Peter Cooper: Country Music Journalist and Musician

From an obit in The Nashville Tennessean by Dave Paulson headlined “Peter Cooper, acclaimed country music journalist and musician, dies at 52”:

Peter Cooper, an award-winning country music journalist and Grammy-nominated musician, died Tuesday in Nashville, Tennessee, after suffering a head injury from a fall.

A native of South Carolina, Cooper moved to Nashville in 2000, joining The Tennessean as a music writer. He soon established himself as a brilliant, unmistakable voice in country music criticism, filling his stories with earned insight, gentle wit and a well-placed baseball reference.

During his 15-year tenure, whether he was covering the death of George Jones or the rise of Taylor Swift, Cooper’s byline was the one countless readers looked for.

That included the legends he wrote about. Kris Kristofferson once said Cooper “looks at the world with an artist’s eye, and a human heart and soul,” while Hank Williams Jr. simply called him “one hell of a writer.”

One of Cooper’s beliefs was key to his craft: “Objectivity is the mortal enemy.”

“Now, for sure, you need a good bull**** detector, and you shouldn’t rant, and you shouldn’t cheerlead,” he wrote in his 2017 book “Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride.”

“But objectivity is dispassionate. And we’re in the passion business. We’re trying to make people feel something different than what they felt before they read our words.”

“He was larger than life,” said Cooper’s brother, Chris. “He was the cleverest person in every room. He was the best writer in every room. And he was in rooms with some pretty damn smart people.”

Interviewing Cash during his first year at The Tennessean was both a dream and a wake-up call. The “Man In Black” told him he read every story he wrote.

In the 14 years that followed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a Peter Cooper piece that didn’t read as an inspired, enlightening conversation with a friend who loved country music as deeply as anyone could.

Three years after that first meeting, Cooper was writing Cash’s obituary.

“Others wrote, ‘Johnny Cash, a Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose sparse but electrifying sound captivated millions, died blah blah blah,’” Cooper recalled in his book. “I began The Tennessean’s obituary with the five words that kept running through my head: ‘Somehow, Johnny Cash is dead.’”

Though he’d jokingly tell his editors to “alert the Pulitzer committee” after filing a more routine piece, Cooper went above and beyond in his work and uncovered unspoken truths — whether covering an awards ceremony, arena concert or somehow boiling down the genius of Tom T. Hall.

On the 50th anniversary of Hank Williams’ death, Cooper traveled the 300-mile route of the legend’s “last ride” from Knoxville to Oak Hill, West Virginia, untangling fact from fiction at Williams’ many stops along the way.

He was in his last full year at The Tennessean when he wrote the 2013 obituary for George Jones. Six months later, as the singer’s family unveiled a monument at his graveside, there were Cooper’s words etched in stone, alongside the lyrics of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

“He sang of life’s hardships and struggles, in a way that somehow lightened our own,” it begins.

As a musician, Cooper’s gifts were on full display with his songwriting, informed by Kristofferson, Hall and other heroes turned friends. There were layers of heartbreak and humor in songs like “Opening Day,” inspired by his lifelong love of baseball.

“Winter comes even to the champions,” he sang. “Keep the aftermath and the epitaph/ Give me opening day.”

Partly through his day job, Cooper began building a cast of musical collaborators, including Todd Snider, who recruited him to play bass for his appearances on the “Tonight Show” and “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2006.

At Snider’s urging, Cooper began recording and releasing his own music. His catalog included three solo albums and three alongside singer-songwriter Eric Brace.

He and Brace also joined forces to produce “I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow,” a reimagining of Hall’s revered 1974 children’s album. It was nominated for the Grammy for Best Children’s Album in 2012. With Thomm Jutz, Cooper also co-produced an album for Mac Wiseman: “Songs from My Mother’s Hand.”

His last release was 2017’s “Profiles in Courage, Frailty and Discomfort” with Brace and Jutz.

Cooper left The Tennessean in 2014 to take a position at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he remained as the museum’s senior director, producer and writer until his death.

He also hosted the museum’s flagship podcast series, “Voices In the Hall,” and moderated many of its high-profile events.

In 2018, he talked and played alongside John Prine and Bill Murray for a Recording Academy panel at RCA Studio A. When the latest members were inducted to the Hall of Fame earlier this year, it was Cooper’s voice heard narrating their video packages.

Kenny Chesney said, “Peter Cooper loved life, songs, stories and dreamers.”

“Love to his family and many friends at this difficult time. Somehow I think he’s already got his guitar out, playing one of his favorite Seldom Scene songs.”

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