The early morning hours of March 3, 2020, found Tyler Mahan Coe huddled in the bathtub of his apartment in East Nashville. With him was his wife, Aileen, and a one-eyed French bulldog named Bill. Outside stalked death. A violent tornado was bashing its way through the city: across the Cumberland River, past the clubs and bars of Five Points they knew like the back of their hand, striding ever closer, like a thing with legs. Bill, whether out of anxiety or indifference, fell fast asleep. Finally, there was an overwhelming roar, like a jet engine, and it had passed, missing them by blocks.
When the Coes emerged the next morning, they learned that the roof over the bedroom of Tyler’s old apartment, the place they had slept until just a few months earlier, had been ripped off by the storm. The pinball bar where they had spent countless evenings was obliterated. Within a week, the Nashville tornado was forgotten as COVID-19 swept across the nation, but it lingered for Tyler Mahan Coe, and not just because of the close physical reminders of the devastation. For him, the near miss was a sign that it was time to get serious about the work in front of him—specifically, producing season two of Cocaine & Rhinestones, his acclaimed podcast about the history of 20th-century country music.
“It was like, if there’s a reason I’m alive, this is it,” he says. “I need to get this work done.”
Coe had made season one of Cocaine & Rhinestones entirely by himself, three years earlier. It was a surprise hit, despite him coming to the project with zero experience in podcasts, history, or long-form storytelling. What he had was an abundance of intelligence, confidence, and charisma, an intuitive knack for self-branding, and a deeply steeped knowledge of his subject matter—all of which are at least in part the complicated inheritance from a profoundly complicated man: David Allan Coe, country star, outlaw icon, and Tyler’s estranged but inescapable father.
Cocaine & Rhinestones debuted in October 2017 and was everything you love about podcasts, especially in those days before consolidation and professionalism began to set in. It was brash, idiosyncratic, and a little scruffy around the edges. If it felt at times that Coe could have benefited from an editor, that feeling was outweighed by the thrill of discovering something that could not have been done by anybody else in quite the same way. The style was in the mold of Karina Longworth’s podcast about Hollywood, You Must Remember This: deep-dive narrative history delivered by a single storyteller. In a medium that has shown a genetic weakness for cherry-picking information to support its theses, Coe was a fact-checker’s dream; he included an extensive set of annotative “liner notes” at the end of each episode. By early this year, the show had racked up some 3 million listens and in the neighborhood of 150,000 subscribers, all without the help of a supporting network.
“The numbers of people Tyler has reached can’t be argued,” says Peter Cooper, the longtime music writer for The Tennessean and now writer, editor, and producer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “He’s finding an audience that never cared about this kind of music, and he’s doing it by telling stories about artists who were dead before they were even alive.”
When Coe’s sisters first heard Cocaine & Rhinestones, they each said the same thing: “Why are you talking that way?” He got better. One of the pleasures of the show was listening to Coe figure out how to make it as he went along, hitting his stride around episode six, about the ethereal and tragic Louvin Brothers, and rolling forward with installments on such topics as the novelty megahit “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” the friendship of Buck Owens and Don Rich, and the saga of Bobbie Gentry and her mysterious masterpiece, “Ode to Billie Joe.” As these may suggest, there was nothing winking or ironic about the country music that was Coe’s subject. This was not the counterculture-sanctioned country of Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash. It was not “Americana.” It was country. For serious fans, the show provided controversial takes on legendary stories and textual rabbit holes deep and winding enough to get lost in for days. For dilettantes, it suggested a vast shelf of American culture that had been sitting there, just outside their peripheral vision, all their lives. The New Yorker declared Cocaine & Rhinestones “addictive” and “sparkling.” The Country Music Hall of Fame called to offer use of its library and put Coe’s face on a billboard. Speaking at the Hall, Wynonna Judd gave her endorsement. “I literally sat there and wept,” she told an audience about listening to the episode about her dysfunctional family. “Because I heard things about myself that I’d forgotten.”
Coe likes to say that there are more bad books about Bob Dylan than there are good ones about the entirety of country music. This despite the indisputable fact that it is as uniquely American a form as jazz, or blues, or rock and roll—not just because it has its roots in the deepest, most turbulent humus of this nation’s history but because, like all the best art America produces, it sits in the crucible of creativity and capitalism, beholden equally to the spark of genius and the grinding gears of the culture-manufacturing machine. (Not unlike podcasting.)
Cocaine & Rhinestones anticipated a wave of recent interest in country that has ranged high and low across the cultural spectrum, from Ken Burns’s 16-hour PBS documentary and Mike Judge’s animated series “Tales From the Tour Bus” to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”—a song that Cocaine & Rhinestones listeners would recognize as only the latest feint in a pas de deux between country and mainstream that has spanned the life of the genre.
Soon after the conclusion of season one, Coe addressed the matter of a follow-up, which, he would later reveal, would be devoted to the life and music of George Jones, who was, for several generations, the very embodiment of country music. As to when it might appear, Coe demurred. “I’ve never made the first season of a podcast before, which took me seven months,” he pointed out. “And I’ve never made the second season of a podcast before, which I don’t expect to take as long.”
That was three years ago.
For much of last spring and summer, through the foggy and surreal months of COVID lockdown, I had regular Monday-night phone conversations with Tyler Mahan Coe. Since the onset of the pandemic, he had adopted a nocturnal lifestyle, working through the night and then sleeping all day. Somebody had stolen his neighbor’s car from their shared driveway, which heightened his sense of evening paranoia. So we would sit in our respective quarantines, me opening a beer in New Orleans while he poured coffee in Nashville.
Coe had not been idle since the conclusion of Cocaine & Rhinestones’ first season. There was, for one thing, his other podcast, Your Favorite Band Sucks, on which he and a friend, Mark Mosley, crack themselves up by elaborately shitting on popular music of all stripes. He was, to say the least, active on Twitter, an opinionated, often enlightening, but also increasingly pugnacious presence. And he’d become something of a celebrity in cool country music circles, showing up at the debut of the Hall of Fame’s exhibit about the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, DJ’ing sets at Billy Reid’s annual Shindig, in Florence, Alabama, and on the Outlaw Country Cruise.
None of that accounted for the delay of season two, though. Nor, he told me, was he suffering from the anxiety of producing a follow-up to what had been a surprise hit. He was working on the George Jones story, he said. Constantly, in fact. It had just, um, grown.
There would have to be, for instance, episodes tracing the ways in which Jones’s epic career encompassed a century’s worth of country history: the rise and fall of regional record labels and of the Nashville Sound—that attempt to sell country as the adult, pop answer to rock and roll by way of lush orchestration—and its descendant “countrypolitan”; the so-called Nashville A-Team, the group of session players that was the bedrock of Nashville recording; and of course the tumult of Jones’s life, from his grief-and-abuse-soaked childhood in the backwoods of East Texas through his disastrous marriage to Tammy Wynette and beyond. His slide into drug and alcohol addiction so deep that it stands out even in the history of country music, which is not notably a chronicle of teetotalism. (There was very little actual cocaine in Cocaine & Rhinestones’ first season, but there is sure to be plenty in season two.)
All that was to be expected. But, Coe said, the story would also need to delve into the history of bullfighting. And of Catherine de’ Medici. Plus the invention of pinball and the piano and artificial ice. And, well, there would have to be a fair amount about the origin of the “brass ring,” moving from medieval jousting to the popularization of the carousel.
“There are going to be people who are like, ‘Why can’t you just talk about country music, man?’ But I am. I fucking am. I do not believe it is possible to fully appreciate or understand how good a country music singer George Jones is unless you understand Spanish bullfighting. I just don’t.” The final product, he said, would be about Jones “the way Moby-Dick is about a whale.”
Inevitably, inexorably, our conversations would drift toward David Allan Coe. The elder Coe, DAC, is a legendary figure whose inspired moments—from writing such classics as “Take This Job and Shove It” and “Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone)” to his iconic performance of “You Never Even Called Me by My Name”—have more recently been overshadowed by a calamitous public persona, especially around issues of race. Tyler dropped out of high school at 14 to join David Allan Coe on tour, becoming his band leader. He held that position until 2013, when DAC summarily dismissed the band and formed a new one. Father and son have not spoken since.
Tyler talked about his father (who declined to be interviewed for this story) with the same balance of empathy and unsparing analysis that he brings to the subjects of Cocaine & Rhinestones. He described him as needy, easily wounded, self-sabotaging, and fueled by resentment, a compulsive fabulist who, above all, feared embarrassment and abandonment. Without apologizing, Tyler also explained to me some of what had made his father this way, foremost a brutal childhood, spent almost entirely in increasingly severe levels of the penal system. To be angry with him, he said, “almost feels like being mad at a dog. Of course he shit on your floor.”
People expected him to be broken up over the rift, Tyler said. “But it wasn’t a relationship that was ever there. It hurt, but it’s not a new hurt. I could probably count on one hand the number of times that my father has said useful life things to me.”
I asked what things he was thinking of. There had been a time, he said, when he was especially struggling. He had lost a friend tragically and suffered an equally intense heartbreak. “I was just really hurting,” he said, so much so that he asked his father for advice.
“And what he said… He didn’t say it in a cold way. I could see how it would come across that way. But what he said was this: ‘The only thing I can tell you is that no one else can feel your pain.’ ”
David. Tyler. George. A Father, a Son, and an Unholy Ghost. On the phone, those summer nights, the edges of their stories would start to blur into one tangled knot of family and trauma, abandonment and exile, addiction, compulsion, art, self-invention, reinvention, genius, and trouble. Cocaine & Rhinestones is about the perils of fame. It is about the ways in which the women in and around country music have been denied agency over their careers and lives, about what happens when the meaning of a work of art is taken out of its creator’s hands. Toxic familial bonds weave through the podcast like vines. Tyler Coe’s own family appears only in passing. Yet the more he and I talked, the more it seemed clear that Cocaine & Rhinestones was, in addition to everything else, a shadow telling of his own strange American story.
The beginning of that story belongs to a 22-year-old girl and an orange Camaro. This is 1983. Jody Lynn Benham has that gleaming sports car, the color of a Popsicle, a cat named John Wayne that she walks on a leash, and a burning desire to get the hell out of Michigan. The notion occurs to her that she will go to Nashville and she will marry either Merle Haggard or David Allan Coe, who is already as famous for being a supposed polygamist and member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang as he is as an artist.
“It was really just something to say,” as she tells it now. “Just being young and silly.”
So Jody hits the road, eventually making it to the Music City, where she takes a job cleaning rooms at, where else, the hotel at Opryland USA. It isn’t long before a fellow housekeeper invites her to meet David Allan Coe at a recording studio. She waits in the lobby until he appears: a big, tall, magnetic figure coming down the stairs, flanked by the producer Billy Sherrill and the singer Charlie Rich.
A member of Coe’s entourage introduces them: “This is Jody. She wanted to meet you.” Coe looks at Jody. He takes her hand and says, “Let’s go.”
“I don’t hold hands in public,” says Jody.
“You do now,” says Coe.
Before the night’s over, Coe tells Jody he’s about to go on the road and wants her to come with him. “Couldn’t we just, um, date?” she asks him. That’s not how he does things, says Coe: “You’re either with me or you’re not.”
Jody decides she’s with him, at least long enough that she finds herself pregnant. Then she splits, back to Michigan, where her child, a son, is born. She doesn’t even put “Coe” on his birth certificate. A year later comes a phone call: “David Allan is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Please come to Nashville, to Johnny Cash’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and let him meet his son.”
On the plane to Tennessee, she prays: “Lord, help me be strong. Let me stand up for myself.” At the house, Willie Nelson is there. So are Kris Kristofferson and his wife. June Carter Cash, of course. Waylon… Well, she doesn’t quite remember if Waylon and his wife, Jessi Colter, are there, but what the hell, let’s say they are, just to complete this firmament, this Nashville Versailles. David Allan Coe is in an upstairs bedroom, apparently bereft. Johnny Cash himself takes the kid up to the room. He says, “David, I need you to look after this child for a second,” handing the baby over before Coe has a chance to protest. When he comes back a few minutes later, the two are getting along.
“Say, this kid likes me. He seems smart too,” says Coe.
“Well, that’s your son,” says Johnny Cash.“His name is Tyler.”
The weekend goes well, but Jody tears herself away. Back in Michigan, she leaves Tyler with her parents overnight for the very first time, to attend a wedding in Detroit. When she calls to check in, her mother tells her, “David just called from the airport. He says he’s coming to get you.” Maybe it’s whatever it is about David Allan Coe that’s hard to say no to. Maybe it’s that she suspects she’s pregnant again. But Jody says yes. Before they leave to start their new family life, Coe takes the keys to that orange Camaro and tosses them to Jody’s brother. She won’t need that car anymore.
And if that don’t make a young man feel like it might be his destiny to write about country songs, well…
As Tyler Coe tells it, David Allan Coe saw his marriage to Jody Benham, complete with a new son and, soon, a daughter, Tanya Montana, as a fresh start. He cut his hair, had a tattoo artist cover all his prison ink in one marathon session. Which is not to say life was conventional. For a while, Coe collected big cats—two jaguars, two leopards, and a bobcat. “At night, they make the most terrifying sounds. It sounds like a woman screaming,” says Tyler, who was once bitten by a frisky jaguar. There was also a chimpanzee, named Rocky, who had to go once he took to throwing the contents of his diaper at Jody.
Like many country stars, David Allan Coe has always had a thing for including his family in his act. By age two, Tyler had already appeared on the cover of the album Son of the South, on which he sits on his father’s lap, draped in a Confederate flag, while David Allan leans down, seemingly to take a bite out of the child’s ear. DAC enlisted Tyler as a regular onstage when he was still a toddler, performing with his boy a maudlin duet of a song that Bobby Bare had made famous with his own son, “Daddy What If.” When DAC went out on tour, the whole family went. Jody was dragooned into playing keyboards, an instrument she did not actually play. At home, first in Branson, Missouri, and then in Nashville, it was all hands on deck, writing and assembling newsletters for the official fan club, of which Tyler was president. You’re either with David Allan Coe or you’re not.
After two more children—Shyanne and Carson—Jody put her foot down and said she and the kids were done traveling. There was less of David Allan Coe around the house then, but his shadow was still felt both when he was on the road and at home. “There was an element of fear. He was a scary presence,” says Tanya, who now runs a popular vintage-clothing store in Nashville and has released two albums of her own music. “I say it was like living with a ghost. You never knew when he would be in this very bad mood that just seemed evil. Where if you were in the same room with him, you were probably getting on his nerves.”
Tyler was 12 when Jody worked up the courage to leave. They’d just traded up to a top-of-the-line Prevost tour bus, something David Allan Coe had been dreaming of forever, and she figured he might be briefly happy enough to let her go. The kids still occasionally joined their father on tour during school vacations, but it was a period of relative normalcy in suburban Nashville. Predictably, Tyler started to get bored in school. Then drunk in school. When he spotted military-school pamphlets in his mother’s mail (Jody says they were a friend’s idea, not hers), he called his dad and said he wanted back on the “with” side of David Allan Coe. Jody was heartbroken; so was Tanya.
“I thought I was going to die,” Tanya says. “The idea that Tyler was going to be able to leave this lackluster life we had and go be part of that excitement, and to have a relationship with my dad… Of course, Tyler had a completely different experience than that.”
From the beginning, Tyler embraced the romance of the working musician’s grind more than he did sex, drugs, and rock and roll—a respect for professionalism that he would later bring to celebrating the session musicians and producers who are the backbone of country music. Within months, David Allan Coe informed his son that he was the band’s new guitarist, despite Tyler’s minimal skills in that area. It’s fair to say that onstage in front of thousands of cantankerous David Allan Coe fans is not the most nurturing place on earth to develop one’s craft, though perhaps it is good practice for putting one’s podcast out into the world. Before long he opted to travel on the band’s bus, rather than DAC’s. Road manager Bruce Smith became a sort of surrogate father; Tyler would stay with Smith and his family, in Springfield, Missouri, between tours. He doggedly got better at guitar. He lugged a suitcase of books on the road, holing up in the bus and reading while at the motorcycle rallies DAC played every year. Lest this seem too monkish, he was often on acid at the time.
“He was a just a typical teenage shithead,” Smith says fondly.
A decade and more went by, the band playing as many as 200 dates a year. By the 2010s, David Allan Coe shows had become scattershot affairs at best. It was not unusual for DAC to spend the majority of his time onstage ranting about how unjustly he had been treated by the country music industry, grumbling about the sound system, and then rushing through a sloppy medley of his, or other people’s, hits. By now the band’s leader, Tyler became the de facto complaint department for both sides, audience and father.
Then, in March 2013, during a tour, David Allan Coe got into a car accident in Ocala, Florida. The last Tyler heard from his father, once he recovered, was that he planned to play a few solo shows before getting the band back together. Thus, it came as a surprise to see him onstage with an entirely new lineup at Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic that year. It was a move that Tyler and others believe stemmed from the apparent desire of David Allan’s newest wife, Kimberly, to build a wall between DAC and people from his previous life.
Tyler found himself back in Springfield, with no driver’s license, no transferable job skills, and a felony record stemming from a drug arrest on tour (possession of 12 hits of LSD) and an ensuing DUI. For a while he sold plasma to get by, 30 or 40 bucks a pop, twice a week. On his 29th birthday, Tyler told his side of the band’s breakup story in a post on his blog, Baby Black Widows. “This is not a tirade or reproach,” he wrote. “I’m going back to Nashville to be around the rest of my family.”
Not long after that, he went looking for a podcast on country music; when he couldn’t find one, inspiration struck. The idea for Cocaine & Rhinestones arrived all but fully formed, the first five seasons laid out before him as clearly as a book fallen open to just the right page. A life’s work.
“It hit me with the most nauseating feeling of fear in my life,” he says. “I was almost physically ill. Because I knew that I had to do it.”
I asked Tyler if he felt in any way grateful to his father for putting him on this path, however inadvertently. “Grateful is probably not the word I would use,” he said. “But I do believe in God. I do believe I was made to do this. So it’s all happened the way that it had to happen for this to happen.” I had a somewhat startling thought: Would he still be in his father’s band if the choice hadn’t been taken out of his hands? Would he have left of his own accord?
He answered quickly, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world: “No,” he said. “He’s my dad.”
There is enough self-inflicted ugliness surrounding David Allan Coe that it obscures a strain of archetypal American hucksterism for which it is hard not to feel at least a little affection. He rolled into Nashville in 1967, driving a hearse painted red and hand-lettered with the words “SUPPORT THE GRAND OLE’ OP’RY,” and soon took to wearing a mask and a rhinestone suit. He’d park the car outside the Opry’s home at the Ryman Auditorium, duck into the doorway of the stage door, and jog in place until he was sweaty. Then he would emerge, as though having just stepped offstage, to bestow autographs on approaching tourists. The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, as Coe dubbed himself, is a character worthy of David Bowie.
DAC has always seemed devoted to the showbiz credo of “whatever works.” In the 1970s, he claimed to be employing country’s first all-female backing band, Ladysmith. In the 1980s, he became enamored of stage magic, eventually buying a theater in rural Arkansas and opening a magic show there. The act’s centerpiece was a “big cat” illusion, à la Siegfried & Roy, that culminated in young Tyler emerging from a box holding a stuffed Garfield doll. Coe’s magic skills were so bafflingly nonexistent that the act verged on a kind of outsider art. His performances came to the attention of the magicians Penn Jillette and Teller, who became fascinated fans: “The greatest insult you can give in science is ‘He’s not even wrong.’ The analogue to that in magic is ‘What’s the effect? I don’t even know what the effect is supposed to be,’ ” Jillette says. “That’s what David Allan Coe’s tricks were like.” (Jillette and Teller eventually met DAC in person, an encounter that demands its own separate telling.)
Much energy has been spent over the years investigating the foundational mythology of Coe’s persona: that he killed a man in prison for hitting on him, that he played guitar with Charles Manson, that he once stood up and peed on a record executive’s desk for keeping him waiting too long before a meeting, or later lived in a cave after having his assets seized by the IRS. The absolute truth of these legends seems to matter less than the fact that Coe himself surely by now believes them. (He may be the first profile subject in history to rail against a magazine, Rolling Stone, for daring to suggest he did not kill somebody.) He does appear to have entered the penal system at nine years old, consigned to a reform school by a stepmother who didn’t want an extra son inclined toward wildness. All told, he spent some two decades in and out of various institutions, including stints in the Ohio State Penitentiary, giving him perhaps the most legitimate claim to outlaw status of any star of the outlaw-country movement. He may have been a bit too much even for his fellow outlaws. “David Allen Coe is like a carnival coming at you with all the rides going at once,” Billy Joe Shaver supposedly once said.
The problem with “whatever works,” as has been made abundantly clear in recent years, is what happens when what works is deeply malign. In Coe’s case, his legacy has come to be widely defined by his two so-called X-rated albums: Nothing Sacred, released in 1978, and Underground Album, in 1982. They are collections of juvenile, vulgar, and offensive songs, including ones that use the worst racial and homophobic slurs. For years the records were cult items, sold by mail order from the back of biker magazines, reemerging to a wider audience in the Napster era. Adding fuel to the fire, as if Coe needed the help, songs by a virulently white-supremacist singer who went by the name Johnny Rebel were widely attributed to Coe on the illegal-download circuit. DAC has always insisted that he is neither a racist nor a homophobe and that the albums should be received as satire. For all his father’s sins that he will happily catalog, Tyler agrees. David Allan Coe is stubborn, retrograde, and in possession of racial attitudes complicated by his age, background, and experience in prison, he says, but he is not a white supremacist.
“If somebody showed up at a David Allan Coe show wearing Klan robes, they would get the shit kicked out of them,” he says, which may be true but also falls into the if-you-have-to-say-it category.
It does seem clear that the songs were meant to be funny. At least several of them can be read as being directly about the absurdity of bigotry. It’s also clear that none of that really matters. As Tyler himself says in a Cocaine & Rhinestones episode about Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee”: “Every songwriter knows what you meant to write in a song does not matter. It’s what people hear that determines the meaning of a song.” David Allan Coe has remained stubbornly allegiant to the X-rated albums, which he sells on tour, and to an audience that, at least in part, seems to take them at face value. Meanwhile, the official DAC Facebook page is a miasma of Trump memes and Confederate flags.
“At some point,” Tyler concedes, “he decided that if he was going to do the time, he was sure as fuck going to do the crime.”
One night when I called Tyler Coe, he was agitated and depressed. The day before, the singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, had died of what would later be confirmed as an accidental overdose. There is an unspoken connection between the children of country stars: Shooter Jennings, Bobby Bare Jr., Hank Williams III, Waylon Payne, the son of guitarist Jody Payne and singer Sammi Smith. As John PayCheck, son of Johnny, told me, “The things that we can talk about, the things that we can share—it’s like an extended family.”
Tyler took pains to say that he and Justin had not been close but they had spent a few days together, two decades ago, that he found especially memorable. He was 16 at the time; Earle was 19. Their fathers were shooting a never-released movie called Blackbirds and Blazers, and the sons had been invited to appear in a few scenes, which primarily meant sitting around, killing time, and shooting the shit. They compared experiences on the road with their dads and played Justin’s guitar; mostly, like country fans of any era, but especially the late ’90s and early aughts, they bitched about the state of country music. “Back then the most common response to ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ was ‘Everything except country and rap,’ ” Coe says. “I mean, you might as well say, ‘I don’t like music made by poor people.’ Justin and I only listened to country and rap.”
What they really connected on were all the bullshit things that fans seemed to believe “real” country depended on: drugs and booze, toxic masculinity, being born poor, being Southern, all of the superficial trappings of “authenticity.”
“It came back to this idea: What makes country music good?” Tyler said. “And it’s working your ass off inside the form. It’s getting inside it and living, sleeping, breathing inside it. You play guitar 10 hours a day. You copy down lyrics of songs you love and you draw a slash between every syllable and you figure out the mathematical pattern. You walk around all day making vowel sounds with your mouth to write a melody. It has nothing to do with the drugs you’ve done or the clothes you wear.”
The deceptively simple language of country music, he said, is the ancient language of poor people satirizing the rich beneath their noses, of the enslaved passing messages over their masters’ heads, the arcane, symbol-rich “green” and “bird” languages of alchemists and troubadours. A great country song may seem simple, but it taps into a storytelling mode as deep as the tarot, old as dirt.
By the end of his time with Earle, Tyler had begun to think in a kind of shorthand about all the misconceptions and misdirections that obscured the depth of the music he loved: “I walked away from that conversation with one phrase in my mind: ‘cocaine and rhinestones.’ ”
Tyler Coe is red-haired and rail thin, with an angular face. He claims, plausibly, to have worn the same clothes since he was 15. It’s something of an ongoing joke that people he spars with on Twitter inevitably make a snarky comment about his hair, the implication being that he’s a pretty boy. It has to be said that the hair is enviably lustrous.
When I finally drove up to Nashville to see him, he was waiting for me outside his apartment, posed like an album cover in aviator sunglasses, a gray-green western shirt, cowboy boots, and a black-and-white cowhide belt with an oversized buckle that he wore shifted over to one hip. We visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and thumbed through the museum’s archive of press and memorabilia clippings on David Allan Coe. “That should not be in here,” Tyler said, quickly shuffling away a postcard that showed him as a naked cherub. It was the first day the museum had opened since the coronavirus struck, and a handful of visitors wandered among the displays. Tyler had never set foot in here until after the first season of Cocaine & Rhinestones, thinking it was just a cheesy tourist trap. Now he’s spent countless hours in the museum’s archives.
Coe and his wife live in a cluttered, cozy two-bedroom apartment with Bill, the one-eyed dog. People assume Tyler has a regular stream of revenue from his father’s music, but the elder Coe either ceded or sold the rights to nearly all his music amidst bankruptcies and tax problems years ago. Since the conclusion of Cocaine & Rhinestones season one, Tyler’s sole income has come from his Patreon page, which he says totals about a thousand dollars a week, the same amount he made as a member of his father’s band. Tyler says he had multiple offers from podcast companies to buy Cocaine & Rhinestones—including an extended courtship with Gimlet Media—but here he learned the lessons of his own subject matter well.
“I’ve spent my entire life watching old men complain about bad contracts they’ve signed, control they’ve given up, IP they’ve sold. It’s the only story,” he says. “I would lose an arm before I would sell one percent of Cocaine & Rhinestones.”
It has to be said that the longer the break between podcast seasons has stretched, the more the Coe of Cocaine & Rhinestones has been overshadowed by the Coe of Your Favorite Band Sucks and of Twitter. That persona tends toward the swaggering and combative. As his sister Tanya puts it: “He’s a dick.”
The author of a post on the blog Saving Country Music wrote, “Something has changed in Tyler Mahan Coe, and pretty dramatically. That guy who seemed curiously well-adjusted, articulate, wise, and even-keeled for the Coe blood coursing through his veins all of a sudden started living up to the type of guy you feared he could be when you first heard he was the son of David Allan.”
Tyler has dealt with some version of that his entire life. “I’ve been called a white supremacist like once a week,” he says. “For no other reason than my last name.”
But the question of what to take and what to reject from his father hangs over Tyler, as it does us all. “My father was my role model for what a man should be, which is loud enough to be paid attention to,” he says. “My whole life I’ve been told the worst thing that can happen is you be ignored. Loving you or hating you is the most important thing. And obviously I would much rather be loved than hated. But also, it would be worse to be ignored. It really would.”
Of course, nobody has more reason than Tyler to know the danger of that approach: that it will come to overshadow everything else.
In the back of the apartment, a tiny bedroom serves as Tyler’s office. This is where he was completing his season about George Jones, which clocks in at over 18 hours, more than Ken Burns took to cover all of country music’s history. On a shelf rests a collection of cowboy boots; the closet holds a small but impressive collection of westernwear.
“My last name is Coe,” he says. “If you invite me to a party, I am going to come correct.”
Among his pieces is a rhinestone-studded neckerchief. Rhinestones may be a symbol of superficiality, but that’s not all they are. “If you’ve ever worn a piece of rhinestone clothing, you know,” Coe says. “You put it on, and when you move, you see points of light everywhere. It’s a very magical experience. It’s like being surrounded by fairies.”
And so we were back to bullfighting: Tyler believes the western rhinestone suit has its origins in the traje de luces (“suit of lights”), the outfit worn by toreadors. It’s a costume at once preeningly macho and nakedly vulnerable, patently absurd for the task of facing down the 1,000-pound beast before it, and yet glittering in starry defiance. “To strap a rhinestone suit on yourself and go out onstage and sing about your feelings, that’s some really intense shit. It’s like painting a bull’s-eye on yourself and being like, ‘Here I am. This is me,’ ” Coe says. “Why would you put on a rhinestone suit if what you were about to do next wasn’t, like, the most important thing in the world?”
Brett Martin is a GQ correspondent.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue with the title “Meet the Keeper of Country Music’s Tall Tales and Secret Histories.”