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Coe Revisits Penitentiary

Country maverick's prison-penned debut record sees re-release

July 14, 2005 12:00 AM ET

After spending years imprisoned in the vaults, the long-lost 1969 debut from country outlaw David Allan Coe is about to be freed. Penitentiary Blues, which features songs Coe wrote while serving time in various prisons, will get a deluxe re-release August 23rd through Shout! Factory/HackTone Records. Coe, now sixty-four, entered reform school at age nine and spent most of the next twenty years in and out of correctional institutions for offenses ranging from armed robbery to auto theft.

Those used to the Akron native's rowdy -- and sometimes rude -- country may be surprised at the album's barroom blues sound, which landed Coe on the road with B.B. King and the Staples Singers after his release from prison in 1967.

"The thing that's amazing is that, comin' out of Nashville, that album was kinda overlooked," remembers Coe. "But in Europe, I won blues artist of the year."

However, King helped convince Coe to turn his attention to country music, where he'd write hits like "Take This Job and Shove It." As Coe recalls, "B.B. said, 'You're a great blues singer, but, man, you gonna starve to death. Nobody wants to hear a white boy sing the blues.'"

Penitentiary Blues, which features stark confessionals like "Cell #33" and "Death Row," was originally released on Shelby Singleton's SSS International. When Coe signed to Columbia, Penitentiary Blues came with him, but the album has never seen a CD release.

Coe met HackTone founders Michael Nieves and David Gorman a few years ago when they were working on the DVD release of Heartworn Highways, a 1981 documentary that featured Coe, Townes Van Zandt and other Nashville iconoclasts. Coe showed Nieves and Gorman some footage from the Penitentiary Blues sessions, which he had uncovered for DVD release on his own label, Coe Pop Records. "They thought, 'Shit, this is a great thing,'" Coe says. "So they decided to put the album out."

The reissued album touches on two of the most controversial aspects of Coe's legend. The first is the charge that he's a racist, made after a series of X-rated "joke" songs he recorded in the Seventies, including "Nigger Fucker," which got him confused with "white power" performer Johnny Rebel. "Anyone that hears this album and says I'm a racist is full of shit," Coe says, adding that the slur entered his vocabulary in prison, where he received encouragement to write the songs that would make up Penitentiary Blues from a man in the next cell: R&B singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins. "I was one of about fifteen white boys . . . and that word didn't mean nothin'. I used to have to fight my way outta everywhere because I hung around black guys."

There has also long been debate as to whether Coe served time on Death Row for killing another inmate who demanded oral sex. Coe says another prisoner, "who was serving two life sentences and was never gonna get out," finally confessed to the crime. As far as Coe's involvement, he repeats what he told the reporter who first investigated the story: "There's no statute of limitations on murder."

Meanwhile, a more recent album that has yet to see the light of day is Coe's collaboration with Pantera. Coe wrote all the songs with the band's Dimebag Darrell, shortly before the guitarist was murdered onstage last year.

"His brother [Pantera's Vinnie Paul] is tryin' to get that together," says Coe. "That's gonna be a great thing."

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