Before Bob Wills was crowned the King of Western Swing for his dance-friendly mix of jazz, blues and country, the title belonged to bandleader and television variety show host Spade Cooley. In 1961, Cooley was convicted of brutally murdering his second wife – a grisly scene witnessed by his 14-year-old daughter. He served just eight years of a life sentence, dying shortly before his parole and a full pardon that was granted by then-California governor Ronald Reagan. Tyler Mahan Coe details that dark chapter of domestic violence in one episode of his hit podcast Cocaine & Rhinestones, an ambitious project that aims to tell the history of country music.
Over 14 fascinating installments, Cocaine & Rhinestones dives deep into country lore to cover popular figures like Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn along with lesser-known personalities like musician Ralph Mooney, each subject exhaustively researched and presented with historical context. Coe, who funded the series on his own dime, estimates that each episode took "about 100 hours" to complete.
"Some people are operating under the misconception that I'm just like a walking Wikipedia of country music," says the 33-year-old, comparing it to Harry Houdini's trick of flexing his stomach to take a punch. "My stomach flexing is me [researching] on the Internet."
That assumption often comes from Coe's last name: he's the son of country outlaw David Allan Coe, and having grown up in close proximity to the artists he's now speaking about makes him uniquely qualified to grapple with this material. Coe joined his father's band when he was 15 and heard many of these tales while he was on the road. With Cocaine & Rhinestones, he aims to get to the heart of the matter.
In one episode, Coe locates the messy human drama behind a popular story about beloved figure Ernest Tubb, who once drunkenly stumbled into Nashville radio station WSM and fired a gun. Elsewhere, he links the blood harmony of Charlie and Ira Louvin to Tuvan throat singing, investigates fame and the mystery of Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," and, in an impressive three-episode arc, examines every nook and cranny of Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley P.T.A."
But what's amazing aside from the stories is how the themes Coe brings up never seem frozen in time. The harrowing saga of codependence and child abuse he unfurls in the Judds' installment and the evidence of double standards heaped on women in the episode covering Loretta Lynn's "The Pill" are every bit as relevant today.
Coe is already hard at work on a second season and was recently given a standing invitation to use the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame for his research – an all-consuming process that remains daunting to the host.
"I had the idea for the podcast and I was like, 'Fuck, I actually have to do this,'" Coe says. "Oh god, I wish I hadn't had that idea."
Still, don’t expect an episode on Coe's often-misunderstood father anytime soon. He's too close to the subject to remain objective. "A lot of the appeal of the podcast is me being a little bit on the inside, a little on the outside, trying to figure out what really happened and really recreating that for the listener, recreating that process of discovery," he says. "I can't really do that with David Allan Coe."