BACK IN THE EARLY AUGHTS, MY BAND Last Train Home was still based up in Washington, D.C., but we were feeling the pull of Nashville. The Tennessean had run some kind words about us by a fellow named Peter Cooper. After a couple of gigs here, the pull became an inevitability, with this Cooper fellow heading up the welcome wagon, saying, “You know, Eric, what Nashville needs is another singer- songwriter.” It took me a minute to realize he was kidding, but by then, I’d already packed the moving truck.
When I got here, I thought how lucky we musicians were to have such a clear-eyed and clear-eared writer as Peter to tell the world how special we are. It was a couple of years before I realized Peter wasn’t just a music writer. He was also writing music, crafting songs as good or better than those of the folks he was writing about. It took me so long to realize this because he modestly kept his musical talents mostly to himself. At a guitar pull one night, I heard Peter unleash a blue-ribbon song that made me and everyone there rethink their thoughts about this tall man with the good head of hair. And there were many more songs where that one had come from. It was an easy next step for me to put out Peter’s music on my Red Beet Records label, and for the past seven years he’s been more productive than anyone I know: three solo records, three duo records with me (oh, right, we formed a duo), and five albums produced by him of other folks (one nominated for a Grammy).
And doing all that while writing three columns a week for The Tennessean. Columns about people who for the most part aren’t Music Row darlings. Tim Easton, Kim Richey, Jon Byrd, Amy Speace, Tim Carroll, Brian Wright, Sturgill Simpson, Tommy Womack. And winning awards for his heartbreaking and brilliant coverage of the deaths of icons Johnny Cash and George Jones (his was easily the best writing in the world about the end of these giants). And reminding people in a front page above-the-fold story of the genius of still-living Mac Wiseman (a story that led pretty directly to Mac being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last month). And writing obituaries of Nashvillians who may not be household names but who have made this city so special over the years: songwriter Paul Craft, sideman Weldon Myrick, producer Ken Nelson.
So here’s a question: Who’s going to write those stories now?
Who, now that Peter is saying goodbye to the Gannett fiasco that has become The Tennessean? That’s for them to work out, because after nearly 15 years at Music City’s newspaper of record, Peter is heading across town to work at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. They’re lucky to have him, and they know it. They know he knows more about the history of country music than almost anyone (heck, he’s professor of country music history at Vanderbilt, for crying out loud). They’ve created the job title of “Writer/Editor” for him there, and I hope they mean it. I hope they let him write regular dispatches, some kind of “Peter Cooper’s Nashville” blog thing for their website. Nashville can’t afford to lose Cooper’s distinct voice, the one where he tells us all about the great music he’s been listening to and seeing live, in perfectly constructed stories filled with heart and humor and empathy and critical smarts.
For sure, he’ll keep writing excellent songs and singing them. And he’ll keep telling Vandy kids why Jimmie Rogers and Don Schlitz are important to our cultural history. And he’ll keep telling me to remember his cat allergies when I’m booking us a house concert. But I really hope he and the Hall find a way for him to keep writing stories about the people that make Nashville such a great place to be right now. Because Peter is one of the people that make Nashville such a great place to be right now. And please don’t tell him I’m saying all these nice things about him.