By Gabe Meline
David Allan Coe is coming to town, and it's probably the only time that Petaluma's cowboy population will make the three-block trek from Kodiak Jack's over the ideological Berlin Wall and into the Phoenix Theater. It's also probably the only time that the Phoenix will have to mop up Copenhagen and Skoal afterwards. Coe's pretty much the most extreme example of "outlaw country" there is, and the venerable teen venue may never be the same.
Coe's written hundreds of songs, and many of them are great, but he's faced scrutiny for his staunch redneck ways. There's an oft-recycled story—which Coe has never entirely dismissed—of the singer murdering a fellow inmate in jail rather than supplying sexual favors, and this year it was announced he owes $292,688 in unpaid child support. Even more notoriously, he recorded two underground mail order-only albums in the 1980s full of songs that common decency deems unprintable, including an infamous rant against white women who fornicate with black men. In the years since, Coe's been called a racist, a misogynist, a smart businessman, a rebel, a genius and an idiot—and all of them apply, in varying degrees.
The racist tag is the one that especially haunts and infuriates Coe, who insists that he was encouraged to release his controversial songs by none other than Screamin' Jay Hawkins, a black R&B singer, and defensively points to the black people he's had as band mates. But do Coe's personal beliefs really matter when he's obviously attracting, and artistically justifying, intolerance? Coe can talk all he wants about refusing to perform his "joke" songs live, but he still turns an untidy profit by selling the album—clad in images of the Confederate flag—on his website.
Now 68, Coe could easily rest on his back catalogue of hits, which actually includes quite a few tender odes—Johnny Cash did a great version of "Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)"—but he's still active, recently recording a country-metal collaboration with the Texas metal band Pantera, who have long been accused, as bad luck would have it, of also being closet racists. It'll be interesting to see if Coe is ever inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and if so, whether or not he'll get the same sort of mixed reaction that faced director and House Un-American Activities Committee cooperator Elia Kazan when he took the podium in 1999 to accept a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.
Coe's career magnifies the exact question that underlined Kazan's big moment: What's more important, the man or the artist? The hundreds of contributions to country music, or the one ugly stain? And how widely do we separate the two?
David Allan Coe appears this Sunday, Nov. 11, at the Phoenix Theater, 201 E. Washington St., Petaluma. 8pm. $25. 707.762.3565.