John Prine and me. We both get it.
As I was putting the finishing touches on this blog post, a message traveled across my Facebook feed. It was from John Prine, and it read “I really enjoyed this book; reading about Cowboy (Jack Clement) brought back many great memories . . . highly recommend!”
The book Prine was referring to was Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music.
I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Cooper a number of years ago. I once spent time around a table laden with bourbon and cupcakes discussing music and, ultimately, some of the same characters that made it into this book. As a professor at Vanderbilt University and writer for the The Tennessean, singer-songwriter, and now senior director at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooper has been blessed with the good fortune to have spent much of his adult life surrounded by country music icons.
Cooper has written stories about, written songs with, opened concerts for and played concerts with, or interviewed an enviable list of country music’s best. And, as his book points out, that list includes names you know – Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Taylor Swift, George Jones, Loretta Lynn – and maybe some you don’t, like Lloyd Green, Don Schlitz, and David Olney. Many of the names I knew. Some of them I didn’t. But, in every case, I knew the stories surrounding the names were significant and of import, for if they weren’t, Cooper wouldn’t share them.
So take it from me, and John Prine, that this book is definitely worth your time.
I recently caught up with Peter Cooper to chat about the book, musicians and writers he admires, and the fun business.
BRO – Which story from your book is the one you are most looking forward to telling your son when he is old enough to appreciate it?
PC – Everybody in the world would be better off if they’d met Cowboy Jack Clement and soaked up his wisdom. I’d like my son to understand and appreciate the story about Cowboy stopping a nervous recording session by saying, “Remember, we’re in the fun business. If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs.” I’d like my boy to grow up and enter the fun business one day.
BRO – I enjoyed reading about your ever-evolving list of favorite records. What is the newest record to make the list?
PC – I think you’re talking about my list of Ten Favorite Country and Americana albums, which changes every few minutes. Today’s additions to that list are Old Crow Medicine Show’s 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde, which was recorded at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater, by the way, and Mickey Newbury’s Live at Montezuma Hall. And Rodney Crowell’s Close Ties is genius level work, too. If I’m going to be honest here, I’m also going to have to include an album I co-produced: I Sang the Song: Life of the Voice With a Heart, which Thomm Jutz and I wrote with the great Mac Wiseman, who’ll turn 92 on May 23rd of this year. We essentially wrote Mac’c musical memoir and then called in John Prine, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, and other wonderful people to sing the songs. It’s one of the most touching, heartfelt albums in country music history. I’m beyond proud to have been a part of it. Isn’t pride one of the deadly sins? So be it.
BRO – Do you still get starstruck?
Having a great appreciation for art and artists is different from being starstruck. The appreciation thing makes you smarter, where the starstruck things makes you dumber. I’m only starstruck around two people, and I know both of them pretty well. One of them is Tom T. Hall, who is a friend and a profound inspiration, every day. He has supported me, engaged with me, talked me up, and done everything he could to make me feel comfortable around him. But I’m still nervous in his presence, and I’m profoundly aware that losing his respect or chipping away at his goodwill would be positively crippling for me. The other person I get starstruck around is Peter Guralnick, who actually wrote the forward to this book. Peter is the best researcher of all the great writers, and he is the best writer of all the great researchers. I know enough about writing to know that it is impossible to be on Peter Guralnick’s level. You’d be better off finding Lebron James and challenging him, one-on-one. Like Tom T., Peter is also gracious and kind to others in public and in private. Maybe it’s not starstruck so much as it’s the odd sensation of being praised and encouraged by these men’s words and deeds at the same time you’re being humbled by their unmistakable mastery and their profound humanity.
BRO – What artists do you see ready to step up and carry the flame after this generation of country icons fades away?
PC – Truly iconic work never fades away. We’re always going to have Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Tom T. Hall, and Emmylou Harris. That said, there are people walking and singing and playing amongst us that make special and enduring music. I’ve been inspired by Jason Isbell’s songwriting, guitar playing, and performances. I think Chris Stapleton is a singer for the ages. There’s a young guy on Warner Bros. Records named Charlie Worsham who is as talented, driven, accessible, and interesting as heroes of his like Vince Gill and Marty Stuart. Sierra Hull plays the mandolin like no one ever has, and she’s a commanding performer, at age 25. My friend Thomm Jutz is as compelling an acoustic guitar player as anyone on the planet. Anyone who wonders where all the good music has gone is not intellectually curious enough to seek out the good music that is happening right now.
BRO – Are you already busy collecting tales for the next book?
PC – I know exactly what I want the next book to be, and I know it’s going to take time and study, and I know for sure that it is nothing anyone else is thinking about writing. It has the potential to be a best-seller and it has the potential to be a tremendous failure or to go unpublished. But, man, it’ll be fun. We’re in the fun business, you know? If we’re not having fun, we’re not doing our jobs.
Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music is out now via Spring House Press. Look for it wherever it is you happen to buy books.