Early one morning in 1957, country singer Ernest Tubb barged into the lobby of the National Life Building in downtown Nashville, withdrew a revolver from his holster, and shot at a person he thought was Jim Denny. Formerly the gatekeeper at the Grand Ol’ Opry and currently a concert promoter and song publisher, Denny was the guy who fired Hank Williams and told Elvis Presley he had no future in the music business. He was also still asleep in bed, which ended up not mattering anyway: Tubb, who had spent the week binge-drinking, hit only walls. Nevertheless, he was arrested and thrown in the drunk tank, which for him meant buying cigarettes for the cops and playing a few songs at the station.
Tubb’s hangover was brief compared to the life of the legend that grew up around the incident. The story has changed shape and shed necessary details, becoming an allegory of art versus commerce, the lone musician versus the powerful industry, drunken David hurling a stone at Goliath and missing by a mile. Depending on who’s telling it, Tubb is either an outlaw or a fool, Denny a witless foil or a true villain. In the pilot episode of “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” a new podcast about country music that recently wrapped its first season, host Tyler Mahan Coe digs deep into the contentious history between these two figures, which involves Jimmie Rodgers and his widow, the Opry and Philip Morris—pretty much the entire Nashville machine.
“Cocaine & Rhinestones” puts country’s history up for debate again, arguing that nothing is settled and everything is still subject to opposing viewpoints and agendas. At the center of every episode of this homegrown series—which Coe writes, produces, and records on his own time and his own dime—is some mystery about country music, some disagreement, some essential unknown. Who actually wrote Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 hit “Ode to Billie Joe”? What makes the Louvin Brothers’ harmonies so otherworldly? And was Jeannie C. Riley really blackmailed—with leaks of nude photos—into resigning with her former label after her anti-slutshaming anthem “Harper Valley PTA” became a crossover hit?
Sometimes Coe admits that the truth may be unrecoverable: In oneof three episodes on “Harper Valley PTA,” he finds no real evidence that such a conspiracy existed against Riley, but also nothing to prove that it didn’t. Occasionally he finds slightly mystical answers: The Louvins episode, one of the best of the first season, argues that the brothers demonstrate a phenomenon called blood harmony, which refers to the strangely intuitive music made by siblings who grew up largely isolated from the world. Often Coe comes out with what many will perceive to be fightin’ words: The episode about Bobbie Gentry argues very persuasively that “Ode to Billie Joe” was obviously written by Gentry and not, as many attest, by her songwriter boyfriend Jim Ford.
After just a few months and 14 episodes, “Cocaine & Rhinestones” has quickly become one of the most popular music podcasts in any genre, without sponsors or even much of a budget. As of this writing, it is the top music podcast on iTunes, which means that country fans and newcomers alike are listening to Coe. That makes “Cocaine & Rhinestones” the kind of crossover hit everybody in Nashville dreams about. Coe, who also co-hosts an unscripted podcast called “Your Favorite Band Sucks,” is uniquely qualified to plumb these mysteries and examine old arguments. The son of country singer and “longhaired redneck” David Allan Coe, he started performing as a kindergartener and dropped out of high school to join the family touring band, essentially learning to play guitar onstage. Eventually he took over his father’s band and stayed on the road for 13 years.
“It’s not a very social life,” Coe recently told me. “You perform, and then you sit alone in a room for eight hours. That room is on wheels, and it takes you to the next room.” Meeting up with other artists offered precious time to have conversations with new people. “There’s a real sense of community between artists, and storytelling is one of the main forms of social currency in that backstage society. You trade stories with each other: This is what happened to us since the last time we saw you. Or, this is a story I just heard about Hank Snow. That’s as traditional as any song structure you would find in country music.”
This behind-the-scenes oral tradition has its upsides and downsides. It rewards embellishment and exaggeration, favoring good storytelling over factual accuracy. It also means that people cling to their stories too closely, often choosing to believe in the legends even when they’ve been debunked. Most of the criticism Coe has received for "Cocaine & Rhinestones" centers around the episode about Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” one of the most debated songs in country music history. Is Hag really railing against the hippies? Is it a conservative anthem, or a leftist send-up of conservative politics? Coe argues that the song is intended as satire, and he points out that Hag’s intended follow-up was “Irma Jackson,” a heartbreaker about a doomed interracial romance. On the other hand, Coe doesn’t consider whether “Okie” is actually effective as satire. Can a piece of art that’s been taken up by the very people it purports to make fun of be all that successful at making fun of them?
Coe insists that “Cocaine & Rhinestones” isn’t intended to be political—or, more precisely, that it isn’t intended to be partisan. But because country music is a lightning rod for so many social and cultural issues, the podcast can’t avoid politics, whether it’s Hag singing about hippies or Rusty and Doug Kershaw playing up their Cajun roots (in a wild episode that involves Neil Young and a pot cocktail called “honey sliders”). Several episodes push against the sexism that has always been rampant in Nashville and continues even today, as female artists struggle to get radio airplay and are dismissed as “tomatoes.” It’s particularly difficult to listen to the episode about Western swing superstar Spade Cooley, who emotionally and physically tortured his wife, Ella Mae Evans, before eventually killing her. After presenting the graphic details, Coe reveals perhaps the most devastating part: Cooley was granted a full pardon by Ronald Reagan, then the governor of California. Her murder becomes merely a footnote in a career that thrived even after the star was incarcerated. “It’s a story that hasn’t been told, and I began to feel an obligation to Ella Mae Evans,” Coe told me.
As a preface to the episode about Loretta Lynn’s controversial 1975 hit “The Pill,” Coe goes back 100 years to talk about the anti-vice efforts of Anthony Comstock and the resistance led by Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. It’s a fascinating history especially in this context, and Coe argues that Lynn stoked controversy as a savvy marketing technique. “The Pill” is about a woman who discovers that birth control allows her to have more sex with her husband and curb his cheating ways, and she sings it not like sex is a marital obligation or a means to a procreative end, but as something to be enjoyed. And yet, the song was banned on 60 radio stations. Coe doesn’t make it explicit, but it’s hard not to see this same kind of bias in today’s country radio market, where female artists are treated very differently than male artists. The sounds may have changed in 40 years, but the gender politics of the radio dial have not.
In examining these kinds of stories, Coe makes country music messy again. Even the word country becomes hard to pin down across the podcast, and the genre becomes something not so self-contained, as it intersects with different cultural worlds. That is perhaps what makes “Cocaine & Rhinestones” a hit among hardcore fans and newcomers who don’t know Shelby Singleton from Shel Silverstein. Coe’s podcast comes along at a time when mainstream country artists are pushing back against its depiction as a strictly right-wing genre. Artists like Kacey Musgraves have written popular pro-LGBTQ songs, icons like Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have argued in favor of gun control, and failed Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently had to be removed from the Country Music Awards board of directors after outcry from Nashville artists and executives. Country music is changing, like it or not, and “Cocaine & Rhinestones” reflects that shift. By unsettling its past, Coe suggests that country music’s future might be up for grabs as well.