The Tallest Tales in Country Music All Belonged to George Jones

In the second season of Cocaine & Rhinestones, his podcast about the history of country music, host and creator Tyler Mahan Coe explains at length how to make moonshine, traces Spanish bullfighting back to the Middle Ages, describes the commercial development of the ice trade, delves into the provenance of what we now call Western wear, and outlines the threat pinball was once thought to have posed to America’s impressionable youth.

Also, all of Season 2 is about George Jones. 

More specifically, Season 2 is about George Jones in the same way that Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace is about Napoleon: there’s a lot of other stuff going on. The forays into bullfighting and moonshine over 18 new episodes, which begin landing today (April 20), are part of a larger narrative, the ultimate deep dive into the career — and, crucially, the musical, cultural and historical context — of the musician Coe says “is the greatest country singer of all time.”

The basic outlines are clear enough: Born in 1931, Jones released 87 studio albums between the start of his career in 1953 and his death in 2013. He had No. 1 country singles in four different decades, and landed more chart hits in his 60-year career than any other country musician ever. Jones’s talent as a singer helped define the very idea of country music.

“The scope of the podcast is 20th-century country music, and this is one person whose career covers half of it,” Coe tells InsideHook. “And it’s not like he just was surviving in it the whole time. He was doing stuff that everyone was paying attention to. There were a few years where it was bad, but everyone was still listening to it.”

Tyler Mahan Coe of "Cocaine and Rhinestones"
Tyler Mahan Coe
Jace Kartye

If Jones’s biographical details are straightforward, the rest of his life was not. Part of Coe’s mission with the second season of Cocaine & Rhinestones is to untangle the knot of myths, fabrications and outright bullshit that built up around Jones, who was married four times (including once to fellow country star Tammy Wynette) and had a knack for self-mythologizing fueled in part by long-running dalliances with cocaine and alcohol. 

“There are decades of his life that he does not remember,” Coe says. “So if you read his autobiography, you’re not reading his life story. You’re reading stories that other people have told him and his co-writer that George then is, like, responding to.”

As Coe digs into Jones’s life and background in these new episodes, what can seem at first like digressions, non-sequiturs or random tangents turn out to coalesce in a way that offers a more comprehensive picture of the singer, and also of the circumstances that led to his rise. If, as Coe maintains, you can’t fully understand country music without Jones occupying a central role, the reverse is also true: it’s not possible to really understand Jones without having a sense of country-music culture. Bullfighting, European noble-house class politics and even pinball are all part of the story. We can argue about whether an overview of the rivalry between the Medici and Borgia families in Renaissance-era Italy is necessary to properly grasp the relationship between Wynette, Lynn Anderson and their record label, but Coe’s ability to pull those details together and frame them in a way that seems essential is a big part of what makes Cocaine & Rhinestones so compelling.

“I’m definitely just making this the way I would want it to be if I was listening to it,” Coe says, and the non-sequiturs are a big part of that approach. “I like the idea of someone not knowing why they’re listening to me talk about something and then an hour later, they’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, that’s why you’re talking about that.’”

Coe knew before he first launched Cocaine & Rhinestones in 2017 that he would devote the entire second season to Jones. He didn’t realize it would take him nearly three years to research, write and record it. “I found a lot of crazy shit this time,” he says, laughing. Much of it was tucked away in the archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. “It probably took me a year to research in the archives and unpack it all, go through it, organize it, figure out what it meant and compare it to the history that’s been written outside of those four walls,” he says.

The son of mercurial outlaw singer David Allan Coe, Tyler grew up steeped in stories about country musicians. Joining his father’s band on rhythm guitar when he was 15 only increased his exposure to what he has called “the amateur historian” side of country music, where everybody has a story about somebody else, and whether any of the tales are true or not is secondary to the telling. When David Allan Coe fired his entire band, including Tyler, in 2013, the younger Coe got by for a time teaching guitar lessons, donating blood plasma and working in digital marketing before he started making Cocaine & Rhinestones, putting his lifelong immersion in country music lore to use — and judiciously puncturing some of the fables that had essentially become accepted wisdom.

“The podcast isn’t me saying, ‘I’m going to tell you the history of country music,’ it’s me saying, ‘This is a show about the history of country music that has been written,’” says Coe, who also cohosts the podcast Your Favorite Band Sucks. “It’s like a fact-check project almost.”

The first season of Cocaine & Rhinestones featured 14 episodes, touching on topics including Merle Haggard’s song “Okie from Muskogee,” why Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” was so controversial and a three-episode arc examining Jeannie C. Riley’s song “Harper Valley PTA” from three different angles. The series quickly took off, and Cocaine & Rhinestones was the top music podcast on iTunes for a while in 2018. More than that, Coe’s was among the first music podcasts to place a premium on storytelling at a time when most were “nondescript chat shows or playlists,” says Sean Cannon, creative director of Nevermind Media, which has produced deep-dive podcasts about the White Stripes, Elliott Smith and the Hold Steady, among others. “Cocaine & Rhinestones is a huge example of the potential that exists when you put as much time and care into stories as Tyler does.” 

Coe figures his scripts for Season 2 will top 200,000 words combined, with running times stretching toward — and sometimes past — two hours per episode. Listening is a commitment, to be sure, but it’s a hell of a story, and one that has never been told quite this way. That, of course, was the point all along.

“I want to treat country music as if it’s as interesting as anything else, because everything else gets treated as if it’s more interesting than country music,” Coe says. “I’m not trying to position myself as the person who’s going to come in and get everything right. But I am the person who’s going to try, you know?”

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