If the notion of any current country performer labeling himself an outlaw was ever laughable, it would never be more so when considering David Allan Coe. In reform school by the age of nine, and charged with such offenses as armed robbery and auto theft, Coe would be in and out of various correctional facilities for the next two decades and would serve three years at the Ohio State Penitentiary.
While he was behind bars, Coe penned several songs that would be released on his 1969 debut album, the dark and crudely recorded Penitentiary Blues, which resurfaced in 2005 getting its first CD release. Coe was encouraged to write the songs, which detail stark prison life in such songs as “Death Row,” “Oh Warden” and “Cell #33,” by the man in the cell next to him, soul singer Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. After he was released in 1967, Coe released those tracks via Shelby Singleton’s SSS International label, and began touring with B.B. King and the Staples Singers. A subsequent deal with Columbia Records yielded The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, a hardcore country effort co-produced by Billy Sherrill and Ron Bledsoe, which failed to chart.
The next album from Coe, Once Upon a Rhyme, would give him the first of his three Top Ten hits. “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” was a stone-country, semi-novelty song written by Steve Goodman (“City of New Orleans”) and John Prine (who refused a writer’s credit but was gifted a jukebox by Goodman for his contribution). In the second verse of the tune, Coe namechecks – and does some pretty spot-on imitations of – Waylon Jennings, Charley Pride and Merle Haggard. In the third verse, there’s a little nod to Faron Young’s “Hello Walls,” penned by Willie Nelson, and Coe even namechecks himself. The fourth and final verse has Coe explaining, in a spoken intro, how Goodman wrote to him telling him he felt he had written “the perfect country and western song” with this one. Coe further explains that he wrote back to Goodman and protested that the song was missing key elements that would make it perfect: Mama, trains, trucks, prison and getting drunk. Goodman then rewrote the tune, resulting in one of the most iconic – and hilarious – verses in country music history.
Recorded on August 20th, 1974, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” would debut on the Billboard country chart in July 1975, eventually peaking at Number Eight. Although he wrote much of his own material, ironically, Coe’s only Number One hit came in 1978 as the writer of Johnny Paycheck’s Number One smash, “Take This Job and Shove It.” He would score another pair of Top Five hits as an artist with songs he didn’t write: “The Ride” in 1983, and his biggest solo hit, “Mona Lisa Lost Her Smile,” which just missed the top spot, peaking at Number Two.
Coe, who appeared in the 1981 film based on “Take This Job and Shove It,” would later tour with Kid Rock, writing “Single Father” for him in 2003. He also worked with members of the metal band Pantera on an LP released in 2006, and he remains notorious for several X-rated songs he recorded while reportedly riding as a member of an outlaw biker gang.
This rare clip [above] of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” from the year the single was released, was certainly not radio-friendly, with the singer spitting out an F-bomb during the last verse, but it’s vintage Coe and certainly another notch in the gun that is his well-deserved outlaw reputation.
If there’s any doubt that the “perfect country and western song” has stood the test of time, this 2010 all-star performance, featuring Darius Rucker, Easton Corbin, Montgomery Gentry, Vince Gill, Jason Aldean and the Band Perry should put that notion to rest.