Explaining George Jones, a ‘Haunted House of a Human Being’
Tyler Mahan Coe talks about the second season of his acclaimed podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones, which does a deep dive on Jones and the Nashville Sound.
When I was growing up in the ’90s, whenever I heard people claim to like all kinds of music, they tended to qualify it with “except for country and rap.” Other than sounding dumb and more than a little prejudicial, this was a superficial gloss of two genres that have plenty in common, as Ice-T once pointed out. They’ve both become solidly mainstream, but casual listeners often neglect the music’s intricate social, aesthetic, and political histories. As a music nerd, I must admit that I was a country music dilettante, a mostly Hank-and-Cash fan, until only recently.
Tyler Mahan Coe, son of the outlaw country singer David Allen Coe and half of the duo behind the fun podcast Your Favorite Band Sucks, is working to set the record straight. His celebrated podcast Cocaine and Rhinestones engagingly distinguishes between country music’s fact and fiction. C & R’s first season offered deep dives into the life and work of some of country music’s crucial but perhaps less widely known figures: Spade Cooley, The Louvin Brothers, Ralph Mooney, and others. As Coe explains, “I’ve been hearing these stories all my life. As far as I can tell, this is the truth about this one.”
As with many genres, country often suffers from the distorted projections and misapprehensions coming from both within and outside the community about what’s “real” country and what isn’t. Coe passionately defends his subjects against accusations of inauthenticity or reactionary posturing. There are also vivid, informed, and occasionally harrowing tales about what went on behind closed doors. It’s a crash course that subtly encourages the listener to explore further. And it works—I might not be theologically on board with the sentiment of the Louvin’s Satan is Real record, yet it still gives me the existential shivers every time.
Season two brings the listener into the world of George Jones, aka Old Possum, aka No-Show Jones. Jones’s turbulent life and wrenching songs—give “The Grand Tour” or “A Good Year for the Roses” or “The Window Up Above” a spin to find out why he’s so revered—are already pretty much canonical. But that only means that he can be an entry point into so much else.
Even though Coe is obviously well-versed and has a connoisseur’s passion, he doesn’t write hagiography. Jones isn’t romanticized or pathologized. Instead, Coe’s narrative zooms out and treats Jones as a central figure within an encyclopedic palimpsest comprised of the various elements that created Jones’ world as an artist and a person.
We learn about the importance of pinball (a pastime of choice for jittery songwriters waiting for studio time), histories of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” cocaine, Spanish bullfighters’ “suits of light,” the ins and outs of “The Nashville Sound,” and how to brew moonshine. It’s a lot of information to put together, but Coe keeps it compelling as he slowly unfolds his tale. And even though Jones stays mostly offstage for a while (no spoilers here) by the time we’re introduced to him we’ve become fairly well acquainted with what he means to the music and possess, possibly, a deeper understanding of who he was. Which is probably the best way to present a figure like him, whether we already know his music well or not.
The Daily Beast emailed Coe about the new season, why people tend to get country music and The Nashville Sound wrong, and why George Jones was a “haunted house of a human being.”
The previous season of C & R was mostly dealing with the stories of specific musicians. This one has a wider lens. Why did you decide to do this season differently?
At the time of this correspondence, only the first three episodes of Season 2 have been released and that’s really only an introduction to set up a turn the whole thing is about to take in the fourth episode. Once it takes that turn, we’re pretty much staying on one road through to the end, 18 episodes in total. So I’d say this season as a whole has a much tighter focus. It does take some detours to pull in other stories, but there is ultimately one picture I’m trying to paint, and that picture needed these intro episodes to serve as a frame. It’s a big picture, so it’s a big frame.
As for the different approach, it’s been the plan from the very beginning of the show. There are a couple reasons I wanted to do it this way. One, it’s pretty common to hear podcast listeners talk about becoming bored, burned out, or otherwise disinterested in shows they once enjoyed. This is largely a medium of disposable content, and many shows are extremely formulaic. I want to achieve the opposite of that with Cocaine & Rhinestones.
The first thing I hope listeners want to do when they finish a new season is go back to the beginning of the season or the whole show in order to hear how everything they just learned fits together with what they already know. That’s practically a necessity in order for this to be an effective delivery system of history.
I believe forcing myself to play by an alternating set of rules or boundaries each time will help create a dynamic collection of stories people want to hear over and over again. And this gets into the other reason for coming at each season from a different direction: all the aspects of this history which only become interesting, relevant, or even possible to tell from a certain perspective.
A lot of folks think they know the story of George Jones. Many will hear about a podcast with a whole season on Jones and they’ll press play because they expect to laugh at a story they’ve heard about a country singer riding a lawnmower to go get drunk somewhere. But I don’t tell that story at any point in the season.
The story of George Jones is not a story about some goofy, rebellious party animal. This is a cutesy distraction from the truth: George Jones was a walking, talking haunted house of a human being. Anyone lured in by the arcade games and ice cream at the beginning of the season, I’m taking ’em on the grand tour. And once the door locks behind you, the only way out is by crawling through a broken window in the basement.
What do people who aren’t already familiar with country music as a genre tend to get wrong about it?
Everything. But that’s sort of baked into the design. By definition, one cannot create subversive art without a whole lot of people embracing or dismissing it based on a surface-level understanding and no clue there’s anything deeper at play. It would be pretty foolish to expect the masses to form a line in order to have their hearts ripped out by legitimately traumatizing narratives when they can choose a less devastating emotion, and not spend a whole day curled up in a blanket on the couch staring at a wall.
Probably the single most profound misunderstanding is the idea that country music has always existed in total isolation from “mainstream” society and culture. You know, “country comes from out in the sticks and there’s a pure form of it that only becomes tainted by exposure to pop aesthetics,” etc. That’s a line of bullshit sold to the first city folk who came poking around with recording units and marks have been buying “the real deal” ever since.
The truth is pop aesthetics have been a part of country music since the beginning. Country without any pop elements is called folk music and, save for one or two bubbles which expanded for a few years and then popped, nearly nobody in the second half of the 20th century listened to or cared about folk music. Comparatively, country music in the same period was a hugely popular genre and lucrative industry because the truth is, it’s always been both informed by and informing “mainstream” society and culture. Finding ways to connect these things people don’t know about country music to the things they do know about everything else is half the battle. Once those things start clicking into place it unlocks all kinds of doors.
Say a little bit about “The Nashville Sound.” How would you define/describe it, and why did you want to clear up misconceptions about it?
Well, it took two two-hour episodes to argue my case for how we should define the Nashville Sound. I’d encourage anyone interested in really understanding it to go listen because I don’t think I can say it any better than that. But one reason I’m confident people who aren’t already familiar with country music have everything wrong about it is how many of us who love country music still have all kinds of things wrong about it. One of these things is the Nashville Sound.
I think most country fans would define this as the music Nashville record labels in the late 1950s began pretending was country even though it was a sappy brand of Frank Sinatra-ish, “easy listening” pop with big string sections and background vocal groups. This music did exist, and the Nashville record labels did push many country artists toward the style, but this definition of the Nashville Sound falls apart under scrutiny for a whole lot of reasons.
The truth is those records were only one facet of the Nashville Sound, most simply defined as a style of instrumentation, arrangement, and production heard on nearly every recording from this era of the Music Row studio system, regardless of genre. This includes all the worst records made by Jim Reeves and others, but it also includes Patsy Cline, Roy Orbison, The Everly Brothers, Roger Miller, and Elvis Presley’s Nashville sessions, as well as artists with a more traditional country sound like Loretta Lynn and Webb Pierce. So, you know, just some of the most influential recordings in history.
I don’t know that it would be accurate to say I wanted to clear this up. It’s something I went out of my way to avoid doing in Season 1 by referring only to the misinformed concept of the Nashville Sound and adding disclaimers to the Liner Notes of those episodes to make sure listeners understood they were hearing me take on a certain perspective that wasn’t necessarily my own in order to tell those stories. And I doubt C&R would have gained enough purchase for you and I to even be having this conversation if I came out of the gate with this Nashville Sound stuff in Season 1. I’m literally debunking entire chapters of at least 90 percent of the books that have ever been written about the genre.
Even with something as inconsequential as music, a lot of people are not open to the idea they may have been wrong about something their entire lives and they certainly don’t want to hear it from a stranger. I don’t think there are very many country fans who would buy a ticket for the ride I’ve prepared in Season 2 without the trust earned through making Season 1 the way I did. But this had to be cleared up at the beginning of this ride in order for any of the musical analysis in Season 2 to have any meaning at all because, while George Jones may be viewed as the embodiment of “real” country music, the fact is everything he recorded in Nashville is an example of the Nashville Sound.
It should be said: I’m no exception to having inaccurate ideas about country music. This is all a product of the genre not being treated with the same care and attention as the histories of other art forms. The first serious books about country music weren’t written until the end of the 1960s and, as glad as I am those books exist, they do contain some major flaws which have gone almost entirely uncorrected by subsequent writers.
So all country fans, myself included, have just been playing a game of Telephone this whole time with half-true folklore. That’s why the opening of every episode says, “I’ve heard these stories my whole life. As far as I can tell, here’s the truth about this one.” That doesn’t mean this is how I’ve always heard the story so that must be the truth and here it is. It means I’m aware the way I’ve always heard the story could be wrong, so I looked all the way into it and here’s what I found out.
What makes George Jones so central to the history you’re telling? Why is he a useful starting point?
The main scope of the podcast is 20th-century music. George Jones released huge hits across half that window, then carried right on into the 21st century to become the only individual who charted Top 40 country singles in seven different decades. Objectively speaking, Jones is the individual who most represented the idea of “country singer” to the most fans of the genre for the longest period of time. But even without such success and popularity, he would still be the best country singer of all time. This is not simply my opinion or preference. It’s just as much a matter of athleticism and anatomy as anything else.
George Jones is to country singers as Michael Phelps is to Olympic swimmers. And all of that is speaking purely to the musical career of George Jones, a catalog which would be crucial and integral to a comprehensive understanding of the genre no matter the circumstances of his personal life. But it just so happens, once you place the story around the music—his background, his love life, the No-Show Jones mythology, the battle with addiction, etc.—you’ve got everything it takes to hook an audience into sitting there long enough to have their minds blown by 70 years of country music history.
How has the country music establishment responded to the podcast? Do you feel like people are glad that you’re giving the genre more of a platform, or is there any pushback in terms of the way you’re presenting it?
Honestly, I haven’t had one negative interaction with anybody in the music industry. Some of the journalists who’ve written articles about the show will sometimes present it as though I’m out here “exposing” the dark secrets that mysterious forces would keep under wraps. And that’s all fine, I don’t really care what gets someone to press play on the show.
Historically, the popular media have only regarded country music to whatever degree it and its artists can be sensationalized and exploited, so it’s not a surprise this is the only lens through which some people can view my show. As such, I’m sure there’s been more than one manager or booking agent who read one of those articles, saw a client’s name and panic-listened. Once they hear it, though, it’s so obvious how much I respect (most of) the people I’m talking about and make every effort to get the story right, which is all anyone can really ask.
Without naming names, I have been contacted by several people who were closely involved with subjects in Season 1—stories that were difficult for me to tell because of all the uncomfortable truths—and seeing those names pop up in my inbox, there were a couple times I’d have bet money on the email being a thorough ass-chewing. But it’s always just a nice message from someone saying thank you because they can hear how much I care.