Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures In Country Music
by Peter Cooper
(Spring House Press)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
In Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures In Country Music, Peter Cooper’s new and eminently readable romp through the mythic history of Nashville-centric country music, he expounds on the delicate dynamics of writing about music.
“I am here to say,” he writes, “that objectivity is the mortal enemy … 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 feel something before I write my words, and to feel something while I’m writing.”
That understanding, that a healthy embrace of subjectivity is necessary to do this job well, is at the heart of this book. It’s the awareness that without a subjective response to music, without allowing one’s self to “feel something” about the subject, a writer can’t effectively translate into words the true nature of any musical statement. The challenge of writing about art is not to report on objective truths as much as to translate one’s own subjective passion into words. It’s a job which is harder to do well than most people presume, because those who do it well, like Cooper, make it look easy.
Cooper, a songwriter-producer-musician and senior director of the Country Music Hall of Fame, brings home this truth soundly when he lists his ten favorite country albums, including ones by Emmylou Harris, Tom T. Hall, John Hartford, John Prine and others that were never Grammy-winners or commercial hits.
To which he adds this moral: “So don’t get mad about music, or treat music like it’s a football game where you cheer for the uniforms and live by the scoreboard.”
It’s a statement which gets directly at the heart of this matter, that unlike sports or other human endeavors which are easily measured with objective statistics, judgments about music are necessarily divorced from factual indicators.
Wisely deducing that an academic approach to the history of country music and its colorful characters would be way wrong, he brings us instead a series of warm, funny and human stories about these exceptionally gifted and often quite eccentric songwriters, singers and musicians. Cooper’s love for the music and for the musicians themselves is infectious, as is his gentle humor throughout.
Many of the stories resound like great old yarns you’d hear after a few beers in a Nashville bar. He manages to strike the perfect balance between folksy storytelling and deep musical knowledge. That the man is a musician himself informs each story, as he understands intimately the fundaments and technicalities of the job itself, which he fuses with genuine reverence for true greatness. His writing evokes that of the late great film critic Roger Ebert, who knew everything there was to know about movies, yet never lost touch of the pure passion and love for film he’d had since he was a kid. Cooper’s the same way.
A perfect example is his chapter about Lloyd Green, the king of pedal-steel guitar. Not only do we get a poignant portrait of the man, but also an explanation even civilians could understand about why exactly the pedal-streel is an instrument unlike any other. At the same time he conveys the meaning of the music and nature of the instrument, he also shines a light into the real life of an in-demand Nashville musician. Cooper’s good with decisive moments, those career moves which ultimately reflect the whole of a musician’s career. Green’s came when Paul McCartney, who had recorded in Nashville and heard what Green could do, invited him to come on the road. Paul said they could have a section in each show devoted to country music, featuring him.
Green said no. What he was making in recording dates exceeded what he would make on the road with the Beatle. He did admit, later, to regretting this, as it would have exposed his music and country music in general to the world in a bigger way. But at the time he was a busy man.
It’s but one of these stories, each of which is a window into the real Nashville. It’s both objective and subjective. Cooper knows better than anyone who officially matters in this town and its history. He also knows who is the greatest, and deftly balances both. The most poignant parts are about those musicians, like David Olney, who might be secret heroes to many. He relates a story of Olney giving a show to a small club of mostly empty chairs. Only a few people showed up that night, including Cooper. And Olney delivered an astounding performance. He held nothing back.
We then see the odd aftermath, as those few in attendance apologize to the performer for the lack of attendance. Olney, however, was secure in his love of performance, and would answer, “Word of my fame might not have spread to this part of the country.”
Earlier he related a story about Olney that speaks volumes about this songwriter, as well as so many. Cooper was griping about the awful music that was in vogue on the radio. Olney answered that he was upset too, but not because of radio. “I have been re-reading Shakespeare all summer,” he said. “And I realized – I suck.” Olney wasn’t worried about what was on the radio. He was comparing himself to Shakespeare. It shows the level of devotion and diligence that songwriters – the true ones – bring to this thing. It isn’t about measuring yourself against something that is hot right at this moment. It’s about measuring yourself against the greatest literature known to this language. This is work for the ages.
[I have only one minor quarrel with this book. It’s the contention that Earl Scruggs is the only man in history to “change the world with a banjo.” Certainly Pete Seeger also deserves inclusion in that club, in terms of impact. Pete would be the first to admit he didn’t match Scruggs’s musicianship in any way. Nobody played that instrument like Earl. But Pete certainly changed the world with his songs, most of which were both written and performed on banjo.]
But that is tiny. What matters most is the writing, and the passion expressed. This writing is inspired and concise, yet never dry or academic, making this a thoroughly vivid and joyful ride through the history of this genre. Like a songwriter who says big things with a small amount of simple words – especially a country songwriter – Cooper echoes that spirit of purity in each chapter, such as this summation of Johnny Cash in the aftermath of his death:
“Cash was elemental, is what I’m trying to say. He was more granite and fire than flesh or blood.”
Cooper also has a songwriter’s love for the perfect quote that encompasses everything with few words. These are woven lovingly like golden threads through the book, such as Kris Kristofferson’s mantra, “God looks after fools and songwriters.” That union of wisdom and whimsy is maintained throughout the book, which will cause you never to see Nashville in the same way again. It’s one of the funniest serious books I’ve read in a long time, both deeply informed and warmly spun. Cooper’s an obvious expert on the unique history of this music and this town, but what comes across most strongly is his genuine love for the music. It’s that passion which makes this a delightful and poignant read.