David Allan Coe: Penitentiary Blues

Jason MacNeil

Early work written behind bars shows it was only a matter of time, lest he do more time, that David Allan Coe would make his mark.

David Allan Coe

Penitentiary Blues

Label: Shout! Factory
US Release Date: 2005-08-23
UK Release Date: Available as import
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The more things change, the more they end up looking like they once did. Artists that were shunned in music circles so newer talent could make a faster buck have begun to reap the benefits of listeners and a select few of the new crop (Kid Rock in this particular instance) singing the praises of elders like David Allan Coe. Coe spent much of his early youth in and out of jail and various reform schools. When he got out in the late '60s, he never went back, instead carving himself a lovely little niche that fell somewhere between the Southern rock of Skynyrd at the time but also still keeping himself somewhat in country's good graces. "Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)" is perhaps his biggest hit to date, but before all those albums, Coe started crafting his music behind bars. Now, for the first time on CD, the songs that the musician wrote while on his eighth stint in the proverbial Sing-Sing are available. And while several of these songs don't exactly paint the prettiest of penal pictures, they do reveal what was to become one of the more critically acclaimed careers in country's last golden age.

At 11 tracks and less then a half-hour, Coe doesn't expend any extra energy getting the songs across, especially on the title track. The simple but timeless blues arrangement has Coe's smooth drawl complemented perfectly by guitar, while David Briggs's piano works some great magic from top to bottom. You'd think he was covering one of the old blues greats or even someone like Chuck Berry or Fats Domino, but it's all his own doing. There's that honesty in his voice that is the sonic equivalent of porn: you can't really describe it but you know it when you hear it. Coe opts for a rockabilly, boogie groove on "Cell #33" that sounds like a cross between the Yardbirds and Elvis (Presley, not Costello) doing "Mystery Train". "I've been in that prison five years long it seems / Today I got a 'Dear John' letter that shattered all my dreams," Coe sings as guitarist Teddy Paige weaves some stellar Jordanaire-like licks. There's also a sense of urgency in the song as he talks about desperately needing to get the hell out of there.

Listening to the record, it's as if Coe preceded what the Rolling Stones would do with help from Gram Parsons in their country rock heyday. "Monkey David Wine" is a perfect example of this slow, creepy, and eerie blues-rock mold with just enough seedy, dirty slide guitar accents to make it all come together. Coe talks about losing his mind before yelping and howling in the bridge like a fearful, pre-neutered mutt. Unfortunately, the album sags momentarily on the catchy but rather ordinary "Walkin' Bum" which could pick up with the harmonica playing a larger role and the guitar not buried deeply in the mix. Despite these problems, it grows on you and will get the mojo going by the toe-tapping second verse. The second side of the album starts with another forceful blues tune entitled "Funeral Parlor Blues". It's also here that Coe really lets loose vocally, carrying the weight of the tune on his broken-hearted soul. And it's the soul of his pipes that comes so easily to the surface. "Til death do us part we said / Lord someone tell me she's not dead," he sings as the ivories are tickled.

Another key strength to the record is how matter-of-fact Coe was in describing the state he was in, but he also has a good sense of humor about it judging by the rather ridiculous ingredients he asks for in "Death Row", detailing his last meal and what he wants to eat, including "smoked rhinoceros pickled ant eaters". After an average "Oh Warden", which ambles along much like the Stones' version of "Spider and the Fly", Coe hits another highlight with "Age 21", detailing his working in Tupelo on a prison farm in his late teens. Although bouncy, it pales compared to earlier songs. Fortunately the groove of "Little David" features everything Coe had at his disposal -- a great supporting cast, a lot of bleak days staring at the walls, and a way to turn those phrases into simple but truthful vignettes into his juvenile and somewhat post-juvenile delinquency.


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