The Keeper of Country Music’s Tall Tales and Secret Histories -

The Keeper of Country Music’s Tall Tales and Secret Histories

 The Keeper of Country Music’s Tall Tales and Secret Histories

The beginning of that story belongs to a 22-year-old girl and an orange Camaro. This is 1983. Jody Lynn Benham has that gleaming sports car, the color of a Popsicle, a cat named John Wayne that she walks on a leash, and a burning desire to get the hell out of Michigan. The notion occurs to her that she will go to Nashville and she will marry either Merle Haggard or David Allan Coe, who is already as famous for being a supposed polygamist and member of the Outlaws motorcycle gang as he is as an artist.

“It was really just something to say,” as she tells it now. “Just being young and silly.”

So Jody hits the road, eventually making it to the Music City, where she takes a job cleaning rooms at, where else, the hotel at Opryland USA. It isn’t long before a fellow housekeeper invites her to meet David Allan Coe at a recording studio. She waits in the lobby until he appears: a big, tall, magnetic figure coming down the stairs, flanked by the producer Billy Sherrill and the singer Charlie Rich.

A member of Coe’s entourage introduces them: “This is Jody. She wanted to meet you.” Coe looks at Jody. He takes her hand and says, “Let’s go.”

“I don’t hold hands in public,” says Jody.

“You do now,” says Coe.

Before the night’s over, Coe tells Jody he’s about to go on the road and wants her to come with him. “Couldn’t we just, um, date?” she asks him. That’s not how he does things, says Coe: “You’re either with me or you’re not.”

Jody decides she’s with him, at least long enough that she finds herself pregnant. Then she splits, back to Michigan, where her child, a son, is born. She doesn’t even put “Coe” on his birth certificate. A year later comes a phone call: “David Allan is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Please come to Nashville, to Johnny Cash’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, and let him meet his son.”

On the plane to Tennessee, she prays: “Lord, help me be strong. Let me stand up for myself.” At the house, Willie Nelson is there. So are Kris Kristofferson and his wife. June Carter Cash, of course. Waylon… Well, she doesn’t quite remember if Waylon and his wife, Jessi Colter, are there, but what the hell, let’s say they are, just to complete this firmament, this Nashville Versailles. David Allan Coe is in an upstairs bedroom, apparently bereft. Johnny Cash himself takes the kid up to the room. He says, “David, I need you to look after this child for a second,” handing the baby over before Coe has a chance to protest. When he comes back a few minutes later, the two are getting along.

“Say, this kid likes me. He seems smart too,” says Coe.

“Well, that’s your son,” says Johnny Cash.“His name is Tyler.”

The weekend goes well, but Jody tears herself away. Back in Michigan, she leaves Tyler with her parents overnight for the very first time, to attend a wedding in Detroit. When she calls to check in, her mother tells her, “David just called from the airport. He says he’s coming to get you.” Maybe it’s whatever it is about David Allan Coe that’s hard to say no to. Maybe it’s that she suspects she’s pregnant again. But Jody says yes. Before they leave to start their new family life, Coe takes the keys to that orange Camaro and tosses them to Jody’s brother. She won’t need that car anymore.

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