Peter Cooper of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum on Documenting Hank Williams & Johnny Cash for New Books
Sometimes, as a journalist, the path that a writing project eventually takes is not the one that was originally conceived. Such is the case with Johnny's Cash and Charley's Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music, a new release from highly respected music writer Peter Cooper, who serves as Senior Director, Producer and Writer at The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Matthew Teague, who is one of the folks who runs Spring House Press -- he and I actually went to the small college in South Carolina, and had the same writing teacher," Copper tells Billboard. "I had met him, but didn’t really know him. We had coffee one day, and he had an idea for a book that would go in a certain direction. The book that we arrived at was very different than the one that we had initially talked about. When he got it, he said ‘This is not at all what I had originally expected, but I like it.'”
The book documents the careers of such icons as George Jones and Johnny Cash -- artists that Cooper established a personal relationship with, but there are also entries on such Music City luminaries as Cowboy Jack Clement and Station Inn owner Ann Soyars. Though those two definitely don’t qualify as household names among music fans, Cooper feels they are equally important to the music scene.
“Those people can teach us a lot,” Cooper explains. "In some ways, I think the book is as close as you can get to a musical philosophy book. I want people to know who Cowboy Jack Clement was, and all of the things that he did. He was a great songwriter and producer, but what I really want to pass along is his enthusiasm and passion for the music, and for the love of creation."
Cooper continues: "With Ann Soyars [who died in 2014], I want people to know how important she was to [bluegrass club] The Station Inn, but I also want people to understand her ethic. This was somebody who came to Nashville in search of the music, and found a community that became family at this little Bluegrass club. She chucked it all and came here because she wanted more banjos in her life... She was somebody who was encouraging to people when they most needed it. She would also kick somebody’s butt when they needed it.”
Cooper also shares his memories of a trip he once took researching the final ride of Hank Williams from Knoxville to Oak Hill, West Virginia. Many stories have been written about what possibly took place on the evening of December 31, 1952, but Cooper says delving into the mystery was an experience he will never forget: “It was interesting in a lot of ways. I would talk to people along the way, and did research before and on the trip... There were all of these depictions that had him being driven through such a perilous snow, and the airplane boomerang was because of snowy conditions. I looked at the microfilm of the newspapers along the route on Dec. 31, 1952, and temperatures were in the 40s.”
Moreover, the drive allowed Cooper time to spend with the innate ingredient behind Williams’ legend -- his music. “I listened to only his box set the whole way there," he says. "I already loved his music by then, but listening without distraction -- which is something we don’t often do these days -- is a much richer experience. Distractions are the enemy of art, which is one reason it’s difficult to read on a computer screen -- you have all of these emails popping up. I had a lot of lonely hours in a car, just me and Hank. That was a really nice communion. It helped me to understand the kind of travel that those people did."
He admits that some parts of the trip haven’t changed too much. “Taking all those back roads and trying to go by the original routes, you find places along the way that were never developed. Spanishburg, West Virginia looks like it did fifty years ago.”
While nobody will know the exact events of that fateful night, Cooper says there are a few characters in the story that he possesses a definite empathy for. “The only answers that you can come close to is maybe the desperation that the eighteen-year old driver, Charles Carr, felt on that route," he relates. "That’s Hank Williams dying in his back seat, as he’s going along through these early hours. We think of that as one of the grand tragedies in music, and the only one who really experienced it was Charles Carr -- along with the mysterious relief driver named Donald Surface, who we still don’t know what happened with him.”
One interesting fact that Cooper did find out -- Williams was still alive when he left the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Knoxville that New Years’ Eve night on his way to Canton. “I was able to talk with Joe Tyree, who handled the body and performed the autopsy. He did assure me that it could not have happened in Knoxville. He was not cold enough or stiff enough for that to have happened.”
Cooper also shares a story about his days at The Tennessean in Nashville, where his less-than-glowing review of Lee Ann Womack’s 2005 album There’s More Where That Came From didn’t sit too well with the singer: “She called me, and I believe I was in Atlanta. I picked up the phone, and heard a voice say, ‘Peter Cooper?’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ ‘This is Lee Ann Womack. Where are you.’ I said ‘In Atlanta.’ She said ‘Well, you need to get back here. I’m going to give you three swift kicks to the groin.’ The conversation devolved from there, and the next time I saw her, she was collecting the Album of the Year award from the CMA for that very album. I was walking down the hall one way, and she was coming from the other. She stuck her arm out, spread her fingers out, and said ‘Spread them.’"
Womack also left Cooper with a memento of the occasion: "She did later on give me a T-Shirt she had made for me that said, ‘I took three swift kicks to the groin, and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”
Cooper laughs about the story today, but admits that now that he has released several albums himself, he definitely understands how one can take a review. “Each artist reacts differently to those kind of things. Some do with great humor -- Brad Paisley used to leave reviews of my reviews on my answering machine, which were hilarious. Some people inherently bristle."
"Criticism can be a tough thing," Cooper continues. "I didn’t understand it fully until I started recording and putting out music of my own. My friend Todd Snider, who encouraged me to do that, told me as my first album was about to come out -- You’re about to learn a lesson. You’re going to understand how a three-and-a-half star review can break your heart.’ I said ‘But, that’s pretty good, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’ll get it.’ Songwriters are really putting themselves out there, and criticism can really feel like rejection.”
Johnny's Cash and Charley's Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music is available now.