Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Appreciation of 'Two Things'

By Peter Rodman

If you're a fan of great music writing here in Nashville, you'll no doubt be bummed to learn of Peter Cooper's impending departure from The Tennessean.  He routinely captured the characters who gave 'first breath' to the music part of Music City, and his craft as a columnist was unparalleled...as was the wit with which he did it. < (I invite you to try that tongue twister, before we move on.)

Ahem!  Where was I...?  Oh:
On the the plus side, Cooper is leaving the paper to go to work for the Country Music Hall of Fame--where nearly all of
Yep, that's Peter Cooper, alright...
But is he performing in this picture?
Or is he doing that other thing he does?
Nashville's greatest music writers (Michael McCall, Jay Orr and more) seem to end up, to finally find job security and a viable paycheck--as well as to continue a most 'joyous autopsy' that never ends, on the music that built this town. 

Job security can be particularly important, if one has chosen to 'moonlight' by traveling the world in your spare time playing smallish gigs, simply for the love and romance of becoming a 'troubadour.'  (Okay...artiste!)

A Brief Personal Digression:  
I can clearly recall my own such trajectory. I moved here full-time in the early '90s, after being highly encouraged to do so by Neil Fagan and Amy Kurland at the Bluebird Cafe. "No one thinks you're serious about songwriting here, unless your area code is 615." 
I'd begun playing at the 'Bird in early 1990, and by 1992 I was more or less a regular 'opening act.' But I was flat broke, having shuttled back and forth from the West Coast to cut demos, do (free) gigs,  rent cars, and pay players...so I moved here. 

Not long after that (during the summer of 1993) I got a call from my old 'station manager' at KBCO in Boulder, Ray Skibitsky.  He said, "I want you to do me a favor.  I have this friend there (in Nashville) who owns a radio station, and I want you to meet him. I told him all about you."
"Ray, I'm doing the songwriting thing now. "
"Just do this for me," he said. 

Within six months, I ended up reviving Sunday Night with Peter Rodman (a long-running music/interview show I'd had in Colorado) on Nashville's Radio Lightning 100.  
My point (and I do have one) is that, as the new show gained a larger audience, people seemed more and more...well...perplexed, to see me still out singing my original songs--even infrequently. I was in great singing and playing shape, but what became clear--even among prominent musicians at the time--was that you weren't going to be taken seriously as one thing in the music business, if you were also trying to become recognized for doing another thing. 
Everyone I spoke to--from label heads to famous players--nodded in agreement, when I would explain why a choice had to be made.  At that time (just about 20 years ago now), Nashville demanded such choices...so I made mine.  The singer-songwriter thing had to go (or at least be put in mothballs for awhile) as the radio program had taken off. It was, for its time, the best decision I could make. 
[End of Personal Digression]

He may not remember this, but early on in his Tennessean tenure, I gave him a nickname:  
Peter 'Two Things' Cooper. 
I did so not derisively, but admiringly--because Peter Cooper had succeeded in doing what Peter Rodman (that'd be me) had failed to do: Two Things, at once.
1.) Become a key part of our local music media...and 
2.) continue building his career as a singer-songwriter. 

This was no small feat, in a town that had previously demanded (see above digression) that we all choose just ONE thing in music to be good at, and leave the other behind.  
For whatever reasons, I found it was better for the radio program if I just didn't confuse people about the reporter also being an songwriter.  
'Two things' were one too many for this town, back in the early '90s. But guess who changed all that. 
'Two Things' Cooper, that's who. 
He got it all done, and did it in style. He's far more respected now as both a songwriter and a newspaper writer, than he was when he started out.  
Even I remember having misgivings:  Which side of the microphone do you want to be on?
Peter Cooper wasn't having any of that nonsense. 

In recent years he's almost single-handedly rewritten the book on how Nashville's music business now views multi-tasking. 
Now, you see musicians interviewing each other, everywhere you go.  
Back then, you were either the reporter or the musician. 
Turns out you can walk and chew gum at the same time!
But like Einstein's Theory of Relativity (or asking directions at Mapco) the answers proved elusive...until that one guy showed us all how it could be done.
Speaking of multi-tasking, Mr. Cooper managed to find a bride along the way, and they now have a young son. 
So who knows?  Maybe a father's thoughts about job security (and 401k's and college funds and such) began to tilt the scale toward pragmatism, which 'writing for a living' barely (read: rarely) indicates. One hopes the boy will follow in his Daddy's footsteps, especially when it comes to accomplishing two big feats at once.  (I truly apologize. Turn the fans on, that was awful.)

Anyway, I'm normally pretty stingy with my compliments.
But Peter Cooper would have no way of knowing that, as his columns often drew effusive (and sometimes gushy) personal notes of praise, from my normally pursed lips. 
I'll miss his vivid portraits of the Cowboy Jacks and the John Prines, fleshed out with a painter's touch--like that one brilliant street painter you saw in Monmartre or Manhattan that time, who began with a blank page and splashed colors every which way until, like an orchestra conductor, he drew OUT of the page an image that always seemed to be there, but no one else could find.  Suddenly, we were all inside Cowboy Jack's attic, listening to him reminisce about Johnny Cash, or Patsy Cline. 
Peter Cooper interviews John Prine
Country Music Hall of Fame
Photograph Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.

In bright and muted colors, with large and tiny images, and always ending with a flourish, Peter could leave you sitting there at the end of a newspaper column--just like a symphony's last chord might--in front of it all, just...there.  Not turning the page, just staring at it--pondering not only the art of the artist you just read about, but the art of the writer who wrote about the artist you just read about.  That's how good Peter Cooper was, and is--and The Tennessean's not gonna 'replace' that, no-how. 

The Country Music Hall of Fame
Nashville, Tennessee
Photograph Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.

Meanwhile, the Country Music Hall of Fame has gained one more soulful cat among many, who'll no doubt conjure his stories in a new way, drawing exactly the same stares-in-awe some of his best columns or songs have.
You can be sure the Museum will now dig deeper, as Peter applies his boyish fascination to everything from sports to sound.  (Given his penchant for baseball, it wouldn't surprise me to see a gargantuan 'tour ball cap' exhibit, or a detailed history of how Nashville both led and followed the world, vis a vis sound reproduction, right down to the tiniest phonograph needle, and what it meant to its owner back in the day.) 
A great columnist has to be a great storyteller, and that he is.
Like baseball's Tim McCarver, Mr. Cooper admires the real storytellers, and humbly regards himself as merely the "re-teller" of their stories.  More importantly--again, like McCarver--he has made it his mission to offer the biggest possible platform to them, simply to let the stories speak for themselves.
In that context, Peter Cooper is landing exactly where he should be.
You can look far and wide, and you will never find another "Hall of Fame" even close to the Country Music Hall of Fame. (Don't even get me started about the miserable, boring, don't- bother-going 'Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.')
At the CMHOF, I am sure Peter will unearth many more treasures--stories even grizzled country veterans have never heard in quite the same way, and he will show them all to us--each as a precious thing, yes...but to be enjoyed (often with a belly laugh) more than just revered. 

I'm usually pretty good at ending columns (I did it three times a week for over a decade, back in Colorado), but Peter Cooper is a master at the 'final flourish' before that ~30~. 
So I'm not even gonna attempt to pull one off here.  
I'm that grateful to him for all the stories, and the dignity he's brought to music writing here in town.  
We all look better, when one of us elevates the craft.  You might say Peter Cooper raised the bar...even as he was playing there.
I wish him good luck with the museum thing, and already The Tennessean is making motions toward collaborating with him on future stories.  So it appears his byline won't be disappearing altogether. 
If I know one thing, it's that you can't keep a good writer down.  

But I gotta give him credit.
Peter Cooper knows two things.  

This Opinion Column Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved.
All Images and Photographs Copyright 2014 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved.


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