Life at 33 1/3: The dark horse of country music

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David Allan Coe, “Castles In The Sand” (CBS)

*From the vaults of Carl Meyer, an original album review written in July 1983.*

Coe really is the dark horse of country-music.  Born in 1939, he grew up in orphanages and institutions, was on several occasions imprisoned (unconfirmed rumors even claim he was sentenced to death for killing an inmate).  It’s hard to separate truth from myth, and Coe probably prefers it that way.  Nothing wrong with the odd air of mystery.  It sells records.  Coe’s star is certainly rising, and not just within country-music, I would not at all be surprised if he crossed over into the mainstream.

Coe goes his own way, and he does it with a poetic assertiveness that balances between the unpalatable and the genuinely moving.  “Castles In The Sand” is dedicated to Bob Dylan (!).  And the title track, more a piece of story-telling in the John Prine tradition than country, is entirely devoted to Dylan.  In this abject homage Dylan appears as a Christ figure, and by force of habit Coe puts himself inside the story:  He identifies himself so hard with the song’s prototype that they become equals, coinciding destinies.

The weakness of the song – how well-intentioned and heartfelt it is – is in Coe’s tremendous poetic aspirations, the swelling metaphors at times bring him dangerously close to parody, and there are also uneasy vulgar and plump lines here that don’t fit the song well.  But despite its weaknesses the title track works.  It’s Coe at his most charmingly clumsy and self-pitying and it leads directly into his version of Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” (the gospel arrangement is quite similar to how Dylan performs it live).

Coe’s homage to another one of his heroes, Hank Williams, is just as intensely confessional.  But “The Ride” (which he didn’t write himself) is the better song.  You find yourself in a car with a mysterious driver, hitching a ride from Montgomery to Nashville, the car radio plays old tunes and the “ghost-white pale” stranger behind the wheel keeps talking about art and honesty.  The build up is extremely clever and yet so simple, and when the driver hits the punch-line as he lets the hitch-hiker off, you’re all goose pimples: “You do not have to call me Mister, Mister, the whole world calls me Hank!”

The album is quite versatile.  But then again, Coe is not your average country singer.  He moves effortlessly from singer-songwriter soft rock (“I Can’t Let You Be A Memory”), to the muddy swamp rock of Tony Joe White (“Cheap Thrills”), George Jones-influenced confessions (“Fool Inside Of Me” – a duet with Dianne Sherrill), Waylon Jennings’ hardboiled storytelling (“Son Of A Rebel Son”) and more.

The heartbreaking post-divorce longing-for-your-daughter-blues of “Missin ‘The Kid’ is so gripping you feel like crying.  And “For Lovers Only (Part 1)” (dig that precious hesitant intro) is simply a tight and well crafted pop song.

Coe’s voice is a pleasant acquaintance, it holds a tender sensitivity (with a slightly nasal connotation) that one associates more with the American singer-songwriter tradition than with country.  It is not at all the brutal bellowing his murky biography would lead one to expect.

“Castles In The Sand” is a brilliant album that deserves to sell millions.

Released: June 1983

Produced by: Billy Sherrill

Contents: Cheap Thrills/Son Of A Rebel Son/Fool Inside Of Me/Castles In The Sand/Gotta Serve Somebody/The Ride/I Can’t Let You Be A Memory/Missin’ The Kid/Don’t Be A Stranger/For Lovers Only (Part 1)