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Writer And Artist Peter Cooper Played The Whole Field

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John Partipilo
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Nashville is a storied city in the most literal sense - a place built on imagination, interpretation, and narration. Alongside the songs and songwriters, journalists have played an under-rated role in building the idea and brand and renown of Music City. I got up to speed in this town reading Robert K. Oermann, Chet Flippo, Bill Friskics-Warren and other greats. But in the 21st century so far, nobody’s written the Music City story with more depth, discernment and humor than author, reporter, songwriter, producer and baseball fanatic Peter Cooper, who died on Tuesday at the age of 52.

I am incapable of writing a detached obituary of my colleague and friend, and he didn’t believe in that anyway, so I’m not going to try. I want to tell you why knowing him was a gift. We worked together in two different forums - the daily Tennessean from 2001 to 2004 and then at Music City Roots from 2009 to 2018, where Peter was our go-to substitute host for Jim Lauderdale. Since our first meeting more than 20 years ago, he inspired, educated and surprised me. I’ve known and followed a lot of music journalists but none who’ve also written songs that impress Rodney Crowell, performed on national television or produced albums with icons like Duane Eddy, Tom T. Hall and Mac Wiseman. His talents were vast and his body of work indispensable for understanding Townes Van Zandt’s koan about the two kinds of music - the blues and zippity-do-dah.

Peter focused our attention on what was worthy rather than what was hot at the moment. He balanced coverage of the stars with care for the working songwriters, studio musicians and producers who make the whole showbiz shebang possible. He defended the stature and dignity of elders of country music who’d been eclipsed by the music business. He sought out lesser-known masters and supported their stories and their work over time, not just in one-off write-ups. And in a world and news business that wanted hot takes, celebrities, listicles and social media “engagement,” Peter was a writer’s writer, an evangelist for the beautiful sentence and for stories that were as long as and no longer than they needed to be. In a remarkable speech given in June to a feature writers conference (published in full by Variety), he urged: “Write the story that will make your editor miserable when she tries to find five inches to clip, that’ll make her feel like she’s destroying fine art.” So there he goes, renewing my fervor for my privileged and peculiar calling even from beyond this mortal realm.

Cooper is a proud son of Spartanburg, SC, a place of outsized musical achievement, and we know that because Peter wrote a whole book about it even before he moved to Nashville in 2000. Hub City Music Makers: One Southern Town’s Popular Music Legacy made the case that his native soil was an unheralded wellspring of talent through connected profiles of area standouts like Hank Garland, Pink Anderson, Marshall Chapman and the Marshall Tucker Band. He also wrote therein about David Ball, Champ Hood and Walter Hyatt, each remarkable enough to merit his own chapter but who together became the under-appreciated Uncle Walt’s Band. One did not spend time with Peter Cooper without enjoying sermons on the magnificence of Uncle Walt’s Band.

When I landed my first full-time music writing job in 2001, Peter was about a year into his tenure but already well-known and respected on the beat. I’m about four years older than he is, but he had at least a decade head start on me reporting on roots and country music. He was the senior writer at the paper, as he deserved to be. His knowledge - especially of the realms around Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and associates - was revelatory. He’d hung out with Jim Lauderdale and David Olney and his little-known songwriting hero Eric Taylor. But I was most appreciative for his enthused instruction in the music of several key artists I’d heard of but didn’t have a mature grasp on. Atop Mount Olympus for Peter was Tom T. Hall, the Kentucky master and free thinker who wrote prose as compelling as his songs. Peter briefed me on Cowboy Jack Clement before I first met the wily old producer for a Tennessean profile. The Seldom Scene was a band we had in common among our favorites, but he’d seen them more than I had and knew every chapter of the band’s history. Then at the community level, our glorious, rising East Nashville where we both lived on Fatherland Street, Peter was an everlasting flood of informed praise for Jon Byrd, Kevin Gordon, Elizabeth Cook, Tommy Womack, Paul Burch, Phil Lee, Tom Mason, Amelia White, Joe McMahan, Webb Wilder, Todd Snider, Greg Trooper, Greg Garing, Allison Moorer, Gwil Owen, Tim Carroll and so many others.

Our years of overlap at the Tennessean were a fascinating and pivotal time for music that included the explosion of digital downloading that buckled the knees of record companies, the surprise phenomenon of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the early conventions of the Americana Music Association, and the rise and industry sabotage of the formerly Dixie Chicks. It was the heyday of Billy Block’s Western Beat shows at the Exit/In, which led to late nights of epic conversation at the Sherlock Holmes Pub next door. Peter and I were called on to support the news team in the wake of 9/11, and we covered the passing of musical titans such as Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. Peter’s obituaries were legendary. His 6,400 word tribute to Cash was published as a stand-alone book. And when Loretta Lynn died in October, Peter was able to complete a lengthy, riveting life story that he’d no doubt researched and framed up while still on staff. We had a good understanding about sharing coverage along the lines of our respective interests and strengths. Peter loved loud rock and roll more than I ever did, but I became certain that, if he said so, Jason and the Scorchers was the greatest band in the history of the South. I gravitated to jam bands and jazz, and if that meant he never had to review Dave Matthews or Medeski, Martin & Wood, that was ideal for both of us. He once asked me, when I was defending Phish, if “the good lyric fairy had ever visited them.” And I asked what part of “You Enjoy Myself” didn’t he understand?

I gradually became aware that Peter also wrote songs and that he wasn’t half-assed about that either. I even recall sharing a songwriter’s round with him at the Basement, though he was definitely more devoted to the art and craft than I ever was. I think of gems like “Suffer A Fool” and “Wine” among his best. “Opening Day” always helps me get through the winter months, and “715 (For Hank Aaron)” is a heroic masterpiece. Peter found a recording home with our friend in common Eric Brace, leader of the fantastic band Last Train Home and founder of East Nashville’s staple label Red Beet Records. Peter released a lot of music with the label over 15 years, as a solo artist and in a duo then trio with Brace and guitarist/singer/songwriter Thomm Jutz. The arrangement also gave Peter a vehicle to engage with and elevate musicians whom he felt deserved more studio time and more acclaim. After coaxing her out of retirement, he produced a pair of albums by Fayssoux Starling, the South Carolina native who sang with Emmylou Harris. He ushered pedal steel guitar genius Lloyd Green back into recording and arranged a historic congress of Green and mutual admirer Mike Auldrige, dobro player for the Seldom Scene. And in 2011, Cooper joined with Brace to produce the multi-artist remake of Tom T. Hall’s 1974 children’s album Songs of Fox Hollow. It remains a delight for all ages and it was nominated for a Grammy Award.

Peter’s gifts and style weren’t always a match for the corporate needs of a Gannett-owned chain newspaper. He served full or part time until 2014 and then found a new and worthy perch at the Country Music Hall of Fame. There, he joined former Tennessean or Banner daily writers Michael McCall, Michael Gray and Jay Orr on a dream team of Nashville storytellers and historians. He contributed to some extraordinary content including the vast Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit. And in what might have been his single greatest flash of inspiration, he suggested that Old Crow Medicine Show ought to cover Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde for the album’s 50th anniversary. The result was a Columbia Records live album recorded at the Hall of Fame and an acclaimed tour. That synaptic leap, that free association based on years of accumulated knowledge and understanding of how musicians think - well, I wish I’d thought of that one.

Now that lightning mind and that vivacious voice is gone. There should have been more books and more Grammy nods. More Jim Lauderdale impressions and Newt Gingrich jokes. I can’t yet believe that I can’t holler at him and consult on a point of history or a thing at the Hall of Fame. I can’t believe Peter won’t be able to witness and comment on the 100th anniversary of WSM and the Grand Ole Opry. I can’t believe he won’t be at Nashville Sounds games with his son talking baseball - or at the Station Inn or the Eastside Bowl or the Ryman Auditorium. I can't believe I'm writing this. There’s no rhyme or reason in it.

In 2017, Peter released his second book, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends And Untold Adventures In Country Music. Its chapters on Cowboy Jack Clement, old-school manager Don Light, Jimmy Martin, Merle Haggard and Taylor Swift are impressive, but more so Peter’s connective tissue and his writer’s ethos that place those extraordinary lives in a robust ecosystem and culture. In the book’s afterword, he rebukes the cynical old line that writing about music “is like dancing about architecture,” in other words impossible or pointless. “If you do it correctly, writing about music doesn’t distract, it informs,” he argued. “Writing about music invariably becomes writing about musicians, and musicians are among the world’s most intriguing people. Musicians can conjure laughter or regret from tone and melody, which is a hell of a trick…People are impermanent, but music people create artful permanence. Writing about that isn’t a really stupid thing to want to do, it’s a noble thing to want to do.”

Peter’s corporeal impermanence was a given, though it manifested far too soon and tragically. His work, literary and musical, will live on, and his noble pursuits will remain an inspiration to the pickers and pilgrims, the singers and scribes who knew him and his work. Get those books. Read those words. You’ll know this city, our music and yourself better.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org