- By Alan Richard
MY MUSICAL MEMORIES OF PETER COOPER
When Peter Cooper died in December, Nashville lost a major figure in the music community, hundreds of us lost a good friend, and one of the best to ever write about American popular music took a final bow.
Peter was a dad to his 12-year-old son, friend and counsel to many, a storyteller and author, music historian and teacher, baseball fanatic, fine singer-songwriter and musician, host of a podcast — and the list goes on.
His work — his mission in life, really — was country music. Hundreds of friends, fans and music lovers are gathering at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Feb. 24 to honor Peter by sharing songs and memories, blessing his family and loved ones, and remembering Peter with love.
Peter’s role as the senior director, producer and writer for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum required him to emcee countless events and put together exhibits on the likes of the great Emmylou Harris, the musicians called the “Nashville Cats” who ventured into rock ‘n roll when they backed Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney and Neil Young and many others recorded in Nashville, and the Outlaw scene epitomized by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings that intertwined the roots-influenced music of Texas and Tennessee.
I happened to be watching the Grammy Awards a couple of weeks ago when the “in memoriam” portion of the show began with a giant image of the recently departed Loretta Lynn on the screen just behind the stage, as Kacey Musgraves sang Coal Miner’s Daughter in a crystalline voice and only herself on guitar.
A moment later, an image of Peter appeared on the same screen behind Musgraves. My mouth dropped open and tears welled up. What a beautiful, well-deserved tribute, one that would make Peter so very proud.
It’s still hard to believe he’s gone. Like many other writers, musicians, and friends, I miss Peter Cooper. I miss sending him a message when I hear a great song, want to ask about some obscure singer, or just to tell him I’d be in town.
Peter was such an incredible person, so wonderful in many phases of his life, that it sometimes seemed like too much. That’s what happens sometimes with creative, passionate, incredible people. I guess that’s happens sometimes for just regular people, too.
What matters now is what many of us cherish and remember about Peter, and that’s so many things.
His recognition on the Grammy Awards caught me off guard, but made sense. Peter was nominated in 2011 for Best Children’s Album for I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, a tribute to one of Nashville’s best all-time songwriters Hall and his 1974 children’s album.
Peter produced the record with his longtime friend and musical partner Eric Brace. They joined Eric’s longtime band, Last Train Home, and many musical friends such as Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Fayssoux Starling McLean, Bobby Bare, Duane Eddy, Baker Maultsby and others on songs from Mr. Hall’s original children’s album.
(I happened to be in Nashville when Mr. Hall died and had just seen Peter. “I’m crushed,” he texted me that day.)
Born in Florence, South Carolina, Peter and his family lived in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. when he was a teenager. There he fell in love with the Seldom Scene and the group’s bluegrass influences.
As a musician, Peter released three albums of his own, four albums with Eric Brace, another with steel-guitar legend Lloyd Green, and two albums with Eric and their close friend Thomm Jutz (the most Southern bluegrass-and-folk music songwriter who’s also German), as a trio.
Peter told some great stories in his wonderful book, Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music. Find a copy. You’ll be glad you did. Maybe I can even help his family and friends put out a revised edition or something.
Peter weaves highlights in the history of country music with insights from his conversations with legends and lesser-known artists and why they mattered: How WSM-AM’s all-powerful radio signal carried the Grand Ole Opry across most of the country and into Canada (a replica of which towers over the Hall of Fame rotunda); how Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels blended both European and African influences, connecting with many listeners and profoundly influencing Bob Dylan, the Everly Brothers, Dolly Parton and just about anyone else you can think of.
Peter also writes of early Opry star DeFord Bailey, whose harmonica wizardry and showmanship could not get around Jim Crow; the brilliant singer-songwriters Merle Haggard, Guy Clark and David Olney; and Mother Maybelle Carter, whose Virginia-mountain guitar licks influenced much of the country and popular-music playing that followed — and how Johnny Cash’s future mother-in-law once had to work at a nursing home in the 1960s to stay afloat.
Speaking of books, Peter would also tell you to look for Tom T. Hall’s The Storyteller’s Nashville: A Gritty & Glorious Life in Country Music, in which one of country music’s best singer-songwriters tells of his arrival in town as a young man and resulting career. Peter adored Hall and helped publish a revised edition in 201x. “Everything you need to know is in there,” Johnny Cash once said of the book.
Peter was always eager to share what he was learning about country music. It never seemed to stop.
He deepened my appreciation for my favorite singer, Emmylou Harris, writing about her career in music. Peter was the driving force behind the Hall of Fame’s exhibit, Emmylou Harris: Songbird’s Flight.
“A tradition-rich singer and songwriter” who “nonetheless defies convention at every turn,” Peter wrote of Ms. Harris in the companion book for the exhibit. “She builds bridges between country, folk, gospel, rock, and bluegrass, honoring and celebrating the past while retaining a sensibility that is progressive and experimental.”
For Voices from the Hall, the Country Music Hall of Fame’s podcast series, Peter interviewed Ms. Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Rosanne Cash, Mark Knopfler and many, many others. He profiled Earl Scruggs, the most influential banjo player who ever lived and who helped invent bluegrass with the master, Bill Monroe. Peter became a regular at Earl and Louise Scruggs’ kitchen table.
I’m sure Peter’s fingerprints are all over the new exhibit on Country Music Hall of Fame member Whisperin’ Bill Anderson. A few years ago, Peter co-wrote Mr. Anderson’s autobiography. (And one time, Peter took me to an Atlanta Braves game, and we sat in Mr. Anderson’s seats.)
Peter obviously got to know some of his own heroes personally — Johnny and June Carter Cash, Guy Clark, John Prine, Bobby Bare, and many others. He told me he was able to introduce the younger singer Yola to the legendary Charley Pride, if I recall correctly — among the few artists of color somehow allowed to make inroads in country music.
Peter wrote the liner notes for terrific albums by Kris Kristofferson and many others. In 2021, when Emmylou Harris released a concert album from her 1990 performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, I was excited to ask Peter about it. When I opened the cover of the CD, I saw that he’d written the liner notes.
Peter played with some of Nashville’s best — songwriters and musicians in and made sure I got to know some of them: Marshall Chapman, Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, Todd Snider and others. (He even played in Snider’s band during an appearance on the David Letterman show.)
Peter taught me about music from South Carolina that matters. In Hub City Music Makers: One Southern Town’s Popular Music Legacy, published by the local Hub City Press in 1996, when Peter was still in his 20s. He profiled some of the key musicians from the former textile-mill town — from Pink Anderson (songster and an inspiration for Pink Floyd’s name) to the Dixie Hummingbirds (an early gospel group whose lead singer Ira Tucker directly influenced James Brown, Stevie Wonder and many others), Marshall Tucker Band (Southern country-rock legends) to my friend Marshall Chapman (an important singer, songwriter and storyteller), to the late Walter Hyatt (leader of Uncle Walt's Band, which moved to Austin and heavily influenced Lyle Lovett) and many others.
One evening some years back, Peter invited me to his home (where he lived at the time with his wife Charlotte and Baker) as he, Eric Brace, Thomm Jutz and their country-bluegrass singer-songwriter friend Irene Kelly, performed a show online. All of them took time to get to know me and make me feel welcome, because that’s the kind of people they are.
Peter showed my family around the Hall of Fame during our visit to Nashville in summer 2021. One of my nieces, Sarah Cameron, was captivated when Peter pointed to artifacts in the museum from Taylor Swift and described how Swift surprised some young fans one day when she suddenly appeared during a visit to the museum.
Peter has recommended countless artists and albums that I hold dear. He’s also written and performed some of my favorite songs.
There’s 715 (for Hank Aaron), Peter’s ode to his baseball hero since childhood and lamentation on the weight of racism in his native South. I especially love Peter’s monologue later in the song, in which he tells of a childhood experience and what Henry Aaron’s mother said right after the legend hit his record-setting blast over the wall at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
There’s Peter’s gorgeous reading of Emmylou Harris’ Tulsa Queen, with the incredible Lloyd Green on steel guitar. And it’s hard to beat Peter and Eric Brace’s hilarious and clever Ancient History.
There are lots more songs by Peter to discover — including Peter and Eric’s I Know a Bird and their great covers of Tom T. Hall (I Flew Over Our House Last Night), Kevin Gordon (Down to the Well), and Herb Pedersen (Wait a Minute). Peter also covered John Hiatt's Train to Birmingham before the master songwriter put it on one of his own albums.
Another clever one is Grandma's Batman Tattoo, which Peter wrote with Tommy Womack:
She said it was the heat of the moment
She said it was the blush of youth
She said it was the smell of the sea air
And the taste of the gin and the dry vermouth
She said it took about an hour
A couple inches of black and blue
Grandma’s Batman tattoo
There’s Wine, maybe Peter’s best song, co-written by Baker Maultsby and covered by Jon Byrd and the late R&B singer Jerry Lawson formerly of the Persuasions.
Take Care, a rare darker song for Peter mainly in a minor chord (I think—I ain’t no guitar player), is another keeper. And on Much Better Now, Peter weaves together stories about working at a Radio Shack in Spartanburg, teaching middle school, and becoming a father. (See the videos below.)
Peter also wrote some of the best music stories I’ve ever read. I’ll never forget his review of George Strait’s album It Just Comes Natural, one of the country legend’s best of his latter-day releases. Peter didn’t like how the singer used autotuning on a cover of Rodney Crowell’s Stars on the Water.
Peter wrote something like: “Why did Strait and producer Tony Brown do that? I like my Strait straight.”
Peter introduced me to Jon Byrd, describing him as the best pure country singer and gut-string guitar player in Nashville.
Maybe Peter knew Jon and I would have much in common — small-town Southern roots, a love of country music, and interest in African-American studies and culture. Jon recorded a great one that he and Peter wrote together, If Texas Is So Great (Then What Are You Doing Here).
“I lost a champion,” Byrd said just after we heard the news about Peter.
“We all did,” I blurted out.
And it’s true.
Meeting for music
I met Peter after reading his articles on Spartanburg’s musical history. We had mutual acquaintances at the Herald-Journal newspaper in Spartanburg where I’d worked previously. I’d already met Baker Maultsby, another reporter there and one of Peter’s closest friends from college — Peter and Charlotte named their son after him — and a talented writer and musician himself.
Baker Maultsby had either invited me — or we just ran into each other, I can’t recall — at an intimate club in Asheville, North Carolina, an hour’s drive up the mountain from Spartanburg. I believe it was 1998 and the place was Be Here Now. We were there to see Lucinda Williams, whose seminal album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, had just come out. It’s still one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.
Jim Lauderdale opened the show. It was my first time seeing him, and I believe Peter and Baker had already met him. Now one of my musical heroes, Lauderdale played rhythm guitar and sang harmony with Williams. I was too green to know the other great musicians in the band —the brilliant Kenny Vaughan on guitar and the Irish drummer Fran Breen who also played with Nanci Griffith, among others. Williams was fantastic, of course, although I remember her stopping a song completely at one point, perhaps because she wasn’t satisfied with the sound system.
When I left the club for the three-hour drive back to Columbia — it was late, but I was young — the band was still playing an encore of straight-up blues, with Lauderdale on harmonica if my memory serves.
My recollection is that the band ripped through some of the classic blues that Williams had recorded, including Memphis Minnie’s Nothin’ but Ramblin’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s Water and Gasoline, scorchers both. The musicians seemed to be having a ball. Apparently, they played into the night, as long as the club would allow.
For years, Peter wrote incredibly insightful, moving stories about music for The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville. He got to know some legends so well that he was called upon to write remembrances of Johnny Cash, George Jones, and others. Peter’s remembrances were so eloquent and well-informed, the newspaper still relied on him until last year to write the lead story when a country legend died.
“To do your job as a music writer in Nashville, you need to get to know musicians as people and understand what they did, what they do and what they are,” Peter told Parade magazine in a 201x interview. “Time and again, you get that call that somebody who — by professional obligation, but then by inclination — you’d grown close to and now you have to write the entirety of their legacy in two hours.” (The writer for Parade then asks Peter to name a lesser-known country artist that people should hear. “Jon Byrd is my favorite country singer in this town,” he responds.)
In 2003, Peter was still at The Tennessean, as he recalls in his book on country music, when he had to write one of those front-page articles when a legend passed away.
“Somehow, Johnny Cash is dead. Battling ill health for years and without his longtime companion since wife June Carter Cash's death in May,” he wrote, “Mr. Cash’s frailties of body and heart made him seem no less indomitable. Fans and fellow musicians likened him to a force of nature: an iconic, elemental figure, more granite and fire than flesh and blood. He had cheated death enough that it seemed death would never catch onto the ruse…
“In Hendersonville, he was a neighbor. For Nashville, he was an ambassador, an agitator, a kingpin and a musical conscience. To the world, he was a political activist, a genre-blending innovator, and the embodiment of well-aged cool. Most memorably, he was a singer of songs.”
Rosanne Cash, one of music’s best singer-songwriters and one of Cash’s daughters, of course, wrote that she was heartbroken to hear of Peter’s death. “Peter was one of the nicest guys I've ever known and a great writer,” Ms. Cash wrote in a social media post. “His obituary of my dad was one of the best out of many, many testimonies — real, heartfelt, and astute. Just like him.”
Ms. Cash noted that Chris Willman’s article on Peter’s death in Variety included a transcript of Peter’s remarks some years ago at a writers’ conference. Those remarks opened “a window into a beautiful, funny, erudite soul. I'm still reeling from his death. He will be missed so much,” she wrote.
In that writers’ conference lecture, Peter shared some of the great stories and lessons in his career, including his first interview with Johnny Cash for The Tennessean in September of 2000. “I said to Cash, ‘I’m not starstruck under normal circumstances,’” Peter recalled. “Before we start talking, I just want to tell you, thank you. Thank you for all the hours of my life that were better because they were spent in the company of your music. I’m a huge fan, and I thank you.”
Cash’s reply was unexpected. “Well, Peter, I’m a fan of yours, so I want to thank you. The newspaper hits my driveway every day, and June and I read it in the morning over coffee. I read everything you write.”
Peter was amazed. Johnny Cash reads everything I write, he thought. Johnny Cash reads everything I write.
No pressure or anything.
In those same remarks, Peter recalled the songwriting advice of Cowboy Jack Clement, who’d tell musicians: “Reveal some of yourself in most of your songs.” And how Guy Clark had told the young songwriter Todd Snider, as Peter recalled it, to “show yourself” in your writing.
You don’t have to be Bob Dylan, in other words. Tell your own story. Do it in the best way you can.
“Now, that doesn’t mean make the story about you,” Peter continued. “The story is never, ever about you. It’s about your perspective on other people. So, we must not only reveal ourselves, we must reveal something about the person or people we’re writing about.”
That’s part of what made Peter’s writing and devotion to music so remarkable. He put so much of himself into it.
In the lecture, Peter even discussed getting to know a young Taylor Swift, foretelling of her life and music yet to come. “I wrote about her when she was a teenager, when she told me she felt like the single most understood girl in the world because she got to articulate her feelings precisely, then send them out into the world.”
Tracking musical history
Peter’s first music writing assignment was a review of Guy Clark’s show in nearby Asheville, North Carolina. Peter’s English professor at Wofford College in nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina, was sick that day and knew Peter was the perfect substitute — he already knew all the lyrics to many of Clark’s songs.
Inspired by writers who observed Southern culture, such as author Frye Gaillard formerly of The Charlotte Observer, Peter would go on to study and write about many of the details the history and meaning in country music, eventually teaching courses on the topic at Vanderbilt University.
In Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride, Peter recalls Ralph Peer’s 1927 recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Co. that happened in Bristol, a town straddling the Tennessee-Virginia line, that became known as the first in country music —hillbilly music and “race music” they had called it at the time.
He writes about the Carter Family — A.P. Carter, his wife Sara (the lead singer) and her sister Maybelle, ambling down from Poor Valley in the mountains of southwest Virginia to sing Single Girl, Married Girl at those sessions in 1927. Maybelle was the main singer and guitarist, and she had a funny style that amplified her guitar playing, Peter wrote.
Handling the melodythe rhythm and lead parts, Her style of playing the song’s melody on the low strings and using the higher notes as self-accompaniment, essentially playing rhythm and lead guitar at the same time, is still used by many musicians today.
After the Carter Family’s recordings in Bristol started to sell impressively, Peer invited the Carters to the Victor Recording Studio in Camden, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia, to make some more records in May 1928. That’s when and where the Carters recorded the classic Wildwood Flower.
With the considerable royalties, enough to build a large house in Poor Valley, Peter writes, Maybelle invested in a Gibson L-5 guitar, a big-bellied instrument with a big sound: “She loved it. She kept it throughout her life, even in the 1960s when she had to work at a nursing home to make ends meet.”
Maybelle played that same guitar in the early 1970s on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, reviving a classic recorded by the Carter Family in the early 1930s and connecting country musicians old and new, Peter continued. It became Maybelle Carter’s first gold record, and it’s the lyrics of that song that later would be inscribed on the round wall in the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda.
On one of my first visits to the museum, Peter pointed out that very guitar of Maybelle’s on display.
Notably, Will the Circle Be Unbroken could have been among the songs found by Leslie Riddle, A.P. Carter’s friend, song hunting partner, and a Black man whose legacy has often been purposefully left out of country music history.
Remembering the greats
When the great Loretta Lynn died in October at the age of 90, Peter’s piece for The Tennessean also appeared in USA Today. Lynn “rose from a hardscrabble upbringing to become the most culturally significant female singer-songwriter in country music history.” he wrote.
Noting that Lynn was a mother of four when she began her music career in the early 1960s, “many of her songs are filled with specifics of her wholly unique life (and) they had a universal appeal,” Peter’s article continues. “She wrote about intimate matters – from her difficult, wearying childhood to fights with her husband – yet managed to strike a collective nerve.
“Without ever mentioning politics or women’s liberation, her 1960s and 1970s hits helped change long-held notions about gender roles. “Rated ‘X’ ” and “Don’t Come Home A Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind)” were personal pleas – not political treatises – that sought an end to double standards.”
“Lynn did all this at a time when women were most often the voices through which men’s words and melodies were heard. She was Nashville’s first prominent woman to write and record her own material and was one of the first female music stars to generate her own hits.”
Peter also wrote about George Jones, just after he passed away in 2013. Reporting from outside the funeral home, he wrote that “people talked of George Jones as country music's most emotionally eloquent ballad singer. They spoke of Jones' legend, of his soulfulness and of music that will endure beyond the grave. Inside, away from camera crews and satellite trucks, they spoke more softly. Outside, they celebrated George Jones' life's work.”
Later, Peter wrote the liner notes for Cowboy Jack Clement’s final album, Once and for All, which featured Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Gillian Welch, Jim Lauderdale, Dan Auerbach and other guests.
A Country Music Hall of Fame member known for his eccentricity and as a producer and writer of great songs and albums, Clement worked with Waylon Jennings and many others at the Cowboys Arms Hotel & Recording Spa, his studio in Nashville. Clement had also been the sound engineer at the Memphis Recording Service back when Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two made their first recordings.
“Clement never joined the world,” Peter wrote when Clement died. “He danced through it, drank through it, sang through it, made it prettier and more interesting, and gave it further dimension. He caused its inhabitants to laugh and whistle and wonder and arch eyebrows.”
My last contacts with Peter included a factchecking conversation for one of my music articles, and another exchange at AmericanaFest last fall. I’d failed to reserve a seat at the Hall of Fame for Lyle Lovett’s interview and performance on Elizabeth Cook’s XM Radio show. I texted Peter, in case he was in the building and could squeeze me in. I got in anyway, but Peter cared enough to respond, making sure I was right where I needed to be.
He even recommended me for a writing job at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which hired someone else at the time and made a great choice.
Recently, as I started my research for a story on the soulful country singer Ronnie Milsap, I immediately found Peter’s extensive 2015 interview with him at a live event at the Country Music Hall of Fame. As usual, Peter provided the singer, now in his 80s, room to tell his stories and talk about his career.
Toward the end of their conversation, Peter thanks the singer for coming. “Peter Cooper, you are a true friend,” Milsap replies earnestly, “and it’s always an honor to be around you.”
It was always an honor to be around Peter. It’s devastating to know he’s no longer around to keep the flame alive, be with those he adored, and bring further inspiration to so many of us.
I hope he’s found peace on the other side — that in some way we can’t imagine, he’s much, much better now.