Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part V: David Allan Coe, Mormon Fundamentalist?
The semester has ended here (though it sure didn't feel like it ever would as I waded through the final exams and papers of my students this past week), and next up on my plate is a summer of research and reading for comprehensive exams. I'm happy to report that among the books on my reading lists are several written by contributors here. There's also a handful of recently-published monographs, and as I make my way through some of them in the coming months, I hope to post my thoughts/brief reviews.
But before I jump into that reading, I wanted to add my own contribution to the ongoing series of posts on surprising or otherwise interesting primary sources. 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, Johnny 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 (updated additional info here). 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.