Peter Cooper, one of the most preeminent journalists covering country music in the 21st century, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-producer in his own right, and most recently one of the foremost public faces of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, died Tuesday at age 52.
A significant part of the Nashville music community had been keeping Cooper in collective thoughts and prayers since he suffered a severe head injury in a fall late last week. He had remained in critical condition in the days leading up to his death, although hospital visitors had described him as showing signs of responsiveness as they gathered around his bedside.
“It is with heavy hearts that we let you know that Peter Cooper passed away in his sleep last night, December 6, after suffering a severe head injury late last week,” a statement from his family read. “We so appreciate the kind words and prayers you have offered over the past few days. Please know that they have provided Peter and us with much comfort. We will soon announce details about a celebration of life to take place in early 2023.”
Cooper was well-known throughout the country and Americana worlds as an unusually erudite, perceptive and soulful journalist during the years he spent leading the Tennessean newspaper’s music coverage during his 14-year tenure there from 2000 through 2014. It was at that point that he left the journalism world to join the staff of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he served as senior director, producer and writer. While most of his work there was behind the scenes, he led many of the museum’s popular public programs on top of writing and doing audio narration for much of the text seen throughout the facility.
In his newspaper writing days and beyond, Cooper made no bones about being an advocate for the artists he loved. “Objectivity is the mortal enemy,” he wrote, distinguishing subjectivity from what he called “cheerleading.” “Objectivity is dispassionate,” Cooper continued. “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.”
But he also experienced country music as a Grammy-nominated producer, singer, songwriter and performer. His 2012 Grammy nom came for co-producing “I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow,” a multi-artist remake of a famous 1974 children’s album by Hall, one of his musical heroes.
He recorded three albums as a solo artist and three more with fellow singer-songwriter Eric Brace, the last of which was “Profiles in Courage, Frailty and Discomfort” in 2017.
Cooper was encouraged to pursue his own music career, modestly and intermittently, after he went moonlighting from journalism to play bass in 2006 in the band of the great Americana singer-songwriter Todd Snider. Cooper could be seen playing in Snider’s band in appearances on “The Tonight Show” and David Letterman’s program.
His writing after leaving the Tennessean included a book, “Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music,” released in 2017. He co-wrote Country Hall of Famer Bill Anderson’s “Whisperin’ Bill Anderson: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music” and wrote the preface to Hall’s “The Storyteller’s Nashville: A Gritty & Glorious Life in Country Music.” His liner notes appeared on albums by Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Cowboy Jack Clement and Ronnie Milsap, among others.
Cooper got almost as good as he gave, when it came to sincere accolades. According to his alma mater newspaper, the Tennessean, Kris Kristofferson said he “looks at the world with an artist’s eye, and a human heart and soul.” Hank Williams Jr. described him as “one hell of a writer.”
Whatever words may or may not appear on a headstone for Cooper, anyone charged with that task will have trouble competing with Cooper himself. His writing appears on the headstone for no less a figure than George Jones. “He sang of life’s hardships and struggles, in a way that somehow lightened our own,” read the Cooper-written words inscribed at the country legend’s gravesite.
The family asked that, in lieu of flowers, friends make donations to the Baker Cooper fund, to support his son’s education, or to the Hall of Fame and Museum.
Besides his son, Baker, Cooper is survived by his ex-wife and partner of 32 years, Charlotte; father, Wiley Cooper; stepmother, Emily Cooper; brother, Chris Cooper; sister-in-law, Jessie Swigger; nephew and niece, Jack Cooper and Madeline Cooper; and stepfather, Al Smuzynski.
The following is a speech Cooper gave at a feature writers conference this past June, which he subsequently posted publicly on his Facebook page. While it is, as he described it, “a long read,” it is worth reprinting in its entirety, being a compendium of some of the best advice ever given about not just country music journalism, but entertainment journalism generally, as well as a deep peek into his writer soul:
Forget what it says I’m going to talk about in the schedule. I’m not going to talk about that. I’m going to give you something better: The Super-Easy Way To Undeniable Excellence: How to confound your bosses at every turn and produce brilliant features and profiles, using ancient hillbilly singer secrets imparted by the masters.
Some of this information I’m going to present will seem at odds with what you may hear this week on panels, from some of the experts in our industry. And that is because some of this information is at odds with what you may hear on panels, from experts in our industry. I am not an expert, I am a writer. I have no idea how to run a profitable news operation in our changing times. All I know is the super easy way to confound your bosses at every turn and produce brilliant features and profiles, using ancient hillbilly singer secrets imparted by the masters. And I’m here to share. If you disagree, no big deal. I’m not getting paid for this gig.
Alright, I was 22. Big roots music fan who played bad guitar in unpopular bands in South Carolina. Still in college, ‘cause I’d taken one year off to play bad guitar and sing through my nose on the streets of San Francisco. My English professor called me and said he was sick with pneumonia, and asked if I would drive an hour north from Spartanburg, SC to Asheville, NC to review a Guy Clark show for a weekly magazine called Mountain X-Press. He’d been assigned the review, but he was too sick to go. I’d never published any stories, but my professor said I was the only person he knew who knew every word to all of Guy Clark’s songs. Which was true. He said I could get into the show for free and bring a friend, and then would just need to write an 800-word review.
So, 22-year-old college student goes to the show to offer his opinion on whether Guy Clark – already a legendary writer in his 50s, known for remarkable emotional specificity and clarity of language – was any good. Hey, free ticket. I took my slightly older, slightly inebriated friend Ashley Fly, and we watched as Guy sang genius song after genius song, with his son, Travis Clark, on bass.
Halfway through the sold-out, library-quiet show, Ashley began crying. He watched Guy Clark and son Travis Clark, and a lump came to his throat, and he said, way too out loud, “I wish Guy Clark was my daddy.” Then he said it again, and then one more time.
“I wish Guy Clark was my daddy.”
I made a note.
When I wrote the review, I didn’t lead with biographical facts about Guy, or with a measured appraisal of the show’s highs and lows.
I led with Ashley Fly, and with “I wish Guy Clark was my daddy.”
Now, I wasn’t writing the stuff everyone else wrote: That Guy Clark is a renowned veteran of American song who delivers rhyming truths with whiskeyed gravitas. I was writing about connection, longing, regret and pain. I was doing so with a chuckle line, but it was a chuckle line that got to something deeper: Guy Clark’s presence is such that he can stand on a stage, sing a song called “Desperadoes Waiting For A Train” and make a grown man weep over the tyranny of lineage.
When I turned the story in, the editor called me and asked, “Is there really an Ashley Fly?” I said, “Yes, I can give you his number.” Then he said, “Did that thing with the crying and the wishing Guy Clark was his daddy really happen?” I said, “Yes, you can ask anyone who was there.” Then he asked if I’d be interested in writing more reviews, in going to more shows for free, and in sometimes getting CDs sent to me in the mail. I said, “Let me think, yes.” And then he sent me a check for $25 dollars.
Five years later, I quit teaching middle school, felt immediately better and went to work for the Spartanburg Herald-Journal, writing everything from features to cops beat stuff to hard news. I was a general assignment reporter. First day on the job, I covered a drowning. I developed a weekly music column regrettably called Pete’s Picks, but most of the stories I wrote weren’t about music. They had headlines like, “Store clerk shot in leg during late night Little Cricket robbery,” “Diners find stress-relief in lunchtime massages” and “Car slams into house.” Real stories.
I felt like I was writing a lot, but there was one guy there, a courts beat reporter named Frank, who was writing like four stories a day, every day. It was nuts. I’d be sweating deadline on my ONE story, and Frank would walk calmly from the office at 4:30 p.m., having reported and written four error-free, informative, genuine newspaper stories. Steve… swear to God. I wanted to be that guy. I asked him how he did it. He said, slowly, almost paternally, “Never be afraid to hand in a mediocre story.”
Freed from fear, I began to prosper.
In late September of 2000, I was six months into my tenure, writing about music for The Tennessean. Dream job. Talk to the most creative, interesting people in the world. Write down the creative, interesting things they said. Turn the story in to an editor who loved Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson as much as I did.
Then I got to meet Johnny Cash.
And I was freaking out a little bit. I’m not starstruck under normal circumstances. But this was Johnny Cash. I didn’t know what to do. So I did something I’d never done before. I said to Cash, “Before we start talking, I just want to tell you, thank you. Thank you for all the hours of my life that were better because they were spent in the company of your music. I’m a huge fan, and I thank you.”
And Cash said, “Well, Peter, I’m a fan of yours, so I want to thank you. The newspaper hits my driveway every day and June and I read it in the morning over coffee. I read everything you write.”
At first, I felt 10 feet tall.
Johnny Cash reads all my stuff.
Then I shrunk eight feet down from 10.
Johnny Cash reads all my stuff.
All my stuff.
Stuff I write on deadline. Stuff I just couldn’t nail. Stuff where I was writing over my head. Stuff where I was unduly judgmental. Stuff where I was overly kind.
All my stuff.
All my stuff. The stuff I wrote because I knew from Frank to never be afraid to hand in a mediocre story.
Damn Frank all to hell.
Another guy who read the paper – though in my opinion he didn’t take full advantage of our web content – is Tom T. Hall.
Tom T. Hall helped change the language of country music, writing and singing dark, funny, original songs. He’s like the Ray Carver of country music. Sometimes like Flannery O’Connor. Smart. Vibrant. Unique. And fairly free with his advice about writing. Like me, you know.
Tom T. said his writing life changed when he learned the simple lesson, “Write what you know,” but that he got better when he figured out another layer: Write less than you know.
Write less than you know.
Know more than you write.
Know as much as you can, and that way you can figure out what isn’t necessary or helpful or artful. Don’t write 25 inches from 12 inches of knowledge and 13 inches of assumptions and re-statements. Write 25 inches from 100 inches of understanding.
Don’t get carried away with this, though.
Don’t take 100 inches of understanding down to eight inches of copy. I know that at some newspapers, there’s a call from editors to have a lot of eight-inch stories that contain. There are people sitting in this very room who routinely assign eight-inch container stories. I have met some such people. I have worked for some such people. At present, I work for some such people. And they are nice people who care about good journalism. But they are wrong, and I am right.
I’d like to ask for a show of hands. This is an accomplished crowd. How many of you writers out there have won an award for an eight-inch container, unless it was in the awards category, “Best eight-inch container”?
I thought so.
Long doesn’t mean great. Long stories are great, when they’re great. They’re too long when they read that way. Yes, some 60 inch stories should be 30 inches stories. Maybe even most 60 inch stories, I’m not sure. But EVERY SINGLE eight-inch feature story should be a photo with a cutline, or it should be a 20-inch story with voice and perspective. Eight-inch feature stories aren’t stories at all, they are notices, bulletins. They are fragments. Eight-inch feature stories do not delight or amaze. As readers, they waste our time, which is the opposite of what they were designed to do. Don’t write or assign an eight-inch container story. Your time would be better spent running the first hundred yards of a marathon, or baking a Thanksgiving turkey for five minutes at 350 degrees.
Leave the eight-inch stories to the hard news writers. We are features people, and we should not be subjected to such indignities.
If you are a writer or an editor who does not have the absolute autonomy to refuse to write or assign an eight-inch container story, and you have a boss-person who insists that you write or assign such a story, go ahead and do it. They don’t take long, and it’s not the kind of thing to risk your journalism career over. But do agree as editors and writers that you will at least go out later to a bar and drink and cuss about it.
Here’s another thing: Don’t worry about scoops and exclusives. If it’s a good story, you already have the scoop, and you already have the exclusive. See, in our features world, scoops and exclusives aren’t about the subject you are profiling. They’re about angle and tone. They’re about what you uncover in your reporting and how you choose to convey that information.
Which is why budget lines are a crock.
Prior to reporting a profile, if you are able to tell your editor the precise length, direction and story-arc of that profile – I’m talking about providing an accurate budget line here – you are not writing an exceptional story. You are writing the thing that everybody else is writing, or at least the thing that everybody else would be writing if they were writing on the subject you’re writing about. If you are an editor and you ask your feature writer for an accurate budget line prior to reporting, and that feature writer gives you what she or he claims to be an accurate budget line, you should hope that the writer is lying to you. Otherwise, print that budget line out and stamp it in red with a picture of Dan Cud’s face. Great stories surprise and delight the editor just as they surprise and delight the reader.
Don’t go into a story with assumptions, go in with an open mind. Don’t write down what you think is supposed to happen. Write what happens, and write what you think it means.
When I mentioned all this to my editor, Linda Zettler, she suggested I just turn in place-holder budget lines that can be changed later. Linda is here today, and I would like to tell her, in your presence, that turning in place-holder budget lines is a terrible, terrible idea. Because people in the newsroom still read place-holder budget lines and they start making assumptions about the story that you haven’t reported yet. Even worse, they start making SUGGESTIONS about the story. Because neither the reporter nor the editor even knows what the real story is yet, these suggestions are at worst counter-productive and at best about as useful as when I scream at the television set during a football game and yell instructions to the quarterback.
Online and in your programs, it said that I was going to tell war stories and talk about The Tennessean’s multi-media initiatives. That’s because these Society For Features Journalism people had the gall to ask me for an accurate budget line before I wrote my speech.
If you are a writer in a newsroom where they insist on accurate budget lines before you’ve reported the story, you’re just gonna have to work a few weeks ahead without telling anybody. Finish writing the story, then write the budget line. Your editors will be amazed at your ability to accurately convey the length and direction of the story. If you have photographers and videographers that you trust not to give up your secret, you can hand them finished versions of the story so that they can readily understand the kind of images they should capture during the two weeks between when you finished your story and when it runs in the paper and online. Report, write, then admit that you’ve written.
Exceptional, delightful stories are not planned, they are reported and they are written. And exceptional, delightful stories – in print or online – draw readers and respect and advertisers and acclaim. Exceptional, delightful stories make people feel something. And people who feel something because of your words on a page or on a screen….. those people become customers, or they remain customers, or they attract customers.
To write exceptional, delightful feature stories, it’s best to avoid doing any interviews.
I mean, you’ve got to talk to people, for sure. But don’t do interviews. Those are for TV and radio. Sucker games. Sound bite mediums. People get nervous about being interviewed. They say things like, “We have no plans for a merger at this time,” or like, “I want to go out there and give 110%, for my teammates.”
WE, features people, don’t need interviews. We need conversations. We need to relate, to understand, and often to empathize. We need to establish trust and ease. That’s when you get the real story, because the real story is the real person. I would never show up for a conversation with questions written out. So I don’t. I approach someone already knowing enough information to have an interesting conversation about their life and their art. Have a real conversation, with eye contact, in a shared moment with your subject, and you’ll have an exclusive. A scoop. Something atypical, original. You can do interviews at awards shows and along red carpets. Otherwise, if I catch you holding a list of questions and doing an interview, you owe me a beer.
I wrote a story about an old lady named Willa Mae Buckner, who sang bawdy songs and stripped in carnivals. She was known as “The Snake Lady,” because she’d do all this while wearing a live, yellow python. Her best friend was Tattoo Joe, who had a hairless dog. Willa told me about a guy named Lobster Boy, who used to do the carnivals.
“He had hands just like a lobster, and he got married and his daughter had the hands of a lobster,” Willa told me, and then she said, “We have so much to be thankful for.”
You can do 1,000 interviews and one million budget lines and you won’t find one Lobster Boy.
Lobster Boy lives only in conversation.
The Country Music Hall of Famer Cowboy Jack Clement said “Reveal some of yourself in most of your songs.” I’ll say, “Reveal some of yourself in all of your feature stories.” Every single one. It’s the only way to remove yourself from competition, to ensure that you’re getting an exclusive. I used to worry about the competitive aspect of songwriting. “How can I write a better train song than Guy Clark’s ‘Texas 1947’?” “Having heard Kris Kristofferson’s songs, how do I dare even put pen to paper?” “Having heard George Jones sing, what right do I have to raise my voice?”
My friend Todd Snider went to Guy Clark’s house one time, and told Guy he wanted Guy to show him how he did what he did. Guy said, “Show yourself.” He didn’t mean it rudely. He meant, “Show yourself.” Reveal yourself. Be you. That way, you’re not in competition at all. Hemingway couldn’t write like you can. Neither could Faulkner. You have a monopoly on your own, inherently unique sensibility.
Now, that doesn’t mean make the story about you. The story is never, ever about you. It’s about your perspective on other people. So we must not only reveal ourselves, we must reveal something about the person or people we’re writing about. Imagine going on a first date and telling your date about your best friend from back home: What’s interesting, in your perspective, about your best friend? Maybe that’s the best place to begin your story.
Which reminds me….. the inverted pyramid story. Dumbest idea ever for a feature writer. Way dumber even than budget lines. Terrible. Don’t do it. When the analytics experts tell you that people online aren’t reading your story to the end, it’s probably because you wrote an inverted pyramid story. Most essential information at the beginning? Least essential at the end? Great idea. How about write beautiful sentences instead, one after the next? How about surprise and delight, the whole way through? Write the story that will make your editor miserable when she tries to find five inches to clip, that’ll make her feel like she’s destroying fine art, like she’s tearing the arms off of Venus de Milo. Wait, bad example.
In the 1970s, an author named Frye Gaillard wrote features on Nashville musicians. One of them, you’ve never heard of. His name was Vince Matthews. Here’s how Frye Gaillard began his Vince Matthews piece:
It was a rainy Nashville night, the dregs of winter, as Vince Matthews and his Budweiser stumbled down a back-alley stairway and ducked into the automobile of a friend. Vince was entering that happy stage of inebriation in which his tongue is unleashed on a variety of philosophical rampages, ranging from the evils of Richard Nixon to the trials and tribulations of writing country songs.
The latter subject is actually most interesting to him, for, like most people, Vince finds himself one of the world’s more fascinating topics of conversation. Unlike most people, he is probably right.
Frye Gaillard gave you what some people would consider zero pertinent facts there. But he gave you something far more valuable: A window not into what this man did, but into who this man was. Inverted pyramid be damned. Damn it all to hell. Stick it into Satan’s ground, put a golf ball on top of the wide part and tell Dan Cud to tee off.
Tom T. Hall said this about the need for a hit: “A hit will cure anything…. a broken arm, the clap, cancer or any other damned malady known to man or beast….. You give me a hit and I’ll ride that sum-bitch right into hell and back. You give me a hit, and I’ll kiss your ass on the Grand Ole Opry stage on Saturday night and get Minnie Pearl to hold your britches.”
As a writer, I try for a big hit – a giant, everybody-is-talking-about this kind of story – every couple of months. No more than that. Because they can’t all be big hits. They won’t all be big hits. If you want them all to be hits, none of them will ever be hits at all. You have to have what used to be known as “album cuts.” Try and bowl them over every single time and they’ll grow distrustful. You’ll be like the drunk guy who keeps loudly and earnestly telling his friends how much he loves them. “I love you, man!” You’ll be overwrought and over-sharing. And, anyway, it can’t be done. A big hit is a home run. Most of the time, you just want to get on base. That doesn’t mean you can be mediocre. No, you’ve got to get on base a lot. A sharp single to right field. Even a walk. The award-winning stories you produce often come from the non-award winning stories you’ve already written. Not from eight-inch stories, but from the regular old good ones. I’m talking here about sourcing, connections and beat knowledge.
Earlier this year, I got a big hit. Here’s how it began:
Maybe you’ve passed him on a downtown sidewalk. Maybe thrown a couple bucks his way.
Doug Seegers, 62, is a street singer. He’s been in town for 17 years. He’s been homeless and addicted. He’s been singing on Second Avenue, outside The Old Spaghetti Factory, and on Charlotte Avenue, outside the Goodwill store.
Gray hair. Guitar case open for thrown change. Sign that says, “Out of work. Anything helps.”
He sits on the ground when he plays. Talks in a voice still colored by his New York upbringing. Sings with a drawl colored by the Hank Williams records he heard as a child. His parents liked country music.
Maybe you’ve seen him.
Maybe you’ve heard him.
Anyway, he’s country music’s newest international superstar.
He’s in Sweden right now, breathing crisp air instead of Nashville’s summer sauna. He’s playing festivals, sharing stages with Neil Young and Dwight Yoakam and signing his name on the cover of his just-released debut album, an album that finds him duetting with Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris.
She called him about a month ago, Emmylou did. She said a few nice things about his singing. Country music’s newest international superstar choked out a few words of thanks, then he hung up the phone and wept.
Here’s how I got that hit, though: Over the past 14 years, I’ve written stories and cultivated relationships with musicians in Nashville. One of those musicians is a very talented but little-known guitarist and producer named Will Kimbrough. I’ve written probably five stories about him through the years, none better than a sharp single to right field. Album cuts. Columns about what it’s like to be a journeyman guitarist, or to jump in a van and drive 700 miles to play a show in some black box club or in someone’s living room. I may have written about it when got his first major songwriting successes: Jimmy Buffett cut a couple of his songs. We get together for coffee, Will and I, every few months just to talk about guitar strings and baseball and family. Will tours overseas some, and one day he got a call from a Swedish record company guy who said he wanted Will to produce an album for…..
a homeless guy….
who had been discovered by a Swedish television crew while they were filming in Nashville…
and who, when footage of him singing aired in Sweden, became an instant superstar in a place where he’d never been before.
The guy had never been on an airplane. Now he’s huge in Sweden. And it’s spreading….. First Scandinavia, then Europe, and this fall he’ll have an album out in America. Guy who was singing on the streets. Now he’s got a career, and a tour bus, and he sings with Emmylou Harris.
So, Will Kimbrough texted me that I might want to pop by the studio while they were recording. He thought it might make an interesting story.
I went to the studio, where this guy who sounded like Hank Williams was recording with an all-star crew of players, all of whom I knew, and their behavior towards me showed the singer, Doug Seegers, that he could trust me. He opened up, and I had my story. Took a day to write, but in a lot of ways I’d been reporting it for the past 14 years.
It’s like that every single time I get a big hit, cure the clap and have my ass kissed on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. Every single time. Sharp singles to right. Write what you know. Write less than you know. Jab, fake-jab, parry, right hook, block, jab, roundhouse. Celebrate. Rinse, repeat.
Oh, also, never tell an editor where you’re going or what you’re doing. Unless you’re humble-bragging, which is totally cool. But if I say I’m going out for coffee with Will Kimbrough, that begs the question, “What for?” And the only correct answer to that question is, “I don’t know, and I might not know for 14 years.” Just go have coffee, pay for it out of your own pocket because the people who check expenses ask too many questions, and bask in the knowledge that you might be setting yourself up for something grand on down the line.
If you’re an editor, just don’t ask personal questions like “Where are you going?” or “What are you doing?” Have faith that your writers aren’t goofing off or trying to do unnecessary things like running to the bank or picking up a sick child up from school. Have faith that they’re out drinking coffee.
A writer should spend at least 1/3 of the work week not writing or reporting but drinking coffee with Will Kimbrough. Or with Sheryl Crow’s keyboard player. Or with the local sheriff’s deputy. Whoever it is. Every community has galvanizers. If they don’t know you, like you, respect you and know how to reach you, you’ve got some work to do. And by work to do, I mean coffee to drink.
In the office, people call each other into meetings, a lot, and they give each other birthday cards and find things to have a cake about. And they steal away to the bathroom to cry quietly over the future of print media. And they try to look like they’re working while they’re playing on Facebook. Actually, that’s not the case anymore, because now the bosses want you to be on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Tinder all the freaking time. Maybe not Tinder. Anyway, in the office it looks like things are going on all the time, but in reality there are no great stories in the office. And we’re in the story-producing business. All of the stories are outside the office, singing songs or helping somebody out or agitating or having coffee with Will Kimbrough. You can’t write less than you know by staying in the office, unless you stick to eight-inch containers.
What CAN you write in the office? A pale and delayed replication of a flawed digital quasi-reality.
I repeat, from your office, in front of your computer screen, you can write a pale and delayed replication of a flawed digital quasi-reality.
I am NOT suggesting that we can do our job while ignoring Twitter and Facebook. I am NOT suggesting that we do not need to promote our work via these mediums, or that we do not need to engage our audience through social media, or that we should not use every tool available to us. I AM suggesting that we can do all that at the coffee shop when Will Kimbrough gets up to go to the bathroom.
In Nashville, you need to get to know the sound guys. The guys that get the music from people’s throats and guitars and into other people’s ears, by using monitors and speakers and electrical trickery. One of those guys died in 2003. Skip Litz. The unofficial mayor of East Nashville. He’d never been in an office in his life. I knew Skip, was not surprised by his death – he’d been working towards it for awhile – and when I got the lousy news, I headed down to his house, where all his music friends were gathered, drinking beer and telling Skip stories, like the one where he led the cops on a low-speed motorcycle chase: Four miles per hour through East Nashville on his Harley, wearing a broken moped helmet, seven patrol cars behind him with lights and sirens on as Skip led the procession past every bar in East Nashville, waving at everyone like he was heading up a parade. When Skip died, I wrote, “He was the guy who tried to get the Taco Bell people to break a $100 bill when he pulled up to the drive-through window to order five tacos off the 99 cent menu. When they wouldn’t do it, Skip was undaunted. He said, ‘Well, then give me $100 worth of tacos.’” At story’s end, I noted that in Skip’s living room was a letter from the city saying he was being fined for not cutting his grass. And I ended with, “Skip Litz didn’t have time to cut grass. Lawn-mowing, exercise, sobriety and solitude were just hindrances to the important things in life: the laughter of friends, a sweet pull from a bottle and the sweet pull of a song.”
Try to find that stuff in the office. Or just take my advice and don’t. Don’t look for stories in the office, and don’t ever tell an editor where you are or what you’re doing. Come and go like the award-winning, literary wind. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a questionable military policy. But in the newsroom, it works great.
Writing about someone famous does not make for an exceptional, delightful story. It will, however, lead to easy action on social media. Write something kind about Taylor Swift and she’ll probably reTweet it, and your metrics will look terrific for an hour or two, and then everyone will forget about it and you’ll be right back where you started, unless in addition to being kind it was exceptional and surprising and delightful. This is the danger in all of our digi-charting: Numbers are dispassionate. Triumphs are passionate. An exceptional, surprising, delightful story will probably bring the numbers you’re looking for. The numbers you’re looking for do not necessarily indicate the surprise and delight you’re looking for. And the surprise and delight are way, way more important than what dominates the interweb for a hot virtual minute. No matter what else you hear at this conference, I am telling you the truth and everybody else is lying. The numbers are important, but the other stuff is more important. A scorecard will tell you that Willie Mays’ astounding, over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series – one of the most replayed events in baseball history – was an F8. Flyout to center field. It was, but it was way more than that. It was an F8 like a 1957 Chevy was a car, like Scarlett Johanssen is attractive, like Johnny Cash was a country singer. 5,000 Facebook Likes and some Twitter action on a Taylor Swift story is nothing. 500 Facebook Likes and some Twitter action on a story about a gardener in Jacksonville, Florida or a barbecue joint in Tupelo or the mother of a Down Syndrome kid in Nashville….. now you’re talking. Those are real likes. Some of them are loves.
By the way, famous people are not boring. We just write them that way, too much of the time. Taylor Swift is not interesting because she is famous, because she has hit records or because – as we breathlessly report – she dates boys. She’s interesting because she was the first-ever teenaged country music star to write songs from a teenaged perspective. Other teen singers sang the words and melodies written by middle-aged men. Taylor sang about high school. “She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts/ She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.” As a middle-aged guy, that one’s not for me. Although, I do wear t-shirts. And when I go to a Cubs game, I often sit in the bleachers. But it’s her truth, written in her language. She did exactly what we’re all trying to do. She wrote an exclusive there. She had the scoop. And it resonated. With millions.
I love writing about Taylor Swift, by the way. I wrote about her when she was a teenager, when she told me she felt like the single most understood girl in the world, because she got to articulate her feelings precisely, then send them out into the world. I said, “Me, too! If the music thing ever stops working, you should apply for a feature writing gig.”
I wrote about her after she sang poorly at the Grammys, but what I was really writing about was the inevitable silliness that we call backlash. I wrote about her in 2012, when she told me, “I was the only girl I knew in my school who played guitar, and the only one I knew who was trying to write songs.” Then I went to a Nashville music shop where they teach lessons, where the owner told me they get tons of girls in there for guitar lessons, and that this was directly attributable to Taylor Swift. Now, if you’re a high school girl with a guitar and a songwriting pen, you’ve got peers. That’s so much more interesting than who Taylor Swift is dating or even what she’s selling.
So that Taylor Swift song, “You Belong With Me,” begins with Taylor Swift singing in the second person, omniscient to a high school boy. “You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset, She’s going off about something that you said/ She doesn’t get your humor like I do.”
See, humor is a big thing. Don’t pretend it’s not. And don’t pretend it can be properly conveyed in a budget line. I’ve never met a feature writer who wasn’t humorous. I’ve met comedians who aren’t humorous, but never a feature writer. Every obituary I write – I am talking about obituaries here – I want some humor. When we laugh, we open up. We accept. We engage. We delight. Mostly, we open up. And once we open up, we’re ready to accept and engage and be delighted. I’m not talking about jokes and puns. I’m talking about conveying things with a surprising perspective. Like Tom T. Hall does in a song called “Mama, Bake A Pie.”
“People staring at me as they wheel me down the ramp towards my plane/ The war is over for me, I’ve forgotten everything except the pain/ Thank you sir, and yes, sir, it was worth it for the old red, white and blue/ And since I won’t be walking I suppose I’ll save some money buying shoes.”
Mama, bake a pie
Daddy, kill a chicken
Your son’s coming home
11:35 Wednesday night
“Mama, will be crying,” he sings. “Daddy’ll say, ‘Son, did they treat you good?’/ My uncle will be drunk, he’ll say, boy, they do some real great things with wood.”
Then he sings, “The letter that she wrote me said ‘Goodbye, she couldn’t wait, and lots of luck/ The bottle underneath the blanket feels just like an old friend to my touch.”
By the end of the song, you’ve got unrequited love, family, nationalism, loss, sadness, irony and alcoholism.
And you’ve laughed.
That’s not a song, it’s a novel.
It’s also an exclusive.
Tweet it on out there. It’s a scoop.
Let me quickly tell you everything I learned in journalism school.
Didn’t go. Didn’t take a class. But I’m told that part of what you learn – and I’ve heard editors mention this – is that we must be objective.
As a music writer – and I would suggest that this is true of all feature writers – I am here to say that objectivity is a mortal enemy. Now, for sure, you need a good bullshit detector, and you shouldn’t rant and you shouldn’t cheerlead. 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. The only way I’ve found to do this is to feel something before I write my words, and to feel something while I’m writing.
What am I, going to be objective about George Jones? Ray Charles? Tom T. Hall? Objective about the way Emmylou Harris’ voice makes me feel? Objective about music, which is inherently subjective? Objective about people? How? And why?
When Johnny Cash died, it was a gut-punch. I knew him. Loved his music. Loved people in his family. Loved people who were his dear friends. What was I going to write?
The only way to find clarity was to reject objectivity. I had to allow myself to experience the moment, to feel something and then convey that feeling. This is not a process of assessment, it is nothing short of internal excavation.
Here’s what I felt: I felt Johnny Cash was indomitable, but he was not.
I felt Johnny Cash was indomitable, but he was not.
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.” I began The Tennessean’s obituary with the five words that kept running through my head: “Somehow, Johnny Cash is dead.”
When George Jones was dying, I got the call late one night, from his hospital room. I could hear crying in the background. “It’s going to be soon,” was the word I received. My heart leapt, then dropped, then flipped itself until it felt badly bruised. I stayed up all night, writing the facts of his life, maybe drinking some of the stuff he used to like to drink (I don’t do that anymore). He was known to some as “The King of Broken Hearts” because of his way with a sad country ballad. I wrote the body of the obituary that night, then got word in the morning that he was gone. I wrote the first thing I felt, at the very top of the story: “‘The King of Broken Hearts’ just broke many more.”
So, that’s what I’ve got for you today. I wish I’d had time to read lengthy segments from my most celebrated stories. You can read some of them online, but then you hit the pay wall.
For now, I’ll just let you ponder the great things you will do now that you’re armed with my advice on how to produce brilliant features and profiles using ancient hillbilly secrets imparted by the masters. To recap, here are these secrets:
The thing Ashley Fly says about his daddy is more important than your opinion of Guy Clark’s songs.
Be afraid to hand in a mediocre story. You never know who might be reading your stories.
Know what you write.
Write less than you know.
Damn eight-inch stories all to hell.
If written properly, every story is an exclusive scoop.
Do not request or supply accurate budget lines prior to reporting a story.
Delight and surprise.
Avoid interviews. That’s not where you’ll find the Lobster Boy.
Write about Taylor Swift, but don’t ignore the Snake Lady.
Show yourself. Reveal some of yourself in all of your stories.
Reveal something of your subject in all of your stories.
Damn inverted pyramid stories all to hell. Write in unbroken circles.
Drink coffee with Will Kimbrough.
Don’t ever, under any circumstance, tell an editor where you are or what you are doing.
Try for the occasional big hit, but embrace the single to right.
If they won’t give you change for a $100 bill, order $100 worth of tacos.
Damn objectivity all to hell. Empathy and clarity of expression top objectivity every time.
Thanks for your time, your attention, and your pending, thunderous ovation.