- By Alan Richard
NASHVILLE HONORS PETER COOPER
Updated: Mar 8
NASHVILLE — Some of the most talented musicians and artists in Nashville or anywhere gathered on the night of Feb. 24 to share songs, stories, and memories of Peter Cooper, our friend and beloved music writer and singer-songwriter who passed away in December.
An audience of hundreds, many of whom Peter touched either personally or through his writing and music, nearly filled the stunning, three-story CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“I didn’t want this day to come, ever,” said Kyle Young, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s chief executive officer, opening the memorial event. He called Peter an “extraordinary spirit and talent.”
Peter was many things, Young said. “Above all, he was a teacher at heart. Peter had been a teacher in South Carolina and taught classes on country music history at Vanderbilt University. “He was (also) a teacher in countless ways here at the museum,” Young said.
Peter taught compassion, engagement and humor and found meaning in country music’s words and melodies, Young added. He understood that “music isn’t just a diversion. It is central to being human.”
“He illuminated the things that matter.”
Led by his brothers in music, Thomm Jutz and Eric Brace, a band of stellar musicians and friends of Peter’s backed an impressive array of performers. Among them were Emmylou Harris, one of music’s greatest voices and a tremendous inspiration for Peter and so many others, and Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson, who sat with Peter at countless Nashville Sounds and Atlanta Braves baseball games, wrote his autobiography with Peter’s help, and who was a loving mentor to our friend.
FOR MORE DETAILS: Read our full remembrance of Peter Cooper.
IN PHOTO AT TOP OF PAGE: The ensemble of performers from Peter Cooper's memorial event gathered for a final song in tribute to their friend.Emmylou Harris wears a red jacket, Eric Brace is at far right, and Thomm Jutz is near the middle playing an acoustic guitar. (Photo by Alan Richard)
Peter’s younger brother, Chris Cooper, a college professor in the mountains of North Carolina, emceed the evening with the same warmth and humor Peter might’ve shown. Chris struggled for a moment or two as his voice broke in sorrow but still did Peter proud.
There were also many prominent guests in the audience — dozens of family members, close friends, fellow musicians and other admirers. I recognized Phil Kaufman, the former tour manager for Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and the Rolling Stones — better known as the Road Mangler — made it down front with the help of a cane.
Baker Cooper, only 12 I believe when his father passed away in December, sat in the front row with some other boys, holding a baseball glove at one point, which Peter would’ve loved to see.
“Man, he loved him some Baker,” filmmaker Molly Secours said in her short film on Peter’s life shown at the beginning of the memorial event. She noted Peter’s “compassionate zeal,” his 30 years of marriage to Charlotte, how kind, smart and generous he was, an astute and extraordinary writer also known for his “dollop of goofy.”
“Did I mention hilarious?” she added in the film, Peter’s song Dumb Luck playing as photos of his life appeared on screen. (See the video below.)
Country singer-songwriter Charlie Worsham joined the full band for the evening’s first song, and sang and played mandolin on a somber, respectful version of Peter’s Opening Day with a clear voice with a slight bit of rasp.
“We’re tied for first with the whole summer left to play… Winter breaks even for the champions. Keep the aftermath and the epitaph. Give me opening day,” Worsham sang, as fiddler Andrea Zonn made her instrument weep and Thomm Jutz added a nice flatpicking solo on guitar.
Peter’s song is about baseball’s opening day, but also the hope and struggle found within a new season. “All of my songs are really about baseball. Except my baseball songs. My baseball songs are not about baseball,” Chris Cooper quoted Peter as saying.
Peter loved the music of country songwriter Tom T. Hall that he made sure that as a
newborn Mr. Hall’s I Love was the first song Baker Cooper heard. With Eric Brace, Peter produced a tribute album to Mr. Hall’s children’s songs, and the collection was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Peter joked that “nominated for” was code for “you lost,” Chris Cooper noted.
Buddy Miller was one of the artists on that tribute album. “Peter thought Buddy Miller was a genius — and of course he was right,” Chris Cooper said, welcoming the singer and guitarist to the stage.
Miller sang his soulful, signature version of That’s How I Got to Memphis, one of Mr. Hall’s best songs. His acoustic guitar solo seemed to say more about everyone’s sadness in losing Peter than anyone could put into words. “I’d always look forward, so much, anytime I talked to Peter,” Buddy said, always touched by Peter’s “kindness and soulfulness.”
Peter loved music so much, he’d often buy extra copies of albums he liked just to give them away to friends, Chris Cooper said. These included records by the late Walter Hyatt, Charley Pride, and one called Planet of Love by the evening’s next performer, Jim Lauderdale.
“I will always remember the good he brought to our world,” Lauderdale said of Peter.
Emmylou Harris appeared on stage to sing harmony on Lauderdale’s The King of Broken Hearts, which he wrote decades ago in tribute to Ms. Harris’ late singing partner Gram Parsons and the great country singer George Jones. Ms. Harris had sung on the original recording, from Planet of Love, sometimes considered the first Americana music album.
“We know he’ll be brave tonight,” Lauderdale sang, “‘cause he’s the king of broken hearts.”
Sorrow, laughter and meaning
Tommy Womack wrote the best autobiography about roll ‘n roll ever published, so it made since that the Nashville singer-songwriter was asked to sing at the memorial event. Womack said that Peter had emceed an episode of the local radio and TV program Music City Roots in 2015, raising money for Womack after he was injured in a car accident.
“Peter sang this song to me,” Womack said. “I miss one of the kindest, gentlest souls I’ve ever known.”
Womack performed Nice Day, “a masterpiece of songwriting” as Chris Cooper put it, evoking life’s struggles and its tiniest, precious moments.
Andrea Zonn, the fiddler in the band for the evening, sang her lightly swinging, jazzy A Swing and a Miss, from her album produced by Thomm Jutz. Zonn got to know Peter as a neighbor and sought his guidance on the baseball-themed song.
“His empathy was just so profound,” so much that dozens of people called Peter their best friend, she said.
Emmylou Harris then returned to the stage. The stirring number, which Ms. Harris co-wrote with Bill Danoff, on her brilliant major-label debut album, Pieces of the Sky in 1975, is a remembrance of Gram Parsons, the visionary artist and former member of The Byrds who hired Ms. Harris as his harmony singer after hearing her at Clyde’s restaurant and club in Washington, D.C.
Parsons subsequently died of an overdose, still in his 20s.
“You really got me this time, and the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” Ms. Harris sang to Gram — and perhaps, to Peter. Her legendary voice in good form, her longtime friend Fayssoux and Buddy Miller joining her on harmony. “…coming down to wash me clean. Baby, do you know what I mean?”.
“You really got me this time, and the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” Ms. Harris sang. Her legendary voice in good form, her longtime friends Fayssoux and Buddy Miller joining her on harmony. The song continues:
And I've come to listen for the sound of the trucks as they move down out on 95
And pretend that it's the ocean Coming down to wash me clean, to wash me clean Baby, do you know what I mean?
Chris Cooper said that “it’s hard to overstate the impact Emmylou Harris had” on Peter's life. Before her performance, Ms. Harris said she was proud to appear “in celebration of the life of the wonderful Peter Cooper.”
Fayssoux was once married to John Starling, later of The Seldom Scene (whom Peter and Eric Brace idolized), and were early supporters and friends to Emmylou Harris in the Washington, D.C. area. Fayssoux backed Ms. Harris on some of her records in the 1970s, later becoming a teacher and music therapist in South Carolina. That’s where Peter tracked her down and asked if he could help her produce an album.
During the tribute to Peter, Fayssoux sang the title song from one of two albums they made together, the rousing spiritual I Can’t Wait, by Nashville songwriter Kieran Kane:
Someday we'll roll away the stone That we have carried for so long All our burdens will be gone And I can't wait
We will find our way to An understanding of all views No prayer shall be refused I can't wait
Fayssoux sang the lead with Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz on harmony and Andrea Zonn with a stunning fiddle solo. The whole thing moved many to tears.
Every performance was made better by the accomplished piano and keyboards of Jen Gunderman, veteran drummer Lynn Williams and expert stand-up bassist Mark Fain. The entire evening was produced by Lindsay Hayes, and the museum provided its staff and support.
Members of the choir
Chris Cooper said that as a big brother, Peter set him straight on music from the beginning. After learning Chris was digging James Taylor, Peter pronounced him ready for John Prine. He introduced him to the music of Jason and the Scorchers.
As an adult, Peter loved to build connections among creative people “with his heart wide open,” Chris Cooper said. After all, “what good is it to know John Prine if you can’t introduce him to your mother?”
Then his voice got more serious. “The truth is, like all of us Peter wasn’t good at everything,” Chris Cooper said. “He absolutely sucked at taking care of himself.”
Peter was brilliant and frustrating. He contained multitudes, Chris said, quoting the Bible and Bob Dylan and whatever else.
“And I miss him every day,” Peter’s brother said.
Jason Ringenberg, who led Jason and the Scorchers, Peter’s favorite rock ‘n roll band and the most “frenetic front-man in Nashville history” as he’d put it, eventually became a good friend.
Jason’s music still rocks really hard, but these days he performs songs for children — tunes that make preschoolers lose their minds, as Peter put it. To shake up Peter’s memorial event, Jason wore a black western hat and pranced around the stage, performing maybe the best hard-rock children’s song of all time, which Peter produced and co-wrote — All I Want for Christmas is a Punk Rock Skunk.
The audience shouted those words with Jason during each chorus, and it made lots of people smile and laugh. “That’s what we all needed,” Chris Cooper said. Just after the song, Charlotte Cooper left her seat to give Ringenberg a grateful hug.
The next performer was Jon Byrd, whom Peter first met as the doorman at Billy Block’s alternative-country shows at The Exit In and a regular at the old Sherlock Holmes Pub nearby.
Peter considered Byrd his favorite country singer. A great songwriter and gut-string guitar, Byrd worked with Peter and Thomm Jutz on some of his albums.
“Two things I take from this tragedy,” Byrd said before singing. “Be a better friend and be somebody’s champion.”
Ring them bells
Byrd masterfully performed his poignant, upbeat A Fond Farewell, from Byrd’s album Down at the Well of Wishes, with Eric Brace singing harmony and the band sounding like they’d played it a thousand times:
Your troubadour collection
Who relied on your affection
We never seemed so lost as we do now…
A fond farewell
It seems so strange
To find such love and still be parting ways
A fond farewell with you I send
A fond farewell
Until we meet again
Don Schlitz, who Peter said would’ve made the Country Music Hall of Fame even without writing The Gambler (the man also wrote When You Say Nothing at All, On the Other Hand, and Mary Chapin Carpenter's He Thinks He'll Keep Her and many more) sang Suffer a Fool, a gorgeous song he co-wrote with Peter — and which appears on Peter's Master Sessions album with Eric Brace, steel-guitar great Lloyd Green, and former Seldom Scene dobro master Mike Auldridge.
“It's hard to believe, that someone as wise as you could suffer a fool like me,” Schlitz sang, tipping his Duke Blue Devils cap to his friend gone away.
Peter became an honorary Wisconsin resident who loved the Green Bay Packers and even joined a lodge up there, thanks to close friend and singer-songwriter Chris Richards — “new Chris” as Peter and Charlotte called him.
When American Songwriter asked Peter to name the top 50 country songs of all time, he put Richards’ Bells of Odilia up there with classics by Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn.
“Lord, show your mercy on my poison past, I have all these rough edges so I don’t stop your grasp,” Chris Richards sang the song solemnly, only him and Thomm on guitar in the songs opening, amid lots of tears in the audience. “I’m coming ‘round, Lord, I’m coming round.”
Peter recorded Bells of Odilia on Mission Door, the first time he worked with Lloyd Green, who played with hundreds of artists, including The Byrds when Gram Parsons was a member. Chris Cooper noted that Mr. Green was in the audience at the memorial and thanked him for “for enriching my brother’s life so deeply.”
Baker Maultsby, one of Peter’s closest friends and a talented writer and musician himself, spoke of the parts of Peter’s life far beyond the sidewalks of Nashville’s Broadway. He met Peter in 1988, when they each landed at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Peter was crazy-smart and funny, and while other freshmen listened to U2, R.E.M. or even Guns ‘n Roses back then, “Merle Haggard was Peter’s thing,” Baker said. His friend was also the only Wofford student knowledgeable of each step in singer-songwriter (and later a friend of Peter’s) Nanci Griffith’s career.
Peter was idealistic even then, starting a program with the United Way in the lower-income neighborhoods of Spartanburg, driving a van around town and picking children up for community service projects. It was “a special thing” to witness, Baker said.
After college, Peter became a classroom teacher for a few years — a good one, Baker said. Then he pursued a journalism career, at first in Spartanburg newspaper, landing later at The Tennessean in Nashville.
Baker thanked several of Peter’s other friends for their contributions to his life — a woman who’d known him since middle school and continued to stay in close touch; Professor John Lane and editor Betsy Teter, a couple who offered Peter the opportunity to write his first book on the history of music in Spartanburg; friends from growing up who helped him skip school so he could go listen to soundcheck at the Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia; Ellen Pryor and Kim Baum, who recognized Peter’s talents and helped him build connections in Nashville; his baseball friend, Jason; and Peter’s family, including Charlotte, who still was there for Peter until the end.
Moments with heroes
Thomm Jutz introduced the next performer, Bill Anderson, whom he and Peter worked with on his “comeback” album.
“I shouldn’t be here tonight,” Mr. Anderson said, who’d normally be at North Port, Florida, watching his beloved Atlanta Braves in spring training, “and Peter Cooper should be down there with me.”
He and Peter had much in common, Mr. Anderson said. They were both born in South Carolina, loved country music, studied or practiced journalism, and both loved sports, baseball most of all.
Mr. Anderson said he’d spoken with Peter about 40 minutes before the fall that contributed to his death. Peter had agreed to attend church and have lunch with some of Mr. Anderson’s friends the following Sunday.
“The last thing I said to Peter was, ‘I’ll see you Sunday,’ and I told him I loved him,’” Mr. Anderson said.
Saying he took some comfort and found hope in the words, Mr. Anderson performed Someday It’ll All Make Sense beautifully as a duet with Andrea Zonn. Both singers had heavy eyes during the song, and they embraced at the end of the song.
Mr. Anderson stepped forward again to share another memory. Peter had asked him if he could help him connect with former Braves legend Dale Murphy, one of his favorite players, to discuss writing a book about the slugger.
Peter never got to speak with Murphy about the book idea — but Murphy himself showed up for Peter’s memorial. Mr. Anderson recognized him from the stage.
Thomm Jutz, one of the best writers in bluegrass and folk music and nominated for a Grammy Award a couple of years ago, said that Peter introduced him to Mac Wiseman, who’d sung with Bill Monroe back when bluegrass was emerging from the green gloaming of the Appalachian mountains.
For 11 Sunday afternoons, Thomm and Peter visited Mr. Wiseman, who was in his 90s, listening to his poetic stories and turns-of-phrases about growing up in southwestern Virginia. Together, they turned them into songs.
“Rhyme them up,” Thomm recalled Mr. Wiseman as saying. He always called Peter “Pete.”
The resulting collection, Songs for My Mother’s Hand, should be sung in tribute to Mr. Wiseman by artists he’d influenced. One was John Prine, who on I Sang a Song, sang Mr. Wiseman’s words, on being older.
“Once a man, twice a child,” Thomm sang at the tribute to Peter, “but I got a hand to hold.”
Peter cherished being part of the blossoming creative scene in East Nashville in the mid-2000s, Chris Cooper said. It was a downtrodden part of town with cheap housing and a few bars where artists marginalized by the Nashville establishment could find community. Tim Carroll played his country-tinged, punk-influenced rock ‘n roll in the bars, and still does. Or you might hear Cowboy Jack Clement plucking a ukulele on his front porch.
Kevin Gordon would often play down at the old Family Wash. The literary singer-songwriter writes poetry that’s really the blues, marketed as Americana, Chris Cooper said.
Playing a big-bellied Gibson electric guitar (I think), Gordon and the band jammed through Down to the Well, one of his best songs and originally recorded as a duet with Lucinda Williams. Peter and Eric sang it beautifully on their record, You Don’t Have to Like Them Both.
“He sure was a good friend to me, and one of the first real advocates I had in this fair city,” Gordon said of Peter. “I’m grateful to him for that and his friendship.”
Then he sang. “Ain’t goin’ down to the well no more, I think I’ve had my fill… Worked that ground ‘til I done got sore. I ain’t goin’ back down to the well.”
Like many of the musical moments during the memorial event for Peter, the song provided a bit of healing for everyone in the room.
Irene Kelley, a regular singing-songwriting partner with Peter over the years, remembered the day she and Peter wrote Feels Like Home, which appeared on her album, Pennsylvania Coal, about the region she’s from.
It was a “rainy and cold day in October, and I said, ‘You know what? It feels like home,’” Kelley said, soaring on the chorus with her beautiful, bluegrass-influenced voice. When a breeze had “knocked me to my knees,” she sang, “all it does is open a door.”
“Love you forever, Peter,” Kelley said at the end of the song.
In 15 years playing shows with Peter, starting in 2007, there was one constant, Eric Brace said from the stage: Peter sang the same song at every soundcheck, even if it was for a house concert and there was no sound system.
“He would just start playing this song. I heard it a thousand times and I never got tired of it,” Eric said.
The only times he didn’t play the song, John Prine’s Souvenirs, was at the five shows Eric and Peter opened for Prine himself. It became a joke that Peter wouldn’t sing it during a show, but Eric said he finally realized Peter treated it as “a benediction for the place — and for himself.”
Eric and Thomm then sang Souvenirs without the band, each standing on opposite sides of the stage. It seemed like Peter should have been there, man.
The duo also sang a stirring number by Eric Taylor, Peter’s most eccentric songwriting hero. Thomm produced Peter’s 2015 tribute album, Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor.
Eric Brace implored the audience to read Peter’s wonderful book on country music, holding up a copy of Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music and, and to explore all of Peter’s songs.
“He hardly ever talked about his own songs,” Eric said, despite so many memorable ones, with 715 (for Hank Aaron) and Andalusia just two examples of “some of the best songs I’d ever heard.”
Peter released his albums on Red Beet Records, a label Eric and his wife, Mary Ann Werner, launched after moving to Nashville in 2004, to help more Americana and roots artists like Peter be heard.
For his first album, Mission Door, Peter wrote or co-wrote almost all the songs, Eric said.
One exception was Eric Taylor’s remarkable, emotive All the Way to Heaven.
Thomm and Eric sang that one, and they rocked and played hard. “With a song like that, you make it all the way to heaven,” they sang. “Just like that, all can be forgiven. I can hear old Charlie Rich sing tonight.”
A benediction for Peter
The Rev. Wiley Cooper, Peter’s father and a retired Methodist minister, made his way to the lectern and somehow gave words to the moment, his voice pitched with sorrow.
“All of you… because of your love and your care… You have made it possible for all of us who love him to, let’s see how to put this — to smile through our tears,” he said. The hundreds gathered at the memorial, who adored Peter in different ways, showed “a gut level of understanding of what love can be.”
Still, some folks in Peter’s inner circle had seen “a different Peter… who could not do the writing that he so loved,” he said.
Quoting a song that says “all God’s children got a place in the choir,” the Rev. Cooper added: “Peter believed that about so many of you,” but “had a tough time believing that about himself.”
“Because of the love that you have shown,” Peter’s father continued, he believes that God is holding Peter in loving arms. “It doesn’t matter if you would say it that way (or not).”
Touching but deeply sad, all the evening’s artists and friends of Peter gathered on stage to sing I Wish We Had Our Time Again by the late John Hartford, another of his favorites.
It helped some. Many of us had a place in Peter’s life. Everyone joined in a song of love and mourning. It was still impossibly sad, but as Tom T. Hall might say, it was also like a homecoming.