May 18, 2021

Politics & News

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“Cocaine & Rhinestones” Returns, to Dazzle Again

6 min read
George Jones, in 1956, in Nashville.Photograph from Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

“Nearly everybody is confused by their first interaction with a pinball machine,” Tyler Mahan Coe says, with his familiar declarative zeal, at the beginning of the long-awaited second season of his country-music-history podcast, “Cocaine & Rhinestones.” We hear the game’s bells, chimes, and thunks as Coe delves into pinball discourse (in old movies, “pinball is a signifier of people with ambiguous morals who will break the law if the reward is having a good time”), historical details (in 1942, Fiorello LaGuardia “armed the N.Y.P.D. with sledgehammers and a mandate to smash pinball machines on sight”), and country music (Lonnie Irving’s mournful “Pinball Machine”). We don’t know why he’s talking about pinball, and we don’t care: it’s glorious listening. After ten minutes of this, and after announcing that the game is “responsible for some of the greatest country music ever made,” Coe plays the “Cocaine & Rhinestones” intro. There’s a strange little euphoria in this moment: we understand that this season will be a dazzling adventure, and that the mysteries of its narrative path will only enhance it.

Coe, whose father is the outlaw-country star David Allan Coe, grew up among musicians, often on the road with his father’s band. “I’ve heard these stories my whole life,” he says in the intro. “As far as I can tell, here’s the truth about this one.” After the podcast débuted, in 2017, Coe told me that he’d created it partly because he wanted to hear one like it and it didn’t exist. He also wanted to correct commonly understood falsehoods in what he’d heard and read. A lifelong reading obsessive—three to five books a week, “Shōgun” at twelve—Coe researches “Cocaine & Rhinestones” by reading dozens of books, many of which haven’t been digitized, and which he references in episode footnotes. After the first season, he got access to the Country Music Hall of Fame archives and used them extensively. He researches, writes, performs, edits, and promotes the podcast himself; he also funded the first season himself. Since then, listeners have supported his work via Patreon. Networks have approached him, to no avail. The result is an auteurist podcast, produced with a team’s worth of effort. That’s why Season 2 took three years.

In the first season, Coe chose his handful of subjects—including the Louvin Brothers, Bobbie Gentry, Spade Cooley, and the banning of Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”—to set up specific themes. The story of the Texan singer Ernest Tubb, Coe told me, introduced the story of the form itself—“why the hell” a farm kid would “throw his whole life away” to devote himself to country music, why Tubb persisted after voice-changing throat surgery, and how he ended up influencing everything after him. The Loretta Lynn episode came early on, Coe said, “because I can’t tell a story about any woman in country music until we are all sitting down with a shared understanding of exactly what it means to even be a woman in country music, and that’s ‘The Pill.’ ” In that episode, Coe exposes the sexist double standard in the industry, with music, wit, penetrating empathy, and the forensic precision of a good trial lawyer.

In Season 2, Coe tells a single story—that of George Jones, perhaps the greatest country singer of all time, and a troubled one—that dovetails with several of twentieth-century country’s foundational themes. Jones, a tormented alcoholic for much of his life, loved to sing but struggled with live performance and stardom, not to mention relationships; his antics, his marriages to Tammy Wynette and others, and his nickname (No-Show Jones) have been as mythologized as his emotionally expressive singing is beloved. Coe wants to compassionately demythologize Jones, and thoroughly. The season’s episodes, which will total eighteen, can exceed ninety minutes apiece. (Episode 2 came out on May 4th; I’ve heard the first five.) Coe tells Jones’s story the way I often secretly wish I could write—by including the irresistible stories within stories within stories, savoring details and amazements that contribute to the bigger ideas. So we have the nesting-doll narratives of Fiorello LaGuardia and Elvis and pinball; pinball and jukeboxes and Billboard and pop genres; the founding of Starday Records and Starday’s role in Nashville history and Jones’s career; and so on. Coe’s exactingly freewheeling approach can be thrilling—his narrative lens zooms in and out, revealing the landscape, the details, and the in-between. In the first few episodes, Jones’s story, and Nashville’s, extends not just to pinball but to “Tutti Frutti,” the history of ice cream, Prohibition, and the Medicis.

But the in-between could be improved by a bit more framing. Coe doesn’t come right out and tell us that the season is about Jones: he lets the singer appear and retreat until the fifth episode, when he ultimately takes center stage. Along the way, the podcast can feel a bit in medias res, as if you’ve joined a feisty conversation and are trying to catch up. Some topics are generously explained; others assume an impressive level of country-music literacy. I found myself wishing that I had preconceived notions about Chet Atkins’s role in creating the Nashville sound, for example, so I could revel in the experience of Coe methodically debunking them. But even the sections that at first overwhelm reveal hidden delights on subsequent listens. (Nearly everybody is confused by their first interaction with a pinball machine.)

If we’re not worrying about where we’re going and how we’re getting there, “Cocaine & Rhinestones” can be a joyride. Coe’s writing is, as ever, conversational and sharply funny. (“It ain’t exactly a foot-stomper,” he says of a slightly hokey song.) He’s brilliant at illustrating points with music (a watery, insipid bit of “I’ll Never Smile Again,” by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, to contextualize the pop-music scene of 1940; “Jingle Bell Rock” to challenge our ideas about genre) and at articulating how music achieves liftoff. In Episode 4, Coe breaks down Jones’s first No. 1 single. “The song ‘White Lightning’ isn’t exactly about outrunning the law with a trunkful of moonshine, but you wouldn’t know it from the music,” he says. “Buddy Killen’s standup bass turns over like an engine, and all of a sudden you’re chugging down a mountain, Pig Robbins’s piano tinkling around somewhere in the back with all the glass jars, and Floyd Robinson’s guitar lines whipping by the windows faster than passing tree trunks.” Listening to the song, we hear it all—we’re in that car, whooping and holding on for dear life. The narrative proceeds apace.

Coe named “Cocaine & Rhinestones” after a phrase from a conversation he had about country music with another talented son of a music legend, Justin Townes Earle, who died in 2020. As it happens, both cocaine and rhinestones—and everything they portend—feature prominently in the George Jones story. By the powerful fifth episode, when the Jones narrative begins in earnest, Coe has presented enough Nashville history to establish that show business could be tough, even predatory, on fledgling country artists. So when he begins the episode with a disquisition on the history of bullfighting in Spain, why its arena has featured both commoners and kings, and the costume innovations of an insightful proletarian matador, the show’s whole mad swirl of ideas starts to come together: in one instant, thinking of rhinestone suits, we begin to perceive, or think we might, the way performance and politics, glamour and tragedy, hype and humanity collide. It’s like the mythical moment when “The Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wizard of Oz” converge with perfect clarity, in Technicolor—and, like that moment, it’s where the rest of the adventure only begins.

Sarah Larson
2021-05-04 09:08:02

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