May 26, 1971, was the first day I ever spent in Nashville. I finished my junior year of college in Pittsburgh, PA, and bought a one-way ticket on Eastern Airlines. That first night in Music City, I found my way to the Red Dog Saloon. The Red Dog was a hippy joint, for lack of a better description. It was located on Broadway, across from J.J.’s Market, on the corner across the street from what now is the Noshville deli, near Vanderbilt University. Boutique shops, with black lights and brightly colored psychedelic walls, sold T-shirts, beads, incense, and other acoutrements of the day. They filled several small rooms off the hallway that led to the main room in the back of the building. This back room was the bar. Dirt floor. Picnic tables for seats. And a rather dangerous, rangy, scowling, tatted, country performer presided rather loudly over the make-shift club. It was David Allan Coe. Seeing him that first time didn’t really register with me on a musical level. It was really this image of a biker/metal guy in a cowboy hat singing country songs.
It was another 18 months, including my return to college for my senior year, before I had gotten my first full-time job in the music business as Southeastern Editor for the music business trade Record World magazine. Then it was another 18 months before I was ensconced in launching the first publicity department for a major label at Columbia and Epic. In those three years, David Allan Coe seemed to be a fringe artist; perpetuated by his image of having spent most of his life from the age of 9 in some penitentiary. Supposedly, he had been on death row in Ohio, but the people I met in my first years in the business didn’t particularly take Coe seriously. He was one of those odd-ball icons like Troy Hess, the seven-year old, whose father, Bennie Hess, promoted him as the “ world’s youngest country music star” with songs like “Please Don’t Go Topless, Mother”. Every Friday and Saturday night, Troy would be signing autographs through the cracked window of his parents van parked on lower Broadway near Limbaugh’s restaurant. I thought it was child abuse at its country finest. Just one of the last bastions of hillbilly freak shows that still existed in Music City in the early ‘70’s.
Coe put out a concept records on SSS International Records called “Requiem for a Harlequin.” SSS was short for Shelby S. Singleton, the former Mercury Records promotion man who bought the Sun Records label and had a big hit on Jeanne C. Riley with “Harper Valley P.T.A.”. Shelby was considered by some to be a bit of a P.T. Barnum and perhaps a typical place you might expect to find a David Allan Coe release. I had actually hung out at the Singleton offices periodically over those three years, even recording demos there. The “Requiem” album did not identify the songs on the album. The title of Side one was “Side One”. It was trying hard to be something unique. Although David got some notice for the release and seemed to get some bookings, he still wasn’t in the mainstream of the country music business. However, he was beginning to be taken more seriously on Music Row.
About the time I joined CBS (Columbia and Epic in the spring of 1974, Ron Bledsoe, VP of Operation in Nashville, signed David to Columbia Records. A first single, “If I Could Climb the Walls of This Bottle” was released and although a great country song, it barely charted. Ron had been successful in getting Billy Sherrill interested enough in David to lend his hand and credibility in producing him. That first single did register with the CBS Records sales force though. They went crazy for him at one of the national sales conventions. Getting those people into you was a major step for any new artist. They carried the torch for artists they collectively believed in, and they believed in David Alan Coe.
While still recording at the old Columbia Studios on 16th Avenue (now Music Square West), David would kill time by stopping by my office and simply sit across from my desk while I worked. This happened on numerous days for many hours at a stretch! Given that I spent my entire day on the phone getting press and media coverage for all the other country artists on Columbia and Epic, it was kind of strange having this hulking, heavily tattooed ex-con just sit there for hours upon hours silently staring across the desk at me while I worked. I guess he didn’t have a lot to do between recording sessions! It could have been a bit intimidating… because I certainly wasn’t promoting him at the time. He had no record out. Maybe David was trying to learn how it was done. I don’t know. For an ex-con, he was always respectful and very nice to us. I know some other people in the business who could be in jail for their manners. However, the fact was, David was not ready to be pitched to anyone in the press at that point.
My assistant, Mary Ann McCready (who has since become an industry innovator and trailblazing legend in the Nashville) and I did work on getting David’s publicity tools together. We did a photo shoot. We got his bio together. I probably wrote most of the artists’ bios on the roster then, although we did farm some of them out to freelance writers. We also had a little newsletter called Nashville News Notes, which had the sub-head “No News… Is No News”. We would write blurbs about our artists and send this out periodically to our press list. Since there were no other label publicists at the time, these little anecdotes were all the content those papers received from Nashville, and often major newspapers would run all of our blurbs. It was virtually like our press notes were syndicated! I am sure we included David in these blurbs in anticipation of his first Columbia album. However, I don’t believe we really got him any other press at the time.
In the meantime, a long-time friend of mine and a songwriting mentor, Fred Burch, called me one day. Fred had written a few country hits over the years, including a novelty song called “The Ballad of P.T. 109”, that became a quasi theme song for John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Through this song, Fred had become friends with a young Kennedy speech writer named Patrick Anderson. Patrick had since become a writer for the Washington Post and he had been asked by the New York Times to freelance a major feature on the Nashville music scene. Fred asked me if I could help Patrick connect with some artists. Of course, this was absolutely a great opportunity for us. Patrick was coming down to Nashville for a week and we would be very happy to dominate his time!
As it turned out, Mary Ann and I both liked Patrick very much. He was a real journalist with a really meaningful background. This wasn’t just a stringer for some country music fanzine. The great situation we had in Nashville was that so many of the artists lived there. We didn’t have much of a local media community, but we had an army of artists.
This was virtually the opposite of New York, the media capital of the world. All the press were in NYC, and when the artist came to town, you tried to connect them with as many key journalists as possible. In Nashville, we tried to get a meaningful journalist to come in, and then we set them up with as many of our acts as we could get.
In service to Patrick, we put him with Tammy Wynette and George Jones, Lynn Anderson and Bob Luman, and every Columbia and Epic artist we could rouse. However, to get the most for our artists, we really needed to help him get a full story. So although MCA didn’t have a press department, we helped Patrick connect with Loretta Lynn and artists with other labels that would make his feature complete.
However, since we were essentially Patrick’s escorts for the week, we were able to have him speak to every artist that we had available… including David Allan Coe, who had no album out for us yet. Patrick had a great week in Nashville, but the story faded when he returned to his home in Virginia. Then, something extraordinary happened.
A few months later, after we had nearly lost sight of the work we had done with Patrick, one Sunday morning the feature came out in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It was a huge story! And it was a cover story. And who was on the cover… a burly, heavily tattooed, unknown artist named David Allan Coe, whose first album was just coming out.
The multi-paged feature was virtually filled with our entire roster; George and Tammy, Charlie Rich, Larry Gatlin, Sonny James, and on and on; save for some coverage on Loretta Lynn. We had scored big!
As a 24-year-old rookie publicist, I knew it was a big story, but I really didn’t fathom its impact. As I think of it now, every major executive at CBS Records in New York read the Sunday Times. In fact, so did the likes of CBS, Inc. founder and chief William S. Paley. And that Sunday morning, they were all reading this feature about how Nashville was the new cool and hot musical place and virtually every act mentioned was on Columbia or Epic. And here was David Allan Coe, unknown, but squarely on the cover of the most prestigious Sunday publication in the world.
The story must have been the talk of the day that Monday around the water coolers at Black Rock. Did you see that story! David Allan Coe on the cover?! How did that happen? And suddenly, my name was all over the building.
Within months, I was promoted to head national publicity for Epic Records in New York. Mary Ann was promoted to take my place. And within those same months, every major label in Nashville was in a desperate search for people to launch a publicity department. Never had one newspaper story meant so much. Of course, this was long before the Internet and the paths to big exposure were narrow. The funny thing is, I never really related to the gravity of that one story on Coe’s career, Mary Ann’s career, or my career until many, many years later. It certainly was a factor in the Nashville music industry stepping up its marketing commitment to its artists.
Over the next year, David Allan Coe’s career exploded. He had a writing hit with 16-year-old Tanya Tucker with a song called “Would You Lay With Me in a Field Of Stone” that was rolling up the charts when Patrick was writing the Times story. His 1974 single, “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” a magnificent song written by Steve Goodwin and John Prine, was becoming a smash just as the article was coming out . His album “Once Upon A Rhyme,” came out to a media flurry, and he was now validated as one of the pivotal new faces of country music. The album went platinum. And although I’ve followed David’s musical success over the years, I don’t believe we ever connected again after I left Nashville those many years ago.
When I was leaving Nashville for New York to head the rock and pop press department for Epic, the CBS Records staff in Nashville had a very nice low-key going away party for me. And legendary producer, Billy Sherrill, the guy so instrumental in Coe’s early success and a man who blessed my hiring to CBS Records Nashville, wrote a poem and gave it to me that evening. It read:
“Their once was a turncoat named Beck
Who said f… Nashville, what the heck.
Until he started to grapple with the rotten Big Apple
…now he’s a G..D… nervous wreck!”
Billy was probably a visionary! Although I came back to Nashville in 1978 and started a small management company, I returned to New York, where I spent the remainder of my music business career; most of it with Epic Records. The comfort of media relations in Nashville, gave way to the pressures and chaos of the rock business. Without that one story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, maybe it would have been all very different. I love Nashville and the creative environment that exists there for writers and artists. But that one story took me away.
(Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com. I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)
Just for the record Mr. Beck, my mother & father were wonderful people and for you to make a negative comment of them, while glorifying such a piece of trash as David Allan Coe shows just how asinine you are. That man has done nothing positive for country music, or music in general. It seems that you both have one thing in common: The ability to step on the back of a child to make your self look better. ( I’m referring to Coe’s PBS special of 75’)
Well Coe’s an old dried up rag, and I’m not a child anymore. In fact at 6’ 3", 240 pounds, I seriously doubt if anyone would try and walk on my back now! There’s alot of things out there on me and most are just a bunch of crap, but I did record the “Please Don’t Go Topless Mother ” song and my dad was a promoter, that is all true, but my heritage would rival that of ANY artist on the charts today or the past. Somwhere between signing autographs for the drunks I managed to perform on stage with Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, open for Dolly & Porter, and many others, and have my name known internationally.
I guess being downtown did’nt hurt me too bad, ha! But it’s people like you who hav’nt got the foggiest notion of the music industry who want to try and seem like your some sort of informed critic. You have no credibility, & when, after all the dirt is washed off, you’re really nothing more then some “little" person who never made his splash in the world so you try to dazzle people with b.s..
I’m sure you did see me downtown back then, and you’re probably holding a grudge because I would’nt give you a quarter. But don’t feel bad, I don’t do that to this day. But if your ever down Texas way and would like to discuss it further, I’d be more then happy to oblige! But only when you’re ready to apologize for your tresspasses.
Have a nice day!! –
"little” Troy Hess
Dear Mr. Hess,
Thank you for your note and personal perspective on your childhood. I am sorry if my own personal perspective was hurtful in any way.
First, my article was never intended to glorify David Alan Coe, although I did chronicle some of the facts of his recording achievements as I witnessed them. In fact, the story was to point out a unique situation where our lives crossed very briefly and that circumstance ultimately led to an entirely different path for my life, far, far away from Coe’s path.
I As harsh as your criticisms are of me, I must say that I read your note of your life’s successes very positively.
However, please let me reflect on my memories one-to-one directly to you. Those days on lower Broadway in Nashville were definitely strange. There were a lot of unsavory characters in that part of town – drunks, petty thieves, etc., all mixed in with the country music fans and tourists who came there. On a Friday night, I recall very, very few children there. My remembrance of you of was a child signing autographs through the crack in the window of a car parked outside a rowdy bar. In my opinion, you didn’t look happy. You looked trapped and a prisoner of an effort to make you a star. That’s an honest opinion… I may be wrong.
Your situation in those days was well known on Music Row. Every opinion I ever heard from a fairly wide variety of people at the time, had similar thoughts and perspectives as my conclusion. You must admit that it was extremely unusual and a situation that many would question. Not many people had their kids sing about begging their mother not to go topless.
I am a strong believer in appreciating diversity in this world – whether that is diverse ways of living one’s life, their religion, their color, or heritage. Your proud memories of your parents and your achievements in life are a testament for us always to be open and not judgmental. Maybe I need to re-think my original belief that there might be some element of child abuse involved. From your note it sounds like your parents were very loving and put you on a positive path in life. However, having thoughts and concerns from the outside about how a child was treated is not a bad thing. As you know from reading the papers, too often there are situations where people should have expressed their concerns.
As an aside, I believe you should, and probably have, taken the extreme uniqueness of your life in stride. When your parents released your records and promoted your career, they made you a celebrity for life. Celebrities live in a glass house and whether or not it is deserving, you are always vulnerable to criticism and public opinion.
My purpose in writing these articles is not to be an “informed critic.” I am simply reflecting my observations (whatever their value) over nearly 40 years of hard work helping artist develop their careers. Many of these artists had enormous success, and my contribution might be “little” as you say.
I hope you will take my apology in the first line of this note to heart. Not once did I make a personally derogatory comment about you personally. I only commented on the situation and the thoughts that entered my mind then. They are my thoughts. My opinions. Nothing more. By your contact, you have probably changed some of them. And for that I sincerely appreciate get your letter. With your permission, I would like to add your letter as a response at the end of the David Alan Coe story along with this note of reply. I think it would be informative to the small group readers that I have.
Maybe I as well spoke too soon! Yes I did grow up as a celebrity & due in great part to my parents promotion of my career, I received more then my fair share of criticism. That being said, it never made it right. And the music industry..especially in country music of the late 60’s & early 70’s were not very supportive of “child” performers. You can probably name all the ones you remember on maybe 2 or 3 fingers, including me! I remember a guy called “Little Louie Roberts: who was a few years older then me back then & Marty Robbins tried to help. Again, he faced an up-hill battle due to the music industries position on children. Even Conway could’nt help his own children. So it is a given that it was hard.
As far as me, Troy Hess, I had a tough road to battle as well, because not only was the music industry in general not supportive, but my own peers were very negative whenever they’d see me in either the Nashville Banner or the Tennessean, or some magazine or t.v. show, or in one of the Christmas parades; I received ridicule after ridicule from my own classmates. And even though Nashville is/was the country music capital, the kids in school there were any thing but fans of country music. I guess between The DJ Convention, Fan Fair, and all the tourist who "invaded” their town & were drawn to Nashville for the obvious; they( the local kids) felt the music industry was pushed down their throats and rebelled against it. And I certainly got caught up in that as well.
In regards to downtown Broadway, it is very true that I did spend “some” time there, and was rewarded with the friendship of such people as “Tootsie” Bess of Tootsies Orchard Lounge, in which she thought so much of me , she had me pose with her for a magazine book she had made for her business. And less I forget the wonderful Buckleys; Louis & Gertrude who owned Buckley’s Record shop across the street from the old Ernest Tubbs record shop, who credited the huge sales from my dad’s Mercury Records release of 1948 “ Tonite & Every Night" with being ‘the difference between keeping the store opened back then or having to go back to picking cotton’. And also the wonderful Lawrence Brothers from the Lawrence Brothers Record store, just a couple of doors down from E.T’s shop. Those people were like surrogate parents and I dearly loved both the Lawrence Brothers & the Buckleys, who I must say kept me in an ample supply of any & all records/Albums that I wanted.And I can’t forget Mr. Don Day, the night manager at Linebaughs restaurant who was always giving me candy bars, and money for the jukebox. He was truly one of the sweetest people I ever met. Even David McCormick, the then manager and now owner of the Ernest Tubb record shops was a great person, despite what Country Music magazine quoted him as saying in their Aug 75 issue, which he has strongly denied ever saying.
You see Mr. Beck , when I met all these people it was in the early 70’s, when the Opry was still down town, and down town Broadway was alive with tourists/fans.You could go into Linebaughs on a Saturday nite and it was nothing to see Ernest Tubb with his manager sitting at a table, or Hank Snow, or Lester Flat. Or any of the Opry regulars that were not hanging out over at Tootsies between opry shows. So even though the the Opry moved in 74/75 , these folks remained and they were our friends. So yes..we would go see them, and I don’t regret it one time. And if you saw me looking unhappy, as you may have, I can’t account for that. I was, to a great extent, an average child, and maybe I was tired, as it was just possible I had performed that day somewhere and was irritated by some one wanting an autograph whose words were slurred and smelt like a brewery. I can’t answer that for sure, but I can tell you the one thing I did hate about downtown was the drunks. But if not for them , I might not have ever met and befriended a very young John Anderson who used to play in a ‘ dive’ called "The Wheel”.
Now as far as “Please Don’t go Topless Mother” is concerned, Gary Paxton, a well known songwriter, frequented my moms place of employment which was Buddy Lee Attractions (one of, if not the premiere talent agency in Nashville at the time) and he had this friend named Ron Hilliard. One time when Ron & Gary were there , mom half-jokingly asked Gary to write a song for me. Ron said he would instead, and the next thing you know he had this song “Please Don’t …” and got it to mom. Mom was shocked and a little embarressed by the title and his nerve to even submit that kind of a song. But then Gary got involved and started telling her “oh it would be great for Troy, you outta let him do it”, and then came support from others saying yes..let him do it. So finally mom & dad caved and let me record it. Dad, a trailblazer when it comes to novelty songs like his “Wild Hog Hop”, I think at one point thought it might actually open many doors. But the fact is after the initial mail-outs to radio stations,we received them back or nasty notes from the station managers saying they would never play that, so the record was quickly pulled from pressing & circulation, never to be thought of again, until, that is … the un-authorized, boot-leg re-release by the european record label HYDRA records on it’s “God-less America” various artist release done back in 1999.
So that’s that, and now as Paul Harvey would say if he was here..“Now you know the rest of the story!” But I’d like to thank you for being ‘man-enough’ to apologize for your words, that shows just how big of a person you really are..and how wrong I may have been for even raising a word! It’s just that since my dad is no longer living and my mother is re-tired and in her eighties, I have a strong passion to not only defend them, but to right some wrongs that have been done. And hopefully with this book I’m writing , that will be achieved. So , on my end, please forgive my harsh words and take them into context with what I have told you now. My parents were not perfect, and like all of us , had flaws, but I know that they were proud of me and if I had ever given them one reason to think that I was not happy in this crazy business, then they would have shut it all down, pronto! I was the most fortunate kid I knew of and would not have traded my childhood for ANY body I know of! So …the offer still goes, if your ever down in Texas way, look me up, and I’ll be happy to talk with you! You’ll know me…I’m one of the last who still wear a white hat..smiles