, though, so I’ll have to give him a try.

    Comment by Sam B. — May 12, 2010 @ 10:21 am

  3. Wow — this post surprised in so many ways, not least of which was learning that Christopher likes country music.

    I’m still trying to get my head around Coe’s story. The polygamy thing just keeps on keepin’ on, doesn’t it?

    Comment by Hunter — May 12, 2010 @ 10:24 am

  4. Yeah, I found that curious, David. Coe authored a book of religious writings entitled “The Book of David.” I’ve been working with ILL here trying to locate a copy. It may help flesh out some of these ideas.

    Thanks, Sam. I really like Coe, though like most of the other musicians, some of his songs are quite racist and sexist. Steer clear of any of his x-rated albums–yikes. His greatest hits compilation is a good introduction. Check out “If That Ain’t Country” and “You Never Even Called Me by My Name,” which was written by Steve Goodman and performed by Coe … they claimed it was “the best country and western song ever written” (and given the third verse, they might just be right).

    Hunter, don’t I strike you as the country-music type? 🙂 I don’t have a firm grasp on Coe’s story, either, beyond what I’ve outlined in the post.

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  5. What’s interesting to me is that the lyrics contain more what I’d call Christian revival style references than Mormon ones. Which makes sense, I suppose, considering the background of the writer.

    Comment by Wm Morris — May 12, 2010 @ 10:39 am

  6. When I saw “outlaw country music” in the title I was hopeful Congress had just passed a bill to that effect, but I am sadly disappointed that I was mistaken.

    Comment by Erastus — May 12, 2010 @ 11:17 am

  7. This was great stuff, Chris; thanks.

    Comment by Ben — May 12, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  8. I never knew this part of his background.

    Thanks for this post, Christopher. Listening to David Allan Coe is one of my guilty pleasures, so it’s good to know that I have friends in low places.

    Comment by Mark Brown — May 12, 2010 @ 11:39 am

  9. […] See the article here: Juvenile Instructor » Of Mormon Fundamentalism and Outlaw Country … […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Of Mormon Fundamentalism and Outlaw Country … | Mark Guerrero Music — May 12, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  10. Wm, that is an interesting point.

    Thanks, Ben.

    Likewise, Mark. “Guilty pleasure” is an apt description.

    Comment by Christopher — May 12, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

  11. I don’t feel guilty at all.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 12, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  12. Very cool post.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 12, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  13. “You Never Even Called Me by My Name” is indeed the best country and western song ever. It was played on the jukebox at least once any time I was at the Apartment Lounge on Olentangy River Road in Columbus Ohio from 1982-1984.

    “I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison…”

    Comment by Ann — May 12, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

  14. Great stuff, though I take exception to the “like any self-respecting Texan” line 🙂

    Comment by Jared T — May 12, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

  15. A few articles have reported (here and here) that Coe had a Mormon father and an Amish mother.

    Mormon Fundamentalist Alex Joseph said of Coe: “He showed up here [Big Water, Utah] in the mid-’80s and was interested in polygamy….He wanted to learn about it and I tried to help him with it. But the fact is, he wasn’t any good at it. Not everybody’s cut out for this.”

    Comment by Justin — May 14, 2010 @ 9:03 am

  16. Justin, you’re the man. Thanks for that. And I suppose the Amish mother might explain the Pennsylvania Dutch reference.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2010 @ 9:31 am

  17. Yes, Justin is the man. Thanks for the links.

    The Houston Press article is interesting. Perhaps it’s instructive that, in reference to being labelled a racist for his use of the n-word, Coe said:

    This has bothered me my whole life. There are thousands of movies where the actors kill people, but they don’t kill in real life. So nobody calls them killers. But I say the N-word in a song and all of a sudden I’m a racist in real life. But a singer is no different than an actor. A singer is just an actor playing the part of a singer.

    Along those lines, perhaps Coe is/was not a practicing polygamist, but rather just a singer “playing the part of” a polygamist in his song?

    Comment by Hunter — May 14, 2010 @ 11:35 am

  18. Yeah, that’s part of what I’m getting at here, Hunter (though it does seem clear that DAC at least tried to be a polygamist). Whether he actually had more than one wife isn’t as important (to me) as is the fact that he used Mormonism (at least rhetorically) as part of his “outlaw among outlaws” identity. Mormonism seems such an odd choice here considered alongside the other claims he made in trying to establish his rebel identity–libertarian, sexist, murderer, former death row inmate.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

  19. Actually, that all seems very stereotypical 19th century Mormon. It seems out of place in the 1970s and 80s.

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  20. LOL.

    Comment by David G. — May 14, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

  21. For those interested, I found a youtube clip with the entire song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3konHk2bjwI&feature=player_embedded#at=260

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  22. nice work, christopher

    Comment by g.wesley — May 17, 2010 @ 9:18 am

  23. I’ve got a half dozen DAC songs in my iTunes now. Thanks Christopher.

    DAC’s grandpa had 15 wives? Doubtful.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — May 17, 2010 @ 2:44 pm


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