A singer-songwriter named Eric Burton sings, “I’m living through these songs.”
Reading Peter Cooper’s Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride, this lyric from “Guy Clark” came to mind more than once. Country music is as much about the connection the listener makes with the singer and songs as it is about the lyrics or melody of the songs.
Released a couple years ago, I was recently gifted a copy of this book subtitled, Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music. Heavy on the Cash (a chapter, with several divagacious asides) and lighter on Pride (a couple pages, mostly related to Cowboy Jack Clement), the title of Mac Wiseman’s final hit frames expansive wanderings of truth communicated by one of the finest writers who just happens to make his home within country music.
And make no mistake, this collection of essays and anecdotes contains brilliant writing, the quality of which makes one embarrassed to be occasionally referred to as ‘a writer.’ Yet, simultaneously, a freeing feeling washes over the reader and disheartened writer—“Dammit, give me another couple tries: I can do this!”
Allowing that the most frequently used phrase in the book may be, “I had to write his obituary,” this isn’t a sad book. It is a funny book, and I snorted and laughed many times more than I teared up, which was three. Nope, I laughed in many places, including while reading pages 36, 61, 88, 108, 113, 131, 146, 199, and twice on page 129, because there is just something extra funny thinking about Porter Wagoner’s damaged pecker.
And as often as I laughed, I learned. I learned about country music, about writing, and about treating folks with dignity, even if they don’t necessarily ‘deserve’ it. From Eck Robertson (whose obituary Cooper didn’t write) through to the death of George Jones (whose he did, and then as a favour to Jones’ widow was challenged to craft the words to grace his gravestone) and Lee Ann Womack, Tim Carroll, and Taylor Swift, Cooper shares his stories and remembrances weaving together asides and tales with the grace of a master. Because that is what Peter Cooper is, all his self-deprecation aside. Peter Cooper is a master wordsmith.
He utilizes quotes from his own conversations with the principals of country music’s history, with liberal reference to those of others, to share the significance Music City has had on both Us (the listener, the audience) and his art and craft. Often breaking the Fourth Wall, Cooper’s ongoing conversation with the reader is remarkable in its coherence—one leaves each chapter feeling they’ve achieved a greater understanding of not only the subject—Lloyd Green, Earl and Louise Scruggs, Loretta Lynn, DeFord Bailey, among many others—but with a greater insight into Cooper himself.
It is this element that allows Cooper to focus chapters or briefer interludes on folks who didn’t make the charts—Ann Soyars, Don Light, Merle Kilgore, Dave Olney, and more, although we’re still holding out hope for Olney. One ends up feeling fellowship with the author, the type of relationship normally developed over a series of brewed beverages.
Each page has its individual treasures, but none more so than from pages 91 to 93 where Cooper shapes a telling, insightful thesis distinguishing the legacy of Tom T. Hall from that of Bob Dylan. Yet the finest individual sentence may be one where he writes of Jimmy Martin: “Jimmy’s gravestone reads ‘Now Sings in Heaven,’ which was a cocoon of a lie that he hoped would butterfly into truth.” (p. 164.)
Cooper also shares insights into his own writing process, one which—it seems—isn’t a process, and into his own music, which is significant: if you haven’t heard Cooper’s albums, as well as those with Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz, you really should.
Appreciated also are the illustrative linocuts by Julie Sola introducing each chapter.
The book isn’t perfect. I found several niggling typos, always aggravating and yet oddly satisfying to a Language Arts teacher. Turns out Kris Kristofferson doesn’t have dementia as once believed, but one can’t fault Cooper for that misdiagnosis. The book isn’t too short, but there are so many more stories Cooper could share given his almost two decades in Nashville. Perhaps his next collection will focus more on the Americana side of things.
“I love that old-time feeling…” Eric Burton sang. “I hear harmony, it’s Emmylou calling me home…” Peter Cooper’s been living in these songs, same as the rest of us. He has the ability to write about them as some of us can only aspire. This is a must-have collection. Buy it. Borrow it. Read it.
And as for the Roy Acuff memorabilia, I think the answer is Stephen King.
I read Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride will on a brief spring break holiday. On the flight home, listening to my tunes on random the way I do, I finished re-reading the book including its final chapter about George Jones. As I closed the book having read Cooper’s fitting epitaph again, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” started to play. A little eerie, but even more fitting, closing a circle of a sort.