From Johnny Cash to Glen Campbell: Country is not a crime


But it is too often the stuff of criminals.

Last weekend I was spending some quality time over 45s with a guy I used to date. A guy who used to really get my goat. A guy with whom, if I had a gun, I could have had a relationship the stuff of which would have made for a really good country song. Don't use this as motive should he ever show up in the river; I am, of course, being facetious in the interest of perpetuating country music themes. Hey buddy, can't wait to go see Emmylou with you this weekend! (I promise I still don't have a gun. You are safe!)

I don't remember a whole lot of our conversations last weekend as they were had over a whole lot of liquor, but I do know we were talking a bit about Merle Haggard, once convict, and about country prison songs. Funny then that onnnnnn thiiiiiiiis day in hiiiiiisssssssstory David Allan Coe, in 1963, began serving a four-year prison sentence at the Ohio State Penitentiary for car theft, possession of obscene materials and possession of burglary tools.

In honor of Coe, as really, I can see no other reason to ever honor that racist fool, whose racism I'd like to imagine is simply tongue-in-cheek but goddamn, we all know he's a racist fool, I present to you: The Country Criminal Hall of Fame.

Johnny Cash

Born in 1932, Cash, whose songs include "I Walk the Line," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire," "Get Rhythm," "One Piece at a Time," "A Boy Named Sue" and "Jackson," spent plenty of time in prison, though not for committing any crime. Feeling compassionate toward prisoners, he began performing concerts at various prisons starting in the late 60s, resulting in the successful live albums Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison and Johnny Cash at San Quentin, as well as the lesser known At Österåker, recorded in Sweden in 1972. That's not to say Cash didn't have his own run-ins with the law; he's also well-known for his drug and alcohol abuse, landing in jail seven times for various misdemeanors, was once arrested for trespassing into a field to pick flowers, and was sued by the government when his truck caught fire in Los Padres National Forest, eventually burning the foliage off three mountains and killing 49 of its refuge's 53 endangered condors. Cash's response? "I don't care about your damn yellow buzzards."

Merle Haggard

Born in 1937, this "Okie from Muskogee" was in fact born in Bakersfield, CA where he later become an integral part of the "Bakersfield Sound." It was his parents, rather, who moved from Oklahoma to California during the Depression in search of work. After his father died, at nine Haggard began to rebel by committing petty crimes and larceny, was sent to a juvenile detention center at thirteen following a shoplifting incident, then ran away to Texas where he was again arrested for truancy and petty larceny. He ran away yet again, to Modesto, where he began performing but was caught and sent to the Preston School of Industry, a high-security facility. He was released only to be sent back after beating up a boy during a burglary attempt. After his fourth release, Haggard saw Lefty Frizzell, who allowed him to sing along during his concert. Soon thereafter, however, Haggard was arrested for robbing a Bakersfield bar and, in 1957, was sent to San Quentin State Prison for three years. Years later, while at a Johnny Cash concert, Haggard approached Cash to say, "I certainly enjoyed your show at San Quentin." Cash responded, "Merle, I don't remember you bein' in that show." Merle's response? "Johnny, I wasn't in the show, I was in the audience." While at San Quentin, Haggard had attended three of Johnny Cash's performances. Once released in 1960, Haggard stayed out for good although his independent life was difficult, describing his release as being the loneliest feeling he ever had.

Steve Earle

Born in 1955 the "Hardcore Troubadour," married seven times, doesn't just play a recovered drug addict on HBO's The Wire - he's also one in real life. Having been a recreational drug user since an early age and addicted to heroin for many years, Earle in 1993 stopped performing and recording for two years (a period he refers to as his "vacation in the ghetto"), and shortly thereafter ended up in jail on drugs and firearms charges. It was here he was finally able to kick his habit, soon winning a Grammy for his '96 folk album and since then releasing several albums ranging from country to bluegrass to folk to hard rock, and even writing and directing a play about the death penalty.

George Jones

Born in 1931 George "No Show" Jones, known for hits including "Race is On," "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "White Lightning," is also known for his cocaine abuse and drinking - he got his nickname for frequently being too far in the bag to perform, and in '99 was charged with a DUI for crashing into a bridge near his home. He is better known, however, for some of the desperate measures he took to obtain alcohol while married to his second wife, Shirley Corley. According to Jones:

Once, when I had been drunk for several days, Shirley decided she would make it physically impossible for me to buy liquor. I lived about eight miles from Beaumont and the nearest liquor store. She knew I wouldn't walk that far to get booze, so she hid the keys to every car we owned and left. But she forgot about the lawn mower. I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.

His next wife, Tammy Wynette, tells a similar story:

About 1 am I would wake up and look over to find he was gone. I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away. When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He'd driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, `Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she'd come after me. Contrary to popular belief, Jones was never arrested by the law for driving intoxicated on a mower - only by his wives.

Mindy McCready

Born in 1975, McCready is known for her 1996 hit, "Guys Do It All the Time," - who am I kidding. I know her mostly from her mugshot. In 2004, McCready was arrested in Tennessee for using a fake prescription to buy OxyContin. In 2005 she was charged with a DUI in Tennessee. Later that year she was charged with identity theft, unlawful use of transportation, unlawful imprisonment and hindering prosecution in Arizona. She was then issued an arrest warrant for leaving Tennessee without permission. In 2007 she was charged with battery after a fight with her mother. A week later taken into custody for violating the terms of her probation. After being sentenced to a year in jail, she was again arrested in Tennessee for violating the terms of her probation yet again. All this has been colored by multiple suicide attempts and the news that she had had a relationship with Roger Clemens that, according to tabloids, may have started when she was as young as 15. Last summer, McCready entered Vanderbilt Hospital following a nervous breakdown, then entering treatment where she remained until August.

Glen Campbell

And while we're on the subject of bad mugshots; born in 1936, Campbell, whose hits include the pop country hits like "Gentle on My Mind," "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy," isn't the gentle soul he sounds to be in his songs. He is known for his drug and alcohol abuse (and alleged physical abuse) during his stormy relationship with a young Tanya Tucker. Although for almost a decade Campbell had professed his sobriety to fans, in 2003 he was arrested for drunk driving and also charged with battery to a police officer.

Billy Joe Shaver

Born in 1939, Shaver, known as a notable outlaw singer and songwriter whose classics include "I Been to Georgia On a Fast Train" and "Ain't No God In Mexico" and whose voice can be heard singing the themes on the Adult Swim show Squidbillies, ain't had an easy life. He left school early to pick cotton. He failed at being a rodeo cowboy. He lost the better part of two fingers in a lumber mill and had to re-learn how to play guitar. In 1999 he lost his wife and mother to cancer. In 2000 he lost his son and longtime guitarist Eddy to a heroin overdose. In 2001 he nearly died following a heart attack on stage. And in 2007 police in Lorena, TX issued arrest warrants for Shaver on charges of aggravated assault and possessing firearms in a prohibited place after he shot a man in the face with a handgun. The man's injuries were reported as not life-threatening.

Johnny Paycheck

Born in 1938, Paycheck's hits included "Slide Off of Your Satin Sheets," and "I'm the Only Hell (Mama Ever Raised)", but he is perhaps most famous for making a hit out of the David Allan Coe song "Take This Job and Shove It." In 1982 Paycheck was arrested for alleged statutory rape after being approached by a fourteen-year-old young girl at a Missouri concert who told him she was a college student and nineteen. The charges were later reduced and he was fined. In 1985, Paycheck was convicted of shooting a man in Hillsboro, Ohio after the man asked Paycheck to visit his home to try his deer meat and turtle soup. Paycheck allegedly responded, "Do you see me as some kind of hick? ...I don't like you" and later fired a .22, grazing the man's head. He spent 22 months in prison.

David Allan Coe

Ah, the man of the hour - David Allan Coe! Coe is known both for his compositions made famous by other musicians (including "Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone)" by Tanya Tucker and "Take This Job and Shove It" by Johnny Paycheck), and by two albums released in 1978 and 1982 containing extremely vulgar racist and misogynist lyrics including "Ni**er Fucker" as well as, get this, a 1970 psychedelic concept album known for its strong anti-racist, pro-civil rights and anti-homophobic statements. Oh D.A.C., you are an enigma! Beginning at the age of 9, Coe was in and out of reform schools, correction centers and prisons and according to his own publicity campaigns, he spent time on death row for killing an inmate who demanded oral sex (this has not been confirmed by prison officials).

While these fellas (oh, Mindy too... for now) all eventually got themselves out of trouble (or died), can't say you'll be as lucky should you decide to knock off a liquor store, sleep with an underage gal or take revenge on a cheatin' lover. Love may be what gets you in, but contrary to what my pal Blake sings it may not always be what gets you out.