Stare down the cowboy

“Country DJs know that I’m an outlaw. They’d never come to see me in this dive. Where bikers stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies, who are praying they’ll get out of here alive.”

“Country DJs know that I’m an outlaw. They’d never come to see me in this dive. Where bikers stare at cowboys, who are laughing at the hippies, who are praying they’ll get out of here alive.”

These now-famous words, uttered by country and western’s most notorious outlaw, David Allan Coe, in the song “Longhaired Redneck”–his incendiary 1976 indictment of the mainstream country music scene–helped kick off a half-century-long career willed with copious amounts of controversy and mystery.

Whether you’re a punk-rock fan who has only recently hopped on the Johnny Cash trend-wagon, or a longtime believer in the virtue of all styles of music, David Allan Coe has written songs that every human can relate to. And he does so with all the charm of a rattlesnake: part poet, part prisoner, both bitter and graceful, and always badass.

Performing at the Aladdin Theatre on Nov. 17, Coe is no stranger to feeling out of place. After all, to the uneducated eye, Southeast Portland is hardly a blossoming epicenter of traditional American music. One bike ride down to your local record store is all it takes to infer that our fair city’s young ones would rather gleefully consume Canada’s rejects (Arcade Fire, etcetera) than give an honest listen to any musical Texan export not from Austin. But all of this is about to change.

Portland may be socially liberal, but as far as college-aged music listeners are concerned, we have the tendency to be über-conservative with regard to the Nashville sound, and inappropriately isolationist. Well, euphonic juveniles, you must harbor your prejudices elsewhere. Because now, what all those cool kids that unabashedly represent the banjo at the Farmers Market have known for a long time, and what generations of yesterday’s laid-back hep-cats have been aware of since the ’60s: There is nothing wrong with liking old-school music.

In 2007, the presence of David Allan Coe in our town fills a niche that is especially necessary: It represents a call-to-arms for a roots revival at the hands of the youthful in the town who have historically embraced Railroad Earth, New Riders of the Purple Sage and other modern propagators of old-time, bucolic sound. The pervasive underground appeal of the “outlaw” approach to traditional songwriting serves as an inspiration for the plethora of promising, modern local folk-punk bands that have all the talent and energy they need for a major breakthrough, but whose lyrical styles lack the authenticity and passion of their un-credited predecessors, such as Coe. This is an academic mistake corrected only by overcoming the slavery of genre-fication and accepting true music.

Coe was born on Sept. 6, 1939, in the blue-collar town of Akron, Ohio, and the intimate details of his early childhood remain shrouded in mystery. What little we do know is that the orphaned Coe was institutionalized in a boys-only reform school at nine years old. This premature exposure to the darker side of human nature common in the violent post-depression era steel-belt America, is likely to be a pre-emptive contributor to the anti-establishment attitude that is such a subtle-yet-endearing archetype in his lyrics.

According to biographies published about him, Coe spent more than nine years in prison-like surroundings before relocating to Dallas, Texas, where the culminated experiences of every conceivable distortion of human emotion led him to his current standing as an incorrigible and often-duplicated standard in western songwriting.

Any well-versed fan of music, whether they be very old or newly born, is perfectly qualified to sit on their ass all day and theorize about who invented punk music. While supporters of The Clash, The Sex Pistols and even The Ramones may be warranted in their claim to possessing the total amount of thrice-chorded crass, true subversion predates the aforementioned ’80s fashion icons by multiple decades.

A historical fact for this unpopular argument: Woodstock’s revolutionaries Country Joe and the Fish have comically chastised Ronald Reagan since ’69, and David Allan Coe had been apolitically challenging the norms of social convention long before he famously penned America’s forceful cry of the underprivileged: “Take this Job and Shove it,” a song later covered by singer Johnny Paycheck.

Daringly taking fuel off of the historic conflagration between punk-rocker and urban cowboy, the Dead Kennedys surprisingly added a completely un-ironic cover of an aforementioned anthem to their landmark album Bedtime for Democracy, decisively branding Coe’s outlaw-country more akin to Biafra than Shania–a substantial and wonderful difference.

Though he shares many unconventional viewpoints with country legend Willie Nelson, his music intertwines that kind of progressive and imaginative thinking with the customary southern values one would expect from the time and place he grew up in. He is just as likely to write about feeding LSD to a dancing bear as he is to sing the Texas lullabies of the early pioneer days. Part of his appeal is that you never really know what to expect from the self-proclaimed Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy.

Often put into the category of his more famous friends–Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings–Coe, along with his peers, has worked hard to make outlaw country the veritable force it is today. Give him a listen: You don’t have to like it, but you have to respect it.

David Allan Coe and the Tennessee Hat BandAladdin Theatre Nov. 17$26