FAITH IN MUSIC
The Rev. Keith Coes spreads the gospel of rock & roll in Music City
In 1980, Keith Coes was a student at Tennessee State University in Nashville. A diehard rock & roll fan, Coes kept his radio tuned to WRVU, Vanderbilt University’s student radio station. One day, he heard an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I heard them talking about needing more DJs,” Coes recalls. “So I went down to the station and signed up. They didn’t ask me if I was attending Vanderbilt. I was the same age as the other DJs and hung out with them, so everyone just assumed I was a Vandy student.”
That small bit of deception by omission was the launch of an amazing career in radio. For over 35 years, the Rev. Keith Coes’ easy-going, rock-solid baritone has been laying down the gospel of rock & roll in Nashville. Along the way, he’s been an eyewitness to the ups and downs and multiple permutations of Music City’s rock scene. Currently spinning platters every Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon on Lightning 100, WRLT-FM, the good Reverend also serves as music director and advertising traffic director for the station.
As it has for many rock & roll acolytes who have made their passion a profession, Coes’ long musical pilgrimage began in front of a radio as a teenage rock fan. Although Coes was born in sunny Los Angeles, he grew up in the quite different climate of Minneapolis, eventually moving with his parents to Nashville in 1976.
“In the late ’70s, Nashville was kinda sleepy,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of good shows to go to or really good restaurants. I was used to Minneapolis, which was a big happening town, and Nashville seemed pretty boring. WKDA-AM and WKDF-FM were the only commercial rock stations, and that was pretty much it until I discovered WRVU.” The student radio station of Vanderbilt University was the only source for alternative rock in Nashville. “You might hear Frank Zappa or The Allman Brothers or The Police,” Coes says. “It was all kinds of stuff, but it was the only place you could hear what they called new wave back then. It was very cool.”
Although he was attending TSU at the time, Coes jumped at the chance to become a part of WRVU.
Joining the staff of the station, he found himself in the perfect place for a young, adventurous rock fan with cosmopolitan tastes. With a weak, but steady signal that blanketed Nashville, WRVU became instrumental in the birth of Nashville’s alternative rock scene and a major player in the era that would become known as the Golden Age of College Radio. It was a scene centered around a former drive-in restaurant known as Cantrell’s, just a few blocks from WRVU’s studios.
“I used to go to Cantrell’s all the time,” Coes says. “I saw R.E.M., the Stray Cats, and lots of other bands there. The Stray Cats actually had to play in a tent behind the building because they sold more tickets than the place could hold. I ended up giving R.E.M. a ride when they played here in 1982 — five guys squeezed into my Volkswagen Rabbit. Another time, the local band Simmonz was playing at Cantrell’s right after Judas Priest was scheduled to play at the Municipal Auditorium. The guys in the band plastered show flyers all over Municipal, and then ( Judas Priest’s lead singer) Rob Halford showed up at their show in a limousine.
“WRVU was very much a part of the local scene,” Coes explains. “We worked with a lot of local bands to help build the local rock scene — Jason and the Scorchers, The Questionnaires, Royal Court of China, Jay Joyce’s band, In Pursuit. We also worked to promote a lot of concerts — the Talking Heads, Divinyls, Psychedelic Furs, Joan Armatrading, and more.”
In 1984, Coes’ tenure at 91 Rock came to a close, but not by choice. “After being at WRVU for four years, they found out I didn’t go to school there and that’s how I got kicked out,” he says. “Until then, no one ever asked. That’s when I got a radio job that actually paid money.”
That first paying job was at one of Nashville’s most historic stations, WLAC. Founded in 1926 by the Life and Casualty Insurance Company of Tennessee, WLAC rose to prominence in the late 1940s when it became one of the first Southern radio stations to regularly schedule R&B and black gospel music during nighttime hours. With its powerful 50,000-watt clear channel signal pumping out jump, jive, and sanctified tunes across the U.S., Canada, and into the Caribbean, the station became instrumental in the birth of rock & roll and soul music.
When Coes joined WLAC in 1984 as a board operator and engineer, the station was broadcasting news and talk radio during daylight hours, and gospel and religious programming at night. Although the rockin’ soul era of the station had ended in the early 1970s, one legendary figure from those halcyon days remained.
“That’s when I began working with Hoss Allen,” Coes says. “He had a lot of good stories, most of which I can’t tell you for publication. He was one of the first DJs to play Elvis, James Brown, and many others. Most people thought he was a black guy, and it wasn’t until he did a TV show in the ’60s that most people found out that he was white. He was a legendary figure and listeners just loved him. I would pick up the station’s mail from the post office because it was a way for me to be late to work every day. There was always a giant bag of mail and there would be letters addressed to just ‘Hoss Man’ or even ‘Horse Man’ with just WLAC or Nashville, Tenn., for the address. The post office just knew where to send them. That was amazing.”
Although Coes was working in radio professionally, WLAC’s format didn’t allow much opportunity to work with his first love, rock music. But that didn’t stop him from maintaining his connections to Nashville’s local music scene. His musical tastes were very diverse, but he had a particular affection for hard rock and heavy metal. When Nashville’s first heavy metal club, Sal’s Rock-n-Roll Club (aka Sal’s Rock Block), opened in the mid-1980s, Coes became a fixture of the scene.
“Sal’s originally opened in Antioch by the Brunswick bowling alley off Haywood Lane,” he recalls.
“It was run by Sal of Sal’s Pizza. Then it moved close to Vandy at Division and 20th across from the Bound’ry. Everyone but me had crazy long hair and looked like they were sponsored by Aquanet.” In business between 1985 and the early ’90s, Sal’s became the central hub of Nashville’s small, but vital metal scene. The club nurtured local acts and became a stop for many future superstars.
“I saw a lot of great bands at Sal’s,” Coes says. “Malice, Anthrax, Megadeth, Faith No More — and all in a club that held 250 people. I got my face rocked off.”
Sal’s wasn’t the only location where faces were being removed by the power of rawk. Cantrell’s closed its doors in 1986, but several local clubs and venues kept the rock a-comin’ — The Exit/In, Elliston Square (now known as The End), The Cannery, 328 Performance Hall, and others. Coes was a ubiquitous presence at many of these shows.
“There was good stuff going on all the time and you could always find good bands playing in Nashville,” he says. “I pretty quickly found out that if you work at a radio station you could meet the bands, go backstage, and hang out. That was great. While I was working at WLAC, I was also working with a lot of different bands around town, helping with radio promotions. Even more so after Preston Sullivan and Laura Frazier with Carlyle Records hired me for college radio promotions. I would call stations and encourage them to play the records and arrange in-studio appearances for local bands like Dessau, The Grinning Plowman, The Shakers, The Stand, Marky and the Unexplained Stains, and F.U.C.T.”
Coes’ return to rock radio came in 1987 with the debut of Rebel 100 WWRB-FM on the Nashville airwaves. Throughout the early ’80s, more rock radio stations entered the Nashville market, but all were firmly committed to mainstream classic rock and Top 40. Rebel 100 chose a different path as it became Nashville’s first commercial alternative rock station.
“We were probably one of the first stations to play Guns N’ Roses, but we also played The Cure,” Coes says. “My neighbor worked there and suggested I apply. I got a part-time job at first, and then I got a specialty show playing heavy metal. Back then, if you had a metal show, record labels desperately wanted to set up interviews, so I met a lot of bands.”
Although Rebel 100 was a hit with many Nashville rock fans, its time on the air proved to be fleeting. “Rebel 100 was on on the air maybe a year and a half when the station was bought,” Coes says. “The new owner changed the call letters to WRLT and turned it into a wimpy Adult Contemporary station called Lite 100 that was completely automated. They fired everybody and just let the machine run it. That format flopped and the station went into receivership, and Ned Horton bought it.”
Horton reformulated the station as Lightning 100 in March 1990, pulling inspiration from the former Rebel 100, along with hiring several of the old Rebel 100 staff. He also relocated the station’s studio from a nondescript Brentwood office park to the heart of downtown Nashville.
“Ned had a vision to play cool rock & roll,” Coes says. “We were a small station, but people believed in us, and we’ve thrived and had a hand in many cool events over the years — Dancing in the District, Live on the Green, Nashville Sunday Night from 3rd & Lindsley, and more.”
Leaving WLAC for a full-time position with Lightning 100 in 1993, Coes became one of the station’s cornerstone voices. Along the way, he also acquired his righteous title as a minister of rock & roll.
“I was doing a metal show in the mid- ’90s,” Coes says. “There was a radio promotion company called The Syndicate that specialized in metal bands. One of their guys was kind of a wiseass, and he decided to have all the heavy metal DJs around the country ordained as ministers in the Universal Life Church. After that, if you looked in (radio trade publication) CMJ magazine, every metal director at every station was listed as a reverend. So I just go with it, and everyone remembers me as a result of it.”
It’s been a long road since Coes showed up for a roll call of would-be DJs 36 years ago, and he takes pride in the part he has played, not only as a fan, but as one of the stalwarts of Nashville’s ever-changing music scene.
“I like to think Lightning 100 made a real difference in the local scene,” he says. “We’re all about being a local station. Most of our advertising is local, as well as our listeners, fans, and friends. Sometimes we’ll play five or six local bands in one hour, and then there’s our Friday Afternoon Live show that spotlights local bands. That’s an advantage of being in Nashville. You go to other cities and you just don’t find original bands like you do here. It just seems to get bigger and bigger every year.”
Although Coes’ faith in Nashville’s music scene has never wavered, he does admit that its growth and current success have even surprised a true believer.
“I never thought the rock scene would get as big as it is today,” he says. “I’ve always had four or five clubs that I would frequent a few times a month. Now there are often two or three amazing shows you want to go to in the same night. There’s just a lot of amazing music in Nashville.”