Known for his outlaw persona, Coe spent most of his youth in various prisons until releasing his debut album, Penitentiary Blues in 1968 and touring with Grand Funk Railroad. His concerts were wild and unpredictable, as Coe began calling himself the Masked Rhinestone Cowboy and he wore a rhinestone costume and Lone Ranger mask, riding into concerts on a motorcycle.
He was not able to expand beyond a cult following, however, and other artists found more success than him with his songs. Tanya Tucker, Billie Jo Spears, George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson all recorded Coe compositions. Johnny Paycheck made a short career out of Coe's "Take This Job and Shove It", letting people think he had written it and never mentioning Coe.
Coe finally hit the Top Ten with "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" in 1975. The song, written in conjunction with Steve Goodman, is known as "the perfect country and western song". It includes a narrative in which Coe explains that the perfect country and western song has to mention "Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk", whereupon he sings the last verse:
Coe's long career has included 26 LPs, with 1987's Matter of Life... and Death being one of the most successful and critically acclaimed. He even put out a concept album, Compass Point that threads his autobiography (or that of his persona) through an encounter with the famous Caribbean studio for which it was named and where it was recorded.
After Paycheck's brief and strife-filled career ended, Coe made fun of him in his sequel, "You Can Take This Job and Shove It Too" with the line, "Paycheck you may be a thing of the past". He also made fun of Glenn Campbell's singing a song called "Rhinestone Cowboy" with the line: "I've been the rhinestone cowboy for so long I can't remember."
In concert, he frequently said after one of his hard-rocking numbers, "Take that, Bill Monroe!" Monroe is a country traditionalist, but so is Coe in his own way: "I can sing you every song Hank Williams ever wrote, and I can sing all them songs about Texas".