“Do you know about Will?”
Peter Cooper leaned over and looked at me with a warm smile and his soft spoken South Carolinian accent. His eyes lit up as he was prone to do when he was about to tell a story.
Cooper was about to go onstage with his friends Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz but he was in a mood to talk in the dressing room backstage at Jammin Java, a few miles outside Washington, DC. It was early 2019 and he was back in the DMV area where he spent many a night as a teenager hearing the Seldom Scene play at the Birchmere Music Hall. Although he was now firmly entrenched as a senior director at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Cooper’s odyssey as a journalist, songwriter, author and performer all seemed to coalesce on this night.
Having traversed the club and house concert circuit to all corners of the country and globe, Cooper seemed like he was always in search of his next story—whether to tell or transform into some creative medium be it a longform article, a museum exhibit, a satellite radio broadcast, a roots concept album, a book or simply a song. That was all until this week when he passed from a fall and was taken from us at the much too young age of 52.
“They thought he was crazy,” I remember Cooper saying with obvious amusement as he recounted the story of the civil rights era preacher Will D. Campbell for whom he wrote the song “Mississippi Magic.” As historian, Cooper shared how Campbell believed everyone was equal in the eyes of the lord. His radical vision that churches should open their doors to all including Black people got him kicked out of the Southern Baptist church. As Cooper told it, Campbell went to minister in prison to Lee Harvey Oswald and attended Ku Klux Klan meetings to preach the word of Jesus.
Campbell was part of a traveling caravan known as “The Brotherhood” that included author Alex Haley and country singer Tom T. Hall. Along with other musicians and black ministers, they would tour college campuses at the height of Haley’s popularity for writing Roots. Campbell became part of the country music community and as Cooper recounted with a smile, the only preacher who could talk to Waylon Jennings about God.
When Cooper and Jutz played the characters of Campbell and Hall in the song “Tom T and Brother Will” during the album’s premier at the Station Inn, Campbell’s voice could be heard over the track as his kids listened. It came from a tape Hall slipped to Cooper.
“Will’s got a cut,” Cooper said proudly beaming about the night, adding another anecdote to his burgeoning trove of country music folklore.
Campbell wasn’t the first character that Cooper found—or who found him. Cooper befriended Hall and ended up doing an album of Hall’s songs that he wrote for a children’s book. Another was Mac Wiseman, an alumnus of both Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs, who was one of the creators of the Country Music Association, which in turn led to the formation of the Country Hall of Fame.
I first met Cooper almost ten years ago after hearing his SiriusXM Outlaw Country special with Wiseman. I peppered him with questions by email to get the backstory about how he and Jutz put to music journal entries from Wiseman’s mother’s depression era notebooks. It was as Cooper observed, like having an unsmudged view of another world. Later they collaborated on a Grammy-nominated follow-up album that translated Wiseman’s life stories into the songbook I Sang The Song. Cooper experienced the incredible emotion of seeing Wiseman inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, one Cooper knew that Wiseman helped create. In writing “I Sang The Song” that closed the album and was sung by John Prine, he had helped to summarize Wiseman’s life in just a few minutes and immortalized him forever.
I really learned about Cooper when I read his witty and insightful book about country music, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride. In it he recounted how he got into writing about country music. Recalling how he went to see Guy Clark, Cooper observed that grown men in the audience were crying. When he put this in the story, his editor didn’t believe him and wanted corroboration that this actually happened. Cooper went on to write for The Tennessean. When he interviewed Johnny Cash, the Man In Black related how he looked forward to seeing his bi-line when he picked up the paper on his driveway.
Before the current Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum building opened in 2001, Cooper walked through the building with George Jones and listened as he told stories about the people and objects that would soon be on display to the public. Cooper was captivated not just by what we saw, but by the depth of feeling it spurred in Jones. He quickly realized that the Hall was a place responsible for preserving and illuminating music that he found so important and moving. It informed him when he later joined the staff. Upon Jones’ death, Cooper wrote in his story, “He sang of life’s hardships and struggles, in a way that somehow lightened our own.” As Dave Paulson wrote in the Tennessean upon Cooper’s death, six months after writing the obituary, Jones’ family inscribed the words on a monument by his grave.
Cooper was an accomplished songwriter who put out several albums himself along with combinations with Brace and Brace and Jutz. As the Hall’s liaison to the artist community, his work provided an intersection between his day job and his own career making music. When Cooper was helping to put together the exhibit Outlaws and Armadillos, Cooper knew that Campbell and Hall built a whiskey still in the Sixties. One day on a visit to Hall’s house, he asked where it was. When Hall pointed to a corner of the room, Cooper quickly secured it for the exhibit.
Perhaps Cooper took a page from music executive David Geffen who described his success of surrounding himself with brilliant people and bumping into geniuses. Along the way, Cooper got tutelage from the greats from songwriters like Don Schlitz, the author of “The Gambler” with whom Cooper co-wrote “Suffer a Fool.” Schlitz started out the session with a few questions. “What is your wife like? How did she get that way?” From there the earnest plea wrote itself and remains one of Cooper’s best songs. In a nod to the greats that came before him, Cooper and Brace recorded it with some of their main inspirers, the Seldom Scene’s Mike Auldridge and steel guitarist Lloyd Green.
Another great man he drew life advice from was the late David Olney. As Brace recounted to Melissa Clarke on these pages, Cooper was traveling with Olney to write an article for The Tennessean about life on the road with a solo troubadour. Cooper wrote about one night in a small Alabama bar, where David played to perhaps five people and put on one of the greatest shows Peter had ever seen. “After the show,” Brace recalled, “Peter asked David how he did it, how he found the energy and spirit to put on such a mind-blowing show. David said, “Yeah, I could have just phoned it in, I suppose, but I’ve realized that it’s a whole lot easier to play the songs right.”
Cooper, whose own meditations in song were sprinkled with philosophy, wit and overarching storytelling, embraced a passion for country music so deep that it transcended the role of reporter and observer. Writing in his book, Cooper opened up to rebuke what we were taught in journalism classes. Calling objectivity “the mortal enemy,” Cooper expounded: “objectivity is dispassionate. And we’re in the passion business. We’re trying to make people feel something different than what they felt before they read our words.”
As the roving troubadour, there were travels near and far, including one memorable one in Denmark where Brace and Cooper played a house concert in the deep winter. The duo stayed with their hosts in separate sleeping quarters adjacent to their living area. There was no heat and the walls had huge holes in them to let in the winter air. “The explanation was health related and we were told to give it a try,” Brace remembered. “It was well below freezing, and we had plenty of blankets, and we slept amazingly.”
Their creative spark came from where they went and what they saw. Cooper and Brace themed C&O CANAL, to pay tribute to the songs, people, and places of Washington D.C.’s folk and bluegrass scene. An encounter at the Mississippi River spawned a whole album. Riverland, that connected historical events to those of today.
Onstage Cooper would look at Jutz and Brace and joke about the folly of doing a whole album based on a trip they took. But then again he had already written a song “Uneasy Does It” about some personal angst and turned it into a meditation about Jerry Lee Lewis’ favorite haunt and hideaway in Hernando, Mississippi.
It reminded me of something Jutz once said to me about his friend Peter. “We take the work seriously but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,”
Attentive to connecting the threads of history, Cooper had a perceptiveness and boundless curiosity to create. At times it felt like history ran through him. When famed writer and inspirer Peter Guralnick wrote the forward to Cooper’s book, it felt like the torch had been passed, Cooper repaid his debts both by collaborating with legends Mike Auldridge and pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green harmonizing to a magnificent version of the Seldom Scene’s “Wait a Minute” and championing the next generation talent that was coming up and of age. The fruits of Cooper’s labor allowed him to bask in some of those moments. After spending three years assembling the Outlaws and Armadillos exhibit, Cooper found himself hosting an all-star concert from the exhibit’s opening night broadcast on SiriusXM. His voice rose in awe remembering how Jason Isbell coming to rehearsal asking if he could join the band. Looking around him he savored the moment when Bobby Bare sang “Marie Laveau” with Amanda Shires playing fiddle, flanked by a guitar arsenal of her husband Isbell, Dave Cobb, Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters and Charlie Worsham.
Jutz once talked about how he and Cooper were prone to discuss new projects all the time but came to realize they had to give them some room to simmer. The only time it seemed like Cooper could slow his creativity down was nine innings at a time, taking in his love of baseball, bonding with his son Baker and drawing upon the beauty of an afternoon unfolding. Even then he drew inspiration, writing song like “Opening Day.” a metaphor for the passage of time and the certainty of rejuvenation as the calendar turned every spring. Watching Stacy Huckeba’s video for the song is like opening a scrapbook of Cooper’s life.
It’s hard to put into words the inspiration Cooper has given all of us. I know of at least one person who displays his words about objectivity on their wall, my friend and fellow colleague Stacy Chandler at No Depression. The image I can’t shake of Cooper is from that night at Jammin’ Java as he paced through the dressing room as showtime approached. Holding a thick folder of song lyrics, the journalist in me recognized the intense focus Cooper had like he was walking the floor of a newsroom at deadline. In his hands he held a lifetime of stories and songs, knowing that there would always be more to find and tell.
And so here we are. Those stories will have to wait. To borrow from the words of Cooper’s friend Jon Byrd, “upon farewell, it seems so strange….upon farewell, until we meet again.”