How one of the most brilliant and comprehensive explorations of 20th century country music can teach us a lot about what we all have in common in this time of division.
Cocaine & Rhinestones is a deep exploration of country music in the 20th century, told from the perspective of someone with a deep passion and personal connections to that cultural epoch. The stories are intensely investigated and interpreted from the unique perspective of Tyler Mahan Coe, cohost of the Your Favorite Band Sucks (YFBS) podcast. But where that podcast is combative and bombastic, Cocaine & Rhinestones is sincere and thoughtful. In telling the history of country music, and the people who made and listened to it, he is giving a history of poor and working class people that goes way beyond country music. He delves into the lifestyles of his subjects and their fans, and talks about social and cultural phenomena that accompanied country music, from pinball to truck driving. There are tales of heartache, violence, poverty, addiction; as well as a glimpse into the birth of the music industry. Yet despite prevailing trends it somehow engages a large audience despite being a story about mostly white people.
When I started listening to YFBS I couldn’t help but notice how often Tyler made a point to casually denigrate or dismiss white people, a habit I generally find distasteful, not because I am racist, but because it inevitably feels performative and try-too-hard while not actually accomplishing anything except exploiting those issues to make a humble brag. However I soon learned that Tyler is the son and longtime touring mate of outlaw country legend David Allan Coe, and it became understandable. David became embroiled in controversy in the early eighties after releasing a song called Ni**er Fucker on an album he intended as satire. Although there is evidence that David was not an actual bigot, from then on he became widely regarded as one, and eventually it became an unfortunate part of his persona. So within that context, Tyler’s desire to distance himself from accusations of racism by regularly reminding everyone that he isn’t makes a lot of sense.
At this point I should warn you that my review of this podcast is going to be highly tangential. If you want to know how great the podcast is or what it is all about, you’ll just have to listen to it. It is far too good to reduce to quips and quotes. Instead I am going to talk about our fractured race relations, and how Cocaine & Rhinestones provides an opportunity to begin mending them.
Hank Williams Sr. learned how to play guitar and sing as a boy from a black street performer named Tee Tot, whom he befriended through persistent pestering. One day Hank asked Tee Tot why he, as a black musician, incorporated country music into his set. Tee Tot responded by telling the boy that country music was just white people’s blues.
Both of those musical styles represent the experience of the lower classes, but with a clear racial divide in the fan base. However the subjects of each are nearly identical, which is because the lives of both fanbases were identical in many ways. Heartache, poverty, violence, addiction, despair and oppression are themes that run through both genre’s lyrical repertoires. No doubt that racism, bigotry and prejudice created a huge division between these cultures, but aside from that there was more in common than not.
I am not going to belabor the point here, and I fully understand that a large portion of readers will misconstrue and mischaracterize what I am about to say, but while bigotry and prejudice seem to be on the rise, most of what we call racism is actually classism – and we would present a better united front if we joined together in that interpretation. You can read more about that HERE.
That categorical error divides us. It creates ill will, bad faith and self-fulfilling bigotry and prejudice on both sides. Lower class white people who have lived challenging lives chaff at the suggestion that their experience is one of privilege, and it drives them away from compassion and understanding for black people. Tyler sums up this attitude for GQ when speaking of his father’s own eventual spiral into bigotry and prejudice, “At some point he decided that if he was going to do the time, he was sure as fuck going to do the crime.”
Under a pressure cooker of blame, I don’t see anything getting better. In fact I see it getting a lot worse, especially as it becomes increasingly lucrative to reiterate the black-vs-white narrative. The only way I see it getting better is if we focus on our commonality, and learn to join forces against the wealthy and powerful people who are our common enemy. And a great place to do this is to look at race and culture in the 20th century from a safe enough distance to assess it more clearly.
I would highly recommend that every white person watches a documentary or listens to a podcast or reads a book about Robert Johnson, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye or any other of the genius musicians who happened to be black during the 20th century. Not just to fully realize their brilliance, but to realize the lifestyle, cultural and socioeconomic factors that shaped them as individuals and artists. Understand their struggle, and how it has informed narratives since.
At the same time I think people of color could benefit from understanding the experience or poor and working class whites in the 20th century when racism was overtly active, to see how much us peckerwoods were still similarly effected by the ruling class and their centralized, systematic hierarchies. And I can think of no better place to investigate the similarity of experience than Cocaine & Rhinestones, precisely because there is no specific racial agenda for the podcast, and its entertainment and informational value transcends racial identity.
I realize this is a hard sell. I just provided many perspectives which you may casually read as racially unenlightened, but if you give me a little honest consideration I hope you can see my intention here is to create a situation most likely to resolve the class issues which disproportionately effect people of color. This is not the usual route discussed towards solving these issues, but the usual routes seem to be failing mightily. Perhaps what seems unlikely to you, what is most non-intuitive for you to consider, is actually worth considering. And perhaps something as unlikely as a podcast about country music could be a starting point for building a bridge of mutual respect and understanding.
And even if you found everything I just said to be a full-on crock of fermented goat shit, don’t hold it against Tyler or Cocaine & Rhinestones. There is no wrong or right reason to listen to it because it is absolutely magnificent in a way that uplifts the art of podcasting to a cultural relevancy almost greater than 21st century music.