Chet Flippo — a veteran music writer, editor and author, as well as Billboard’s Nashville Bureau Chief from 1995 to 2000 — passed away Wednesday morning (June 19) of pneumonia, according to several reports that were not confirmed at press time. At the time of his death, he was editorial director of CMT and CMT.com.
Flippo’s vast knowledge of American roots music, country music, and early rock and roll allowed him to write from a place of deep knowledge, not only understanding an individual artist’s music, but the cultural and historic place it held. Though he covered superstars, he took special delight in writing about credible artists trying to break out of the nooks and crannies.
Alan Jackson was among the acts he championed and someone he felt was a leading light in carrying the torch for traditional country music.
Chet Flippo on ‘The Genre-Bustin’ Rise of Insurgent Country’ (From The Billboard Archives)
“Chet respected the importance of real country music – he had a genuine understanding of its history and a true appreciation for it,” Jackson told Billboard in an exclusive statement today. “He was out there telling the world about country music long before it was the ‘cool’ thing to talk about. He told it like he saw it, and I’m glad he did.”
As anyone who worked with Flippo (as I did for five years) could attest, he spoke softly, maintained a respectful wall of privacy between his personal and professional life (though was never aloof), cracked jokes that made him the funniest person in the room despite eschewing the spotlight, and he could succinctly sum up a point in a few eloquent words that took others many sentences. And he loved music, deeply.
His own stories from the musical trenches were often more entertaining than the subjects he wrote about.
“I can remember Chet stopping dead a Billboard trivia night in Miami in the mid-‘90s when various editors were swapping stories,” recalls former Billboard Canadian bureau chief Larry LeBlanc, who first met Flippo when LeBlanc worked as a stringer for Rolling Stone in the 1970s. “We went around the table and finally Chet had his say. He ended the night abruptly by adding, ‘Well, I’ve heard your stories, and they are all good. I only have one. In 1951, my mama and daddy took me to Ft. Worth, Texas to see Hank Williams play.’ For a music journalist, that’s like holding five aces. Nobody followed that. It was like, ‘Waiter, can we have the check?’”
Flippo went on to put his early love of Williams to good use in his well-regarded tome, “Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams,” which was published in 1980. He wrote a number of other books, including “Graceland: The Living Legacy of Elvis Presley,” “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll: My On-The-Road Adventures With The Rolling Stones,” “On the Road With the Rolling Stones: 20 Years of Lipstick, Handcuffs, and Chemicals,” “Yesterday: The Unauthorized Biography of Paul McCartney,” and an anthology, “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Dancing: Chronicles of the Lionized and the Notorious.”
Tributes to Flippo have been pouring forth across the web, including from arists Taylor Swift and Caitlin Rose among many others.
We’ve lost Chet Flippo, one of my favorite journalists, who devoted his life to writing about music from a place of integrity. So sad.
— Taylor Swift (@taylorswift13) June 19, 2013
Bummer of a day. Chet Flippo and Slim Whitman both gone. Two true masters of their respective crafts, may they both rest in peace.
— Caitlin Rose (@TheCaitlinRose) June 19, 2013
Flippo, 69, was born in Ft. Worth in 1943. He served in the U.S. Navy during Vietnam. While earning his master’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas in Austin, he began contributing to Rolling Stone, according to his official biography.
He served as Rolling Stone’s New York Bureau Chief from 1974 to 1977 and then became a senior editor until leaving the magazine in 1980.
Flippo covered rock and roll at a time when journalists spent more than a closely controlled hour with a subject, as his 1978 Rolling Stone piece about life on the road with The Rolling Stones showed. In addition to discussing with Mick Jagger how “Shattered” reflected the same perspective as Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s speech on the decline of the West (!!!), he wrote about swimming with Charlie Watts’ daughter in the hotel pool and searching for Keith Richards: “I went up to Keith’s room and found him in bed, either asleep or dead — it was hard to tell which; he had one arm stuck grotesquely up in the air. (The next night he didn’t bother with the bed — just conked out on his dining-room table.)”
In a bit of sad irony, Flippo posted on his Facebook page in January: “It’s comforting to know that I will always be younger than Mick Jagger. But without the moves, alas.”
Among his more famous articles was a 1980 cover story on Dolly Parton. Overcome by her overall Dolly-ism, he asked Parton if she would run away with him as his first question. (Her answer: “If you’re ready — but let’s wait and see how much money you make from your book!)”
He has also written articles for the New York Times, TV Guide, Texas Monthly, and Q Magazine of London, and other publications and has written TV scripts for VH1, CBS and CMT.
From 1991 to 1994, Flippo lectured at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, before moving to Nashville for Billboard, where he was recruited by his former Rolling Stone colleague Timothy White, who was then Billboard’s editor in chief. In addition to writing a weekly column chronicling his take on Music Row, Flippo also broke news of developing scenes, including a 1996 cover story on the growth of insurgent country acts, who were forcing mainstream country music labels to sit up and pay attention.
He left Billboard in 2000 for a short stint at Sonicnet, before moving to CMT and CMT.com. His column, Nashville Skyline, spoke truth to power, calling Music Row on some of its more egregious behavior, but he also continued to herald talent, old and new, as well as take a look back at his own past.
“In a recent Nashville Skyline column, Chet wrote about our occasional, post-deadline margarita and Twister parties in the Billboard office,” recalls Nashville journalist Phyllis Stark, who succeeded Flippo as Billboard’s Nashville Bureau Chief in 2000. “Those of us who had the pleasure of working with him passed that column around quite a bit because it was a great reminder of how this giant of music journalism could also be such a fun and amusing co-worker. Even so, he was as serious about critiquing music and the music industry as he was about the correct way to make Texas chili.”
CMT president Brian Philips said in a statement, “This is a stunning loss to all of us. Chet was a stoic Texan, fiercely loyal and intensely private. He was honest to the core and widely regarded as a bit enigmatic, even among his closest colleagues. For all, it was a terrific privilege to work with Chet Flippo.”
In a statement, Kenny Chesney said, “Chet Flippo may be best known as one of Rolling Stone’s most famous critics, but he was also a smart, willing-to-tell-the-truth advocate of country music. It’s hard to believe he’s passed on, but something tells me he’s wherever the really good music is.”
Dave Marsh, Flippo’s longtime friend and colleague, said: “Chet and I never, ever talked or saw one another without leaving me feeling I was in the company of a guy who totally got it, not just about whatever we were talking about but about life. He was as good a reporter as anyone in the history of the music press and all of his books have a quality that’s pure Chet, usually when they’re at their funniest. It is a poorer world without him, and that smile, and those John Denver cheekbones.”
Flippo received the Country Music Association’s 1998 CMA Media Achievement Award. In 2006, The International Country Music Conference (ICMC) honored Flippo with the Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism.
Flippo’s wife, fellow journalist Martha Hume, died in December. Stark last saw Flippo at a memorial service for Hume on May 5, and she expressed a common sentiment going around Music Row today.
“I think they had more in common with Johnny and June Cash than anyone realized. Like Johnny, in the end I think Chet just couldn’t live without his beloved wife.”
On Wednesday, Flippo’s longtime friend and colleague Mikal Gilmore sent Billboard the following remembrance:
“Chet Flippo was one of those essential illumination points in modern writings about popular music and about an expanse of American music history as well. Years ago, a writer like Ralph J. Gleason–and Nat Hentoff, who is still among us–helped young music fans, as well as contemporary critics, better understand America’s valuable music continuum, from early revolutionary jazz of the 1920s to revolutionary rock & roll of the 1960s. Similarly, Chet imparted a tremendous appreciation for the ongoing links and shared cultural, ethical and emotional ground between rock & roll’s impulses and country music’s traditions and its ongoing vitality and ability to grow and change. Both Chet and his late wife, author and journalist Martha Hume, were also illuminating figures by example of the sheer power of their writing, as prose and as storytelling.
“What Chet exemplified so well was the human element–the way he examined the necessary frailties and flaws of his subjects, the qualities that raised them up and brought them down. By example, I’ve always regarded Chet’s writing about the Rolling Stones for Rolling Stone magazine (later expanded into a book) as exceptionally revealing, and at times hilarious. He respected what made the band so brave and important, and the costs they paid, but better than anybody else, he also comprehended their vanity, their sometimes stumbling–but nonetheless majestic–efforts to cope with their changing purposes as they grew from renegades into towering celebrities. He caught their strength and their confusion, as much from their stray comments and gestures here and there, as from any formal interview exchanges.
“Perhaps the piece of Chet’s that I most value, and one that is readily available for anybody to read, was his tribute to Gary Stewart, the great and troubled country singer and writer, upon the occasion of Stewart’s suicide, in December 2003. It isn’t hard to make a case for Stewart as among the greatest country figures since Hank Williams; if anything, Gary Stewart understood his demons better than Williams had, and he probably always took to heart Hank’s dictum that we never get out of this world alive. As Chet noted in his 2003 obituary, Stewart was especially fascinated by Williams’ legend, during the time Flippo worked on his biography of Williams, ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’
“What did Stewart see in the shadows of Williams’ life? It wasn’t something pretty. It couldn’t have been. In the end, Flippo understood that both men remained mysteries, and that in some ways Stewart had been a mystery all along. “The guy sang big, and he lived big,” Chet wrote. “What a shame he died small.”
“I’m grateful we had Chet Flippo, to help us look better into dark hearts and to care for them, and to help us laugh, when necessary, at the pride that can both exalt and undermine us. His sort of insights honored the music and lives he wrote about, and in the end, honored his own life as well.”