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Cocaine and Rhinestones – Breaking Down Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’

Tyler Mahan Coe brings the facts and the feel of history.

History buffs and country music lovers alike can scratch their itch thanks to the impeccable podcasting efforts of Tyler Mahan Coe, son of the David Allan Coe. The younger Coe is the creator, writer and producer of Cocaine and Rhinestones. The intense research, presentation, and matter-of-fact delivery of the podcast is beyond praiseworthy – it’s brilliant and abundant with factoids and broad-brush analyses that deserve and demand your attention.

I began with the episode titled “Breaking Down Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee” and could not have picked a better podcast for my rediscovery of this compelling and ubiquitous slice of Americana.

Coe’s voice is professional and crisp but, to nitpick, he speaks with the drawn-out rollercoaster-cadence of a television news reporter, which isn’t the greatest fit for most podcasts. To his credit, his speaking pattern affords listeners the mental space to digest the wealth of information Coe synthesizes.

I recall listening to “The Ballad of the Green Berets” “Let’s Put the Axe to the Axis,” and “Okie from Muskogee” in history class. My teacher presented “Okie” as a song opposed to war protests — a reassertion of traditional values over the counterculture aims of the hippie movement.

I thought I knew what “Okie” was all about, but people thought Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was a patriotic song and “Okie” shares similar widespread misrepresentation, as Coe explains.

Coe takes much of the early five minutes to set the stage of history in which Haggard’s song was created: he discusses Hoover’s political significance for the 1927 Mississippi Flood and the Dust Bowl’s impacts on Oklahoma and Black Sunday, which gave me new nightmare scenarios I’d never considered.

“The approaching storms looked like tidal waves of land,” Coe said. “When the storm hits, you find yourself in a blizzard of dirt darker than night. All that dirt swirling around generates enough static electricity to knock two fully grown adults down if they were to grab each other for support. Blue sparks danced over metal like electric fire.”

College Media Network Cocaine and Rhinestones – Breaking Down Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’
Tyler Mahan Coe

With the fallout of the Dust Bowl, Oklahomans — and many others from surrounding states — left their state in search of work and faced abject poverty, living in shanty towns known as Hoovervilles, named to emphasize the people’s displeasure with President Hoover. If you want to learn more about the Dust Bowl, I recommend Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time”

Back then, no one would’ve been proud to be an Okie. Okie operated as a slur: similar to Day-go for Italian immigrants. Okie was freely spat at any Dust Bowl refugee regardless of their home state.

Coe can zoom in to laser precision on details when necessary, but he knows when to skip and just how much to do so when required. After laying the historical foundation, Coe spends the majority of his 45-minute podcast proving that “Okie” was meant to be a satirical song, but Coe also proves that Merle wasn’t sympathetic to the hippie movement either. Muskogee is the biggest clue for the song’s true purpose, as Muskogee didn’t face the tragedies that the Okies did.

Coe insists that there were no Okies in Muskogee.

“You had to have escaped the Dust Bowl to be branded an Okie,” Coe said. “To say it as directly as possible: I think it’s likely that the line, ‘I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,’ was poking fun at people who’s ancestors never left Oklahoma, but tried to wear the horror of those California labor camps as a badge of honor. Prior to this song, Okie carried no pride with it.”

The overarching story of “Okie” and its legacy exemplifies the comedic divide between how fans enjoy music but either miss or reinvent song meanings for their own desires.

For anyone trying to carefully navigate the information age, Coe links his sources for every podcast for easy fact-checking. And for the meticulous podcasters, Coe transcribes every episode and loads the transcripts with a wealth of relevant photos; reading along as you listen is the fullest Cocaine and Rhinestones experience and is absolutely worth the time if you can afford to spend it that way.

If you missed the link up top, here it is again. Give it a listen while taking a stroll or load up a tobacco pipe and sit in your study. This is a podcast that no one should pass up.

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

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