Music’s best podcast is country’s ‘Cocaine & Rhinestones’


Around the time most honky-tonk bartenders are headed home for the night, Tyler Mahan Coe shuffles toward his book-strewn office in the East Nashville apartment he shares with his girlfriend and records “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” his fiercely told, relentlessly researched podcast on the history of country music.

“About 1:30 a.m. is when all the neighbors get quiet and cars stop driving by outside, and about 5:30 or 6 is when the birds outside start making noise,” Coe said during a recent call.

Coe, the son of Outlaw Country singer-songwriter David Allan Coe and who dropped out of high school at 15 to play guitar in his dad’s band, had just finished taping the fifth episode in his season-long exploration of country singer George Jones — an artist he said “just happened to have this chest cavity that glowed with so much air.” The first episode, “Starday Records: The Anti-Nashville Sound,” came out Tuesday — all two hours and 13 minutes of it — and 17 more are on the way.

The script still fresh on his mind, Coe, 36, offered a litany of Jones-connected topics he’d addressed during the recording: Spanish bullfighting, medieval tournament culture, jousting, Catherine de’ Medici, Martin Luther, Machiavelli, the Protestant Reformation. The strand that tied many of these together? The rhinestone stage suits that Jones wore during shows.

Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

Tammy Wynette and George Jones.

(Associated Press)

Season 1 of “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” which came out in 2017, tells a dozen stand-alone stories about musicians including the Louvin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, Wynonna Judd, Loretta Lynn and the Bakersfield team of Buck Owens and Don Rich. But an unshakable belief pushed Coe to put Season 2’s spotlight on Jones, who is responsible for dozens of essential country recordings, including “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “White Lightning,” “The Grand Tour” and “A Good Year for the Roses.” Jones died in 2013 at age 81.

“I believe he was the greatest country music singer,” Coe said of the Texas-born Jones, citing “his range and talent and creative intelligence — the gift that he was born with and the circumstances of his life that led him to neglect any other avenue available to him and only focus on country music, forsaking everything else.”

It’s Coe’s penchant for drama, history and storytelling that draws listeners to “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” which hit No. 1 on iTunes music podcast charts during its first season and hovered near the top throughout its 14-episode run. A first-time podcaster, Coe researched, wrote and produced it himself, relaying stories of murder, betrayal, misogyny, racism and damnation among the ranks of country musicians who earned their money through the conveyance of similar themes. Unlike Season 1’s weekly release schedule, episodes in the Jones cycle will arrive every two weeks.

Decidedly unpracticed, the first season vibrated with the duct-taped energy of a punk song: Coe’s tone, a mix of dry wit and self-assuredness, demands attention through its feral, get-the-message-out urgency. Each an epic, the episodes contain so much data and dredged-up Nashville marginalia that you are left equal parts dumbfounded and enriched. That he was a novice is apparent in those early chapters, but Coe, who first appeared onstage with his dad as a 3-year-old, said he drew on his experience playing as a teenager in the elder Coe’s band.

“I didn’t really know how to play guitar when he put me in the band. I learned onstage,” said Coe. “You figure out how to do it or you stop getting on the stage.”

On “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” Coe conveys the truths about his subjects with unflinching directness. A Season 1 episode that documents Los Angeles bandleader Spade Cooley, a vicious sexual predator convicted of murdering his wife, begins with Coe acknowledging that casual country fans might know only the basics of the case.

“This was not a domestic argument that got out of hand. Not an accident with a dangerous weapon. Not a so-called crime of passion. This wasn’t even an isolated incident. It was a savage and deliberate execution which many people had to have seen coming.” He then lays it all out by drawing on first-hand sourcing and press reports of the time, the collection of which he indexes on the podcast’s website.

When Coe first imagined “Cocaine & Rhinestones,” he searched podcast platforms for “country music,” but the results offered little satisfaction — “not even a bad show about country music.” He adds, “I have spent my entire life reading books about country music for pleasure, and because it’s the world that I come from, I just assumed that someone would have done it.”

He spent a week of sleepless nights thinking about how he might fill that need: “It was really, really messing with my head.”

His excitement for the project wasn’t based on an untapped niche in the booming audio storytelling sector, he stressed, but because he’d bought, read and kept the long out-of-print histories. Season 1 draws from titles as varied as Tom T. Hall’s “The Storyteller’s Nashville,” Frye Gaillard’s “Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music” and Tanya Tucker’s “100 Ways to Beat the Blues.”

Tyler Mahan Coe.

Tyler Mahan Coe near his Nashville home.

(William DeShazer / For The Times)

Since many country music books have never been digitized, Coe said, “I almost felt an obligation to do it. If these stories don’t start being told in the format that everyone has chosen to consume stories now, which is podcasts, then what happens to them? People aren’t going to remember.”

“Tyler will be talking about one subject, but he brings so many other subjects into it,” said Michael McCall, museum editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. “And they’re all relevant and quirky — very much him. It’s his mind working, and you can see where his thoughts lead him, and then he takes you there with him.”

Coe said that he’s fueled by the research and reporting and that he’s never been one for “podcasts where it’s just people sitting down and talking, not having thought much about what they’re going to say beforehand.” He said this despite also being the cohost of the delightfully blunt podcast “Your Favorite Band Sucks,” in which he and cohost Mark Mosley rail on popular groups — R.E.M., Queen, the Smiths and the Doors among them — seemingly without having thought much about what they’re going to say beforehand. That is, other than that the subject of each episode is presumed to positively suck.

Since that first season of “Cocaine,” the chase for successful audio content has become a billion-dollar business. In the last two years, music streaming platform Spotify acquired Gimlet Media for an estimated $300 million, Amazon bought Wondery for a similar price and SiriusXM took on the all-in-one podcast production platform Stitcher for $325 million. About 73 million people in the U.S. listened to a podcast last year, according to Edison Research.

Coe experienced that rush as the listenership for “Cocaine & Rhinestones” rose, he said. “They’ve all contacted me, and they want to buy it,” Coe says, adding that most were aiming to buy the intellectual property rights. “I’m not going to sell that, and I’m not even going to sell part of that for a thousand different reasons. The next thing that they want is exclusivity. And again, that just goes against the entire reason I started doing this.”

He interrupts himself: “Don’t get me wrong. I would love to have a lot of money. But I also feel like it’s more important that anyone who wants to listen to this be able to listen to this.” Coe has upped his merchandising game and is running ads this season. “There’s a decent chance that this is going to start bringing in a lot more money this time. I don’t know, but it could.”

Coe’s own life seems tailored for “Cocaine & Rhinestones.” The son of David Allan Coe, who issued his 1970 debut album, “Penitentiary Blues,” after spending much of the previous two decades incarcerated, first for crimes including car theft and then for killing a fellow inmate — the younger Coe was raised by a single mother and virtually ignored altogether by his father.

The two have had a rough relationship and are estranged, Coe said, adding later via email, “I remain a fan of his music and do think his career is very important to the history of the genre.” Among many hits, the elder Coe wrote the Johnny Paycheck standard “Take This Job and Shove It” and Tucker’s 1973 No. 1 country song “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone).”

“So many of the greatest country singers we’ve ever had are also very conflicted human beings, and that’s one of the great parts that Tyler gets in his podcast,” the Hall of Fame’s McCall said when asked about David Allan Coe’s legacy and the son’s connection to it. Calling the elder Coe “an iconoclast and a mess,” McCall added that when he interviewed David Allan Coe, the singer arrived wearing mismatched boots and was wary of the whole situation. “It’s who he is, which is not to trust anything — and it looks like that went to his family too.”

Cocaine & Rhinestones’ Tyler Mahan Coe talks John Prine.

When he set out to make the first season, Coe said he already knew he was on a path that would lead to Jones, whose life’s arc was filled with poverty, violence, addiction, chart-busting success and tabloid-generating arrests.

Needless to say, a series called “Cocaine & Rhinestones” doesn’t stray from detailing the sex and drugs of the genre, and in Jones’ life, there was plenty of both.

To get a sense of Coe’s approach to this narrative, take this nugget he imparts while arguing for Jones’ supremacy as a singer. Citing Jones’ best-known song, 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Coe says: “The reality is his voice sounds like s— on that song because he had been addicted to cocaine heavily for years and it rotted his vocal cords. His range is trash compared to literally the rest of his discography on that song.”

Adding that he “could totally see how people would listen to that and think that it’s some overrated bulls—,” Coe said Jones’ devotion to his craft was the result of something the singer learned in grade school. “He never successfully held down a single job in his life. He quit school while in elementary school and then just walked around the streets of Beaumont [Texas] with an acoustic guitar.”

Jones started his recording career mimicking his heroes, most notably Hank Williams. But, Coe says, “at some point, something clicked, and he realized how he could take a piece from anyone he wanted to and put it together into something else, like a chop-shop hot rod or something. And then he was just gone.”

The introduction to the first episode, “Starday,” begins with a bar-room fixture: “Many country musicians were famously addicted to pinball during this time,” Coe says, his voice distinctively enunciating each word. “Waylon Jennings used to drive all night after a show to get back to his favorite machines in Nashville. Tompall Glaser spent so much money on pinball, the second time he went back to a spot with a machine he liked, the owner had installed six more.”

Across the next 120 minutes, Coe sets the stage for a grand Jones narrative. “He’s the only human being to chart in the country top 40 across seven different decades. That seems so significant to me.” Coe said that the defined range of the show is 20th-century country music and that the first season was by design “an anthology thing,” but that each episode figures into the grander story told in the Jones saga.

That Jones’ story must travel back in time across the Atlantic to what the host describes as “people being obsessed with King Arthur fantasies and mythology” feels inevitable, at least when told through the wry Coe filter. A focus of many country songs, Coe adds, involve notions of chivalry, “which is, of course, a strong recurring thread in Tammy Wynette’s music.” Wynette, who for a time was married to Jones, has a song called “Bedtime Story,” which is about “a king being slayed by a dragon — and the dragon is an allegory for booze, because it’s after she divorced Jones.”

These labyrinthine pathways, which travel through landmarks such as the Ryman Auditorium, RCA’s famous Studio A and Castle Studios (considered the first professional studio in Nashville), might be too much for those looking for quick sonic thrills, rote biographical documentaries or open-microphone podcast chatter.

Coe’s read the criticism that he can be a hard listen. “People who think this is a show about country music only want me to talk about country artists, or they only want me to talk about songs. But they don’t get that you can’t separate the music from where this stuff comes from. It doesn’t get called Castle Studios if people aren’t stabbing each other on top of horses outside of castles in Europe, you know?”

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