Love of bluegrass band shaped Peter Cooper’s music journey

There’s plenty of fodder for bluegrass fans in Peter Cooper’s entertaining and enlightening book, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride, which is subtitled Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music.

Cooper, senior director, producer and writer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum – and a talented songwriter, artist and producer to boot – sprinkles a number of compelling bluegrass tales into 243 pages of narrative, with Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, Mike Auldridge and others sharing space with some of the marquee names of country music, from Hank Williams to Taylor Swift. Jimmy Martin even gets his own chapter.

Cooper, a terrific straightforward writer, had me right from the start of his book, published by Nashville’s Spring House Press. He writes:

“My own beginnings as a chronicler of country songs and songsters are rooted in the spectacular acoustic music I heard as a teenager. On my fifteenth birthday, my dad and stepmother took me hear a band called the Seldom Scene…I loved them, immediately. I asked what kind of music they played and was told ‘bluegrass.’ I decided I must love bluegrass music, and was disheartened when I went to my first bluegrass festival and found out that not everyone was as great as the Seldom Scene.” And, so, a music critic was born.

One of my favorite bluegrass-related segments of the book tells how Flatt & Scruggs almost missed out on playing The Ballad of Jed Clampett, the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies TV show on CBS.

It was all because Louise Scruggs – Earl’s wife and “the first female manager and booking agent in Nashville music history, a no-nonsense certified tough cookie” – didn’t like the term hillbillies. As Cooper recounts, Louise objected because “people called my family that when I was growing up, and they did not mean it kindly.”

She was swayed eventually, allowing countless new ears to be exposed to bluegrass in general and the music of Lester and Earl specifically.

Anybody who’s been around bluegrass for more than a few years, knows that Louise, a bluegrass hall of famer, was a tough cookie. Cooper’s descriptions underscore just how tough she was, and one, especially, reminds us that bluegrass and country music weren’t universally accepted, even in Nashville. Louise Scruggs had such a hard time booking the band at Vanderbilt University that when it finally happened, in 1964, she noted with a certain smugness that a recording of the show was released under the title Flatt & Scruggs – Recorded Live at Vanderbilt University.

Cooper quotes Louise declaring victory: “We splashed ‘Recorded Live at Vanderbilt’ across the front of the record. I wanted the whole world to see that you can put country music in Vanderbilt University. It says so right here on the album cover.”

There are many other bluegrass moments, too, some of them better known and more widely chronicled than others. But I won’t spoil all of the fun by noting them here. The rest of the book is fun, too, making it well worth the $17.95 price for the paperback.

If there’s a better music book published so far in 2017, it hasn’t come to my attention.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.