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VOL. 41 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 12, 2017

Cooper shares inside stories of country greats

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The last time I saw Johnny Cash he was dead. Peter Cooper – who just has released a book chronicling what he considers his greatest fortune, that he is able to spend his time with country music’s sometimes erratic geniuses – was standing next to me on that September 15, 2003.

We both had lumps in our throats – or perhaps it was just allergies – after Kris Kristofferson eulogized the man who began as his hero, became his mentor and champion and eventually, perhaps, his best friend.

The last time I saw Johnny Cash alive was four months earlier – May 18, 2003 – when his beloved June Carter Cash was eulogized, also at Hendersonville’s First Baptist Church.

John R. Cash, who was pretty crippled by age and decades of self-neglect (I’m being nice as I really loved the guy), was looking down at the woman in the casket.

Seems to me that both Peter Cooper and I patted Cash on his shoulder, but I was pretty emotional seeing that great and greatly battered man looking down at his partner. Peter was, as well. We both were there as journalists, and we both cherished our opportunities to get to know the man as much as the musician.

My Cash recollections point out how important Peter has been in my own trek through the music he loves best. Of course, it’s his own journey he chronicles in his new book “Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music.”

As our mutual pal Kristofferson writes on the back-cover: “Peter Cooper looks at the world with an artist’s eye and a human heart and soul.”

I hired the nervous 29-year-old when I was entertainment editor at Nashville’s daily newspaper. The job interview was one of the last times – except for the funerals – that I saw Peter wear a tie, although I think he does wear them now as senior director, producer and writer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

His job interview with me went well, and I figured as soon as my bosses signed off on it, I’d hire him (one of my wisest decisions still).

As for Peter, well his interview-day reaction when he saw one of the newspaper librarians really sealed the deal that he’d do whatever it took to work at the newspaper. “Remember me being freaked out by Perry Baggs working there?” he asked the other day.

Perry Baggs (and occasionally Baggz) was, in addition to working by day in the newspaper library, the drummer for Peter’s favorite live band – Jason & The Scorchers. Perry, who died in 2012 after a long struggle with diabetes, was as gentle a soul as you could ever meet and the idea that simply going to look for news clips in the library would put Peter in contact with one of his heroes, well, it was more than a dream come true for the young newsman from Spartanburg, South Carolina.

“Is that really Perry Baggs?” Peter asked, rhetorically, on the day of the interview.

Peter’s enthusiasm showed to me the genuine spark of a young man to whom music was not just tunes and words …. It was made by people. It is that same belief that has helped make him a fine writer and this book a super read for anyone interested in the people inside the performers’ shells.

I bring the Cash stuff up at the top of this column because it shows just one instance of when Peter was close to a legendary, larger-than-life star, taking notes with his heart or perhaps with a pen.

Me, well, I was a lifelong newspaperman – and proud of it – who loved music and musicians, with heavy emphasis on the Johns (Lennon and Cash), Dylan, Elvis, Kristofferson, The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones.

Peter was a musician/music scholar who just happened to write some pretty damn fine words as a music journalist at the paper, a job/life that allowed him into the room, sometimes as a fly on the wall, other times playing his Martin in pulls with heroes-turned-friends like Earl Scruggs, Cowboy Jack Clement, Mac Wiseman and Tom T. Hall.

As far as I know, Peter never played guitar with Cash, perhaps because he never mastered the Man in Black’s basic boom-chicka-boom sound, but he has a reverence for that flawed-but-holy (and sometimes holy terror) man.

What all of the above illustrates is that Peter toted his love of music, along with his guitar – one of them given to him by Tom T. Hall – with him when he worked for me at The Tennessean newspaper, for which he helped chronicle the lives and deaths of the men and women of country music.

As his entertainment editor, I gave him plenty of free rein and his time – clocked and un-clocked – was spent immersed in the role of a guitar-playing music archaeologist. Even as a young man (he’s 46 now and laments he’s “gettin’ old”), he basically inhaled every detail about country music and musicians.

A musician who has a few albums out himself, he relished every moment, every opportunity, to spend time with Music City’s finest citizens, listening to their tales. Instead of some cold journalist afraid to let his or subjects touch his heart, this “kid” who loved Perry Baggs, instead opened his heart completely as he went about the business of getting to know and getting known by stars, sidemen and even those who bussed tables or opened doors while nurturing futile honky-tonk dreams.

The results of his personal research were the kinds of stories you don’t get by telephoning folks. The things discovered during face-to-face interviews could be used for “color” to bring his stories to life.

Sometimes he reported on his adventures. Sometimes he just filed away memories so he’d be ready to breathe new life into musicians when he wrote their obituaries.

Sometimes his wanderings didn’t yield stories fit to print. But he told them to me, and I swear I haven’t violated that trust.

Some of his adventures with those people – both the quick and the dead – appear in the new book.

It is a human-flavored read that begins with Cowboy Jack Clement (from whose song title Peter pilfered his book’s title), and ends with Waylon Jennings talking to him about Chet Atkins after that great guitarist, RCA exec and Nashville innovator had died.

“Write him up good, hoss,” he (Waylon) said. “You can’t write him up as good as he was.”

‘I couldn’t write him as good as he was, but I gave it a shot,’ Peter writes.

Chet was my friend, and I have his hand-carved desk nameplate – he worked with wood for fun – in my office now. It was a gift from his widow shortly after he died. I’ll have to add that Peter actually did “write him up as good as he was.”

If he hadn’t been willing to share his passion for the music and music-makers, there would be no book, and Peter would still be teaching in a South Carolina middle school.

First of all, of course, I’m unbiased when I say this is a fine book that should be read by anyone interested in the folks who built this city by writing and singing about life (the current “musical era” telling of pretty girls in tight T-shirts, pickup trucks and beer is pretty well excluded, I’m sure because Peter wanted to keep this book “positive” and had to be true to himself.)

As a quick aside, Peter does like some beer songs, especially Tom T. Hall’s “I Like Beer,” a polka-flavored ode to stuff that fuels musicians and fans alike.

Some modern musicians do sneak in, here and there, as this is not designed as a history book for shriveled scholars and washed-up newspapermen to opine about. Instead it’s a tour, with Peter as omnipresent narrator, dragging us willingly along as he encounters his heroes, honky-tonk or otherwise.

If you know Peter, you probably have heard many, if not, most of these stories before – he does enjoy swapping tall tales, even when he’s not drinking beer and playing guitar.

Perhaps you can sense by reading this far that Peter is among my dearest and most loyal friends. I’ve missed his writing since he went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but this book allows me to gorge myself on his tales in one 253-page feast.

At the Hall, he helps plan programs and displays and, he says, attends a lot of meetings inside the building that to him is his home almost as much as is the yellow house on Fatherland Street.

“I love the place,” he says of the Hall. “I’ll go in the parking garage and think ‘this is cool’…. I loved my time writing for the newspaper (especially when I was his boss), and I had one of the greatest jobs in the world (again, especially when I was his boss).

“But it was the easiest thing to go from that to working in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I was going to a place that is devoted to the illumination of the art form that I care most about in the world, so it was joining the Cubs just in time to go to the World Series.” (He is a baseball enthusiast, but more to the point, he loves the Cubs and the Billy Goat).

As we talk about his job now, he brags his CMHOF&M colleagues “are some of the smartest, most-dedicated people around. So, going there to work was the easiest thing I’d ever done.”

Yeah, they even allow him time to take off to tour with his “road brother” Eric Brace and guitar wizard Thomm Jutz. Their show is a poor man’s Everly Brothers (without the backbiting) affair that’s heavily dosed with Thomm’s almost incomparable guitar lines. It’s a good-tempered evening, and if you ever get the chance to go hear them, you’ll leave with a smile.

Peter began storming the world of music pretty young, even took some time off before finishing Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to go to San Francisco to be a musician and find his greatest success as an extraordinary ice-cream-cone filler. He had missed the Summer of Love by a decade or two (I didn’t).

After college, the young English major went to work as a middle school teacher, “the hardest job in the world I know of, and I think I’m even including roofing and construction work in that,” he says.

“I had written about music a lot for weekly magazines when I was a middle-school teacher. I would make calling card calls from the teachers break room on interviews for magazines. I’d wind up paying $30 in phone bills for stories that would pay $20, but it was worth it to me to get to talk with John Hiatt, Kevin Welch or Guy Clark and get to know those people.”

He left teaching to enter an equally lucrative field, that of a general assignment reporter for a small-town newspaper.

He had enough good clips and nervous self-assurance that when I had to fill one of my music writer’s jobs at the paper I stopped the process with him.

He worked at the Tennessean from March 15, 2000, until October of 2014.

While the pay was poor, the job was nerve-wracking for the young man. You see, he not only was writing stories about people he thought readers should care about … he was writing for those same people … and he cared about them as well.

“Immediately after I got (to The Tennessean) I realized that in a normal job, you are charged with doing right by your boss (he did OK).

“I quickly found out that writing for The Tennessean, that I had a harder and more rewardable gig than that: I had to do right by the music community. That didn’t mean kissing butt; that meant I had to write things that Johnny Cash and Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings would read and not think we (he, me, the morning newspaper) were foolish and uninformed.

“I was in the business of not screwing up in front of my heroes. I was not writing something that an editor thought was grammatically and factually OK (though I did prefer if he did), it had to be better than that,” he adds.

Peter Cooper with Cowboy Jack Clement.

-- Submitted

“I don’t know whether I achieved that or not. But I tried really damn hard, and I know lot of people have tried harder and done better.” (Probably not true.)

In the process he earned the trust, and often the friendship, of his subjects. “I don’t know how well I did at it, but I do know that I wrote with a complete respect for the people I was writing about and for the job they were doing.”

“I spent a lot of time off the clock around Cowboy Jack Clement and Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson, because I recognized they were extraordinary people and because I’m selfish, and I wanted to hear the things that they had to say when I wasn’t writing for publication.

“I also spent a lot of time around people who were not regarded as legends, but I considered them to be of utmost importance, like Don Light, the great independent talent agent, and Ann Soyars, the door person at The Station Inn. Those people didn’t write songs like ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down,’ but they exemplified the spirit and creativity of Nashville.”

In his book’s first three sentences, he gets right to the point by paying homage to the center of the Nashville universe, the man who helped flavor the minds and the work of the musicians:

We should probably start with the Cowboy. He’s the one you should have met. We all called him a genius. He neither confirmed nor denied.

That first chapter sets the tone for the rest of the book, as he tackles the attempt at explaining why Cowboy Jack Clement, a Falstaff in a Hawaiian shirt (and sometimes even the grass skirt) remains so important. It is an essay of love about the man he considers the most important one to ever come to Nashville – carting the sensibilities he honed by producing Elvis, Scotty and Bill and more for his firebrand boss (and fellow genius) Sam Phillips in Memphis.

The Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa – Clement’s magical mystery land and residence – became a Belmont Boulevard destination for all sorts of musicians. He taught those artists about their art and he also reminded them of their role in life.

“Remember boys, we’re in the fun business,” Cowboy Jack says in the book. “If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our job.”

And this book is fun – albeit occasionally sad – as chapters blend together to link The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers to Jones to Kristofferson to Haggard to Taylor Swift.

And then there’s Johnny Cash.

In one vignette, he mentions being in a bar in Jacksonville, Florida, where waitresses are discussing their favorite superheroes.

One says that Batman is her favorite and asks the other if Bruce Wayne’s crime- battling alter-ego is her favorite, as well.

“My favorite superhero is Johnny Cash. He makes Batman look like a little bitch,’’ was her reply.

This book is a guided and loving journey through Nashville with artists so many of us love.

“I didn’t plan anything about this book,” Peter tells me. “My kid (Baker) is now 7 years old. As I was writing this, he was 5 and he went to bed around 8, and when he went to bed, I would sit down at the computer and start typing for two hours. And whatever came out became this book.

“I wrote it as if I was talking to someone at the Three Crow Bar who had just happened in and sat at the barstool next to me.”

I’m sure he told many of these tales at the bar, but when it came right down to it, writing is a lonely proposition, and he did it in the home he shares with wife Charlotte, a high school French teacher and very patient woman, and Baker, the kid. That home is conveniently, he notes, “three blocks from the Three Crow Bar.”

The words that spewed from his computer tell the story of a Nashville linked by compassion, love and loyalty.

By the way, he has always shown those same three elements to me. A decade ago I parted ways with the newspaper, where at least one editor had labeled me “a maverick” who didn’t toe the corporate line. Many other journalists who, like me, were 55 or so (some older) left that same day.

I hardly heard from anyone still working at 1100 Broad, where I had spent 20 years (10 at the Nashville Banner and another 10 at The Tennessean.)

But my phone did ring, still does, and the formerly young guy, who I hired and brought to the city he loves, and I meet up at Athens for lunch.

And he tells me stories, many of which are in this book. Or perhaps we swap memories of the Cash funerals. Or those of Scruggs, Tater, Porter, Eddy, Uncle Josh… that list keeps growing.

And, oh yeah, he generally buys: As you’ll know after reading this book, he has a fondness for mavericks and rascals.

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