Peter Cooper is an award-winning musician and respected music journalist. He is the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Senior Director, Producer, and Writer, and a senior lecturer in country music at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music. He is a Grammy-nominated music producer, and a songwriter whose works have been recorded by John Prine, Bobby Bare, Jim Lauderdale, and others. He has appeared on The Tonight Show and The Late Show with David Letterman and was, along with the like of the Kings of Leon and financial guru Dave Ramsey, named one of Nashville’s “10 Most Interesting People” by Nashville Arts & Entertainment magazine.
The following excerpt is taken from Peter Cooper’s new book, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride. A musician-turned-music journalist, Cooper counts Bobby Bare and John Prine among those who have recorded his songs. In the book, Cooper explores the history of country music up through present day, focusing on Nashville nerve centers like WSM (The Legend) 650AM and the Grand Ole Opry, and delving deep into behind-the-scenes studies of characters like Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy Buffett, Dierks Bentley and Chris Stapleton. Told through the lens of a songwriter, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride is full of unique insight and just plain fun.
-The Talkhouse Staff
An often-quoted axiom:
“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture: It’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”
Some people say musician Elvis Costello came up with that, though Elvis said it was humorist Martin Mull.
I don’t care who came up with the “dancing about architecture thing.” It is both funny and untrue.
If you do it correctly, writing about music doesn’t distract, it informs. 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.
Songwriters sit down with nothing at all, and, on occasion, come up with something that moves people to act, to cry, or to care. 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.
Damn, now I suppose I have ascribed nobility to my endeavors within this book. What a jackass. Yet, there you have it. I’ve spent many years writing about country music, helping point people to art and artists who might enrich their everyday understanding. I’m not dancing about architecture, I’m hoping to tell you something you’ll want to know. (I don’t dance about anything, even about music: I learned to play and sing so I wouldn’t have to dance.)
On occasion, after a concert or upon hearing a recording, people have attempted to compliment the music that I make by saying, “You’re too good to be writing about other people.”
I appreciate the sentiment, but deny the implication that writing about music is necessarily of lesser value than making music. The baseball equivalent would be broadcasters, and Vin Scully spent fifty-nine years as the broadcast voice of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was poignant and hilarious and wise. He fostered understanding and community. He was an absolute delight. He was the poet laureate of baseball. He was more important to the Dodgers than any player other than Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league’s color barrier in 1947.
I can’t claim to be country music’s Vin Scully, but that’s a righteous and worthy goal. Peter Guralnick is the only writer who has ever reached it, and it was his Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians—along with Frye Gaillard’s Watermelon Wine: The Spirit of Country Music—that convinced me of the art and worth of writing about music, and that assured that I’d be a little pissed off every time someone rattles off the “dancing about architecture” line.
Of course, Vin Scully is the rarest of broadcasters. Plenty of them are blowhards and gasbags who criticize without empathy or comprehension. Lots of music journalists are like that, as well. They’re out there foxtrotting around buildings, spewing snark and invectives, posing as taste-makers and acting as if music is valueless if it is not to their preference.
Every mistake I’ve made in writing about music has come in situations where I did not approach the subject with respect and some measure of sensitivity. Most times I’ve chuckled at a “gotcha” line upon creation, I’ve regretted the same line when I saw it staring back at me in print. A gotcha line doesn’t only cast judgment on the music in question, it casts judgment on the people who find worth and use and joy from the music in question. To cast judgment is to reject the examples of Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson, and rejecting the examples of Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson is a lousy-making endeavor for anyone seeking to write about music and musicians.
Chet Atkins was a country music shape-shifter. He was as respected as anyone in the music business, for his prodigious skills as a guitarist, for his acumen as a music executive, and for his standing as one of the producers who created the “Nashville Sound” that expanded country music’s popularity and accessibility.
One of the enduring talents Chet brought to Nashville was Waylon Jennings, the full-voiced singer from Texas, by way of Arizona. Chet signed Waylon to an RCA Records contract in 1965, and Waylon went on to become a musical renegade and a sure-fire star. Waylon was one of the principal forces in country music’s Outlaw Movement, in which musicians wrested creative control from producers and executives, rather than working within prescribed systems to obtain predictable sonic results.
Chet Atkins was one of the producers and executives who developed those prescribed systems, and who believed there were good reasons to seek predictable sonic results. Yet he and Waylon were great friends. They each made history on their own terms, and they are bound as compatriots, as innovators, and as Country Music Hall of Famers.
When Chet died, I wrote his obituary. In doing so, I called Waylon, who was emotional in describing the depth and breadth of Chet’s artistry, and in relating Chet’s uncommon humanity.
At the end of the conversation, Waylon issued a commandment:
“Write him up good, Hoss,” he said. “You can’t write him as good as he was.”
I couldn’t write him as good as he was. But I gave it a shot.
Excerpt from Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride by Peter Cooper. Copyright © 2017 by the author and reprinted with permission of Spring House Press.