To truly love Nashville, you must come from somewhere else — or so the saying goes. That’s certainly true for Peter Cooper. It’s a sunny August afternoon, and he’s just walked the short distance from his house in East Nashville to the 3 Crow Bar. As he settles into a chair and orders a locally brewed Yazoo Dos Perros, he has the comfortable manner of a man who’s found his home. The journey to find that home began 20 years ago. Cooper, fresh out of college, made his first pilgrimage to the Music City, beginning with a stop on Broadway.
“The first place I went was Gruhn Guitars,” Cooper says. “The first person I saw was John Hartford sitting in Gruhn’s playing a banjo. That night, I went to a John Hiatt show, and the next night I went to a Townes Van Zandt show. I thought, ‘this might be a good place to live.’”
It would take a few more years for him to confirm his suspicions, but today, 20 years after that first journey, Cooper’s life and career are firmly woven into the musical fabric of Nashville as a musician, music journalist and music history teacher.
Although Cooper was born in South Carolina and spent his high school years in Alexandria, Va., he had little exposure to country or bluegrass. As a teenager, he was a fanatical baseball fan when one concert changed the course of his life.
“On my 15th birthday I saw the Seldom Scene,” Cooper says. “I didn’t know anything about roots music. It was like opening a book for me. They played every Thursday night at a club called The Birchmere in Alexandria. I was much more interested in baseball, and I didn’t know what music could be. I was like, ‘what is this?’”
For Cooper, bluegrass was just the opening inning. It proved to be a gateway to a world of music much richer than the Top 40. He was soon exploring that world with the passion of a baseball fanatic, but instead of players and stats, he was learning about songwriters and hot licks.
“It got me into a whole spectrum of music — Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Guy Clark, John Prine — really inventive music that also relied on smart, layered lyrics. Emmylou’s whole catalog is like the encyclopedia of how to make records – how to choose songs, how to phrase, how sometimes an un-athletic singer can be the most compelling.”
For a fan eager to trace roots or explore different branches of the American music tree, it was an exciting time. “That was when Nashville opened up and had what Steve Earle referred to as the ‘Great Credibility Scare,’” Cooper says. “All of a sudden you had the roots covered with Ricky Skaggs, George Strait, Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. Then you had these literate singer- songwriters who were as much influenced by Bob Dylan as Hank Williams, like Rodney Crowell, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Foster & Lloyd, and the O’Kanes. And then my freshman year in college, I found a tape in the bargain-bin cassettes called Fervor by Jason & the Scorchers. They became my favorite rock band. Nashville, which just a couple of years before that had been really castigated in terms of the hip factor, was suddenly this place where you could make music that defied categories.”
After several years of teaching middle school and writing about music and other topics in his native South Carolina, Cooper moved to Nashville in 2000. As head music writer for the Tennessean, Cooper has built a reputation for his literate, witty and insightful columns. He’s an enthusiastic booster of the Nashville music scene while not flinching from applying criticism where required. His position as a journalist also led him to becoming a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music, teaching a course on the history of country music.
“I only have a bachelor of arts degree,” Cooper says. “No journalism classes, no masters or doctorate, and no singing lessons. I am fundamentally unqualified for anything I do,” he says with a bit of dry wit.
Lack of formal qualifications aside, his experiences as a musician and music journalist have shaped his writing. “To me, they aid each other,” he says. “I’ve found when I’m writing good songs I’m often writing good columns. Listening deeply to other people’s music helps me in my writing and to be inspired. Probably the greatest writer about music alive is Peter Guralnick, and I don’t know if he’s ever strummed a G chord on the guitar. So I certainly don’t think you have to play music in order to write well about it, but it does help from my perspective.
“That’s all I can offer in writing music or writing about music is perspective,” Cooper says. “If people hear my music or read one of my columns, they’re getting my perspective. I certainly don’t like everything, but I understand what’s not moving for me may be moving for someone else. I don’t have to like a person’s music to write about their story. I can tell their story even if I’m listening to Tom T. Hall while I write it.”
Focusing on the stories behind the music has allowed Cooper’s writing to navigate the middle ground between music snobbery and show biz shillery. “I don’t see a lot of use in snarkiness and abject dismissal,” Cooper says, “the kind of music journalism that treats the writer as some all-knowing judge, as if the entirety of the music world exists to please him. I’m also terribly disinterested in the ‘Music Row is evil and the East Side rocks’ thing. It can all work together. ‘Modern country’ is all the stuff that gets lumped in as Americana. Roots rock, bluegrass, contemporary folk — it’s all happening now. So why do we give the power of that label to the small slice that we don’t like. People want to turn everything into a football game, creating some type of false rivalry.”
Although Cooper originally came to Nashville with a primary goal to write about music, he soon fell victim to the “Nashville Syndrome:” Hang around musicians long enough and eventually you become one yourself. Cooper had experience playing and writing songs from his college days and the occasional open mic night, but it was an offer he couldn’t refuse that forced his hand.
“I didn’t play much at all when I first came here,” Cooper says, “maybe the Bluebird once a year. Around the middle of the aughts, I got to know Todd Snider, and out of the blue he asked me to open some shows for him. A few days later he said I needed to have something to sell or I was going to lose a lot of money travelling. It forced me into the studio to quickly make an EP.”
Cooper soon discovered one of the big advantages of knowing your heroes personally. “I called Lloyd Green, my favorite pedal steel player and favorite musician,” Cooper says. “His solo on Don Williams’ ‘Some Broken Hearts Never Mend’ is the first guitar solo I can remember singing along to. That started a relationship that’s been transformative for me personally and musically.”
It’s a collaboration that’s continued through all of Cooper’s albums, both his solo records and his duet recordings with singer-songwriter Eric Brace — including Cooper’s 2010 “solo” record, The Lloyd Green Album. “The pedal steel is what you hear most on my records, even though they’re not strictly traditional country music. I give Lloyd the guitar and vocals parts, and he paints all over the place. He knows when and what to play on steel guitar a lot better than I do. He not only elevates the songs but puts a sonic stamp on them.”
For Cooper’s most recent album, he recruited Green and many other friends who just happen to be top Nashville musicians. They provide the backing for songs that reflect many of the same traits of his music journalism: literate tales of individuals traversing the hills and valleys of life, with a dollop of dry wit and told from a singular perspective. The focus is on transitions that run deeper than what they appear at first glance.
The album’s title track, “Opening Day,” draws its metaphor from Cooper’s other obsession, but the story is far more universal than the baseball diamond. “The song about baseball is not really about baseball,” Cooper says. “I wrote that song when my son was born. He’s 3 now. Things are always perfect at the beginning, like the start of baseball season, but it all changes soon enough. It’s a hopeful song about inevitable disappointments.”
The crafting of a simple story that turns out to not be so simple is what appeals to Cooper. “For me there’s a storytelling art,” he says. “The place that inspires me as a writer was in the ‘60s and early ‘70s when there was a band of songwriters who changed the language of Nashville music — Mickey Newbury, John Hartford, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and others in that pack. All of a sudden there was a different kind of country song. There are so many lessons to draw from Tom T. Hall and Kristofferson. There’s a lack of finger pointing. They told you the story but didn’t tell what you’re supposed to think about it.”
As much as Cooper enjoys his career as a musician, it doesn’t mean he’s looking to ditch his other gigs. “Sometimes people will say about my music, ‘I know that’s what you really want to do,’ but I’m not trying to get out of one thing into another. I enjoy the balance.” After a pause, he adds with a smile, “I wouldn’t mind people showering me with more money for each of these things. That would be just fine.”
At 3 Crow, the waitress brings another round of Yazoo, and Cooper spies award-winning singer/songwriter Gillian Welch on her way to nearby Woodland Studios. It’s a good excuse to steer the conversation to the state of the Nashville music scene circa 2013.
“We no longer have to spend time defending this as a total music city,” Cooper says. “We’ve got some of the biggest rock acts in the world living here. We have a symphony that has been financially challenged but has still accomplished remarkable things and won Grammys. You’ve so much of the bluegrass, folk and singer-songwriter scene centered here. You’ve got Rahsaan Barber and what his label, Jazz Music City, is doing. Just look at the per capita of musicians. I think Nashville in 2013 may be the greatest music city that has ever been.
“When Kris Kristofferson decided to move here (back in the ‘60s),” Cooper says, “he did so because he had hung out with Johnny Cash and Cowboy Jack Clement over a few days. He told me one time, ‘I knew that even if I couldn’t make it as a songwriter I could still hang around these incredibly inspiring and intelligent people.’ I feel that way now.
“You always run into interesting people that you know. Nashville’s a great adult playground. We’re just full of musicians, artists, painters, chefs and what have you. And they all seem to support each other. They realize that not only does the greater reward come from supporting each other, but it’s just a fun way to live your life.”
When Cooper speaks about his adopted city, you can hear the undeniable enthusiasm in his voice. It’s the spirit of the true fan — the kid who enthusiastically roots for his favorite big league team, and looks forward to each new season with its promise of hope for exciting plays and victories.
“Nashville is not some sports team that loads up with free agents in a last-gasp effort to make something of themselves,” Cooper says, returning to the baseball metaphors to speak on the future of Music City, U.S.A. “This is the deepest farm system that there is.”