Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Monday, July 2, 2018

David Allan Coe - Tattoo (1977)

Written by Jason Hillenburg, posted by blog admin

David Allan Coe’s fifth album for Columbia, 1977’s Tattoo, is often singled out as one of his best moments from a time when his ascending star burned brightest. Its reputation is well deserved. It’s a ten song collection dominated by Coe’s songwriting, first class playing, and sympathetic production. Coe’s legendary pipes are, as well, in fine fettle and the opening number “Just to Prove My Love For You” has him engaged from the first and ably supported by female backing vocals deeper in the mix. The fiddle playing is especially tasty and provides a strong melodic counterpoint to Coe’s singing without ever overplaying its hand. “Face to Face” is an unyielding classic country weeper with Coe out Jones’ing George Jones with his lung-stretching dramatics. Ron Bledsoe’s production is note perfect for capturing the desperation Coe’s songwriting clearly wants to invoke. It’s an earthy, yet intelligent, one two punch to open the album and sets a high bar for everything following it.

The ambling fatalism of “You’ll Always Live Inside of Me” has bluesy overtones, but the treatment is pure country with spotless pedal steel and relaxed, confident fiddle playing further rounding out the sound. Bledsoe isn’t any Billy Sherrill with the latter’s arch distinctive style, but Bledsoe’s attention to balance and detail helps further ground these songs and presents them as unified performances with attention focused on where it should be – the song, singer, and band. There’s some stellar backing vocals accompanying Coe’s own heartfelt singing on “Play Me a Sad Song” and the languid pacing picks up a little nearly a minute in, but the song never rushes itself. Coe spent many of his prime years writing his own material and recruited a bevy of top flight talent to help him realize his craft – “Play Me a Sad Song” illustrates just how good David Allan Coe could be.

He opens “Daddy Was a God Fearin’ Man” with some spoken word and Coe’s penchant for storytelling, increasingly neglected as his career went on, helps this one shine. The pace picks up when Coe starts singing in earnest and fiddle laces over the top of its near shuffle tempo giving it added urgency. The continued presence of female backing singers doesn’t distract from Coe’s lead vocal but, instead, enriches it. Pedal steel and the aforementioned fiddle trade licks in a brief, but memorable, instrumental break. “Canteen of Water” is a rare cover, the song written by Jay Bolotin, and the lean arrangement has a light melodic touch distinctly different from the earlier songs. A light sheen of synthesizer brings an extra splash of color without ever sounding out of place. Bolotin shares a songwriting credit with Coe on the lightly Tex-Mex flavored “Maria is a Mystery”. The arrangement practically shimmers thanks to the interplay between the lyrical piano and stately violin response. The bottom end of the song, especially the bass, is pivotal for the song’s success thanks to its consistently melodic pulse. It’s one of the album’s most successful songs thanks to its wealth of specific detail.

Coe shares another co-writing credit with the slowly unfolding heartbreak ballad “Just In Time (To Watch Love Die)”. Coe and co-author Jimmy Townsend continue a trend on the album’s second half showing Coe’s deep love and appreciation for the sort of bleary eyed balladry made famous by earlier country singers par excellence. Coe’s voice, remarkably elastic and deceptively wide ranging, deserves mention among the elite in this style. Coe revisits songwriter Mickey Newbury with a cover of his “San Francisco Mable Joy”. It isn’t as affecting as Newbury’s “The 33rd of August”, one of Coe’s finest moments in the studio included on The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy, but it’s a fine song standing tall alongside the best Tattoo offers. Coe’s vocal may be his best moment on the album and both he and the band thoroughly inhabit the song as if they written it themselves and ripped it from their autobiographies. Coe closes the album with “Hey Gypsy”, co-written with Fred Spears, and there’s an elegiac quality to the song not carried away by another impressively full, dramatic arrangement. Some reputations are built on hype and often undermined by an artist’s personal or public indiscretions. The recordings are forever and Tattoo ranks among David Allan Coe’s best studio recordings.

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