Everything read like business as usual in veteran music journalist
Chet Flippo’s most recent Nashville Skyline column, the feature he’s been
writing weekly for a dozen years for CMT.com, where he was editorial director
for the website and the cable channel.
This one, dated June 6, focused on the latest Country Music Assn. Festival in
Nashville, an event where country music stars spend time entertaining fans, signing autographs
and generally making themselves accessible to the public.
“Most of us veterans here still refer to it as Fan Fair,” Flippo wrote, “and fondly
remember the old days when it was held at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds with
the shows at the racetrack, the autograph sessions in the un-air-conditioned livestock barns
and the Chuck Wagon Gang from Texas serving up big plates of barbecue and pouring
ice tea from 55-gallon barrels. The price for those barbecue lunches was included in admission
ticket prices, which was a good idea.”
He brought that kind of insider’s knowledge and from-the-trenches experience to whatever he wrote
about, qualities that made him a valued voice in Nashville, where he settled after
being an important contributor to the pages of Rolling Stone during the 1970s.
That’s why it was such shock to open the e-mail this morning from CMT.com and read that
Flippo had died peacefully today, June 19, at age 69, of complications following a brief
illness, according to a spokeswoman for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.
The strength of Flippo's opinions, and the words he always chose so carefully to express
them, made it seem as if he’d be around forever.
I’d long respected Flippo’s writing, and on occasion interviewed him for an independent
view when writing about issues pertaining to Nashville and the country music community at
large. We’d exchange e-mails periodically and ran into each other now and then at major
country events such as the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, or when
Garth Brooks decided to end his self-imposed retirement to play at Steve Wynn’s Encore
Theatre in Sin City.
Flippo loved country and rock -- he was particularly proud of having been part of the
large circle of music enthusiasts who gathered in Nashville when rock and country c
ollided in 1972 for the recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s watershed triple LP, “Will
the Circle Be Unbroken.”
His 1978 Rolling Stone cover story on the Rolling Stones, "Shattered," is a rock journalism
classic in pulling back the curtain to reveal what was really going on behind the scenes
with the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band.
He left Rolling Stone in 1980, after serving for years as its New York bureau chief, to
write a book on Hank Williams, “Your Cheatin’ Heart”; he also wrote books on David Bowie,
Paul McCartney and Graceland. He was a lecturer in journalism at the University of Tennessee
in Knoxville from 1991 to 1994, then was Billboard’s Nashville bureau chief from 1995 to 2000.
He joined CMT in 2001.
During his most recent stint at CMT, he was never shy with tongue lashings when record labels,
as they often do, exhibited a pack mentality and tried to Xerox imitators of important new
arrivals in country, from Randy Travis to Garth Brooks to Taylor Swift.
Last month, he wrote about the legacy of the 1970s outlaw movement, when mavericks such as
Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson showed that there was another way to
record and perform than the rigid model Nashville had created.
“It's been almost 40 years since the heyday of the Outlaw movement in country music and now
the sure signs of Outlaw nostalgia are sprouting all around us,” Flippo wrote. “We have a
whole new young generation of country singers who try to talk and look Outlaw, as if it
were a costume you could buy at the Halloween store.”
Flippo never had much patience for latter-day musicians who branded themselves outlaws,
something Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson never needed to do. They just played their music,
their way and let others sort out the labels.
He didn't pull punches, even with the genre's most esteemed artists. After a drubbing he gave
Jennings' "Ladies Love Outlaws" album, Jennings asked to meet with him. Apprehensive, Flippo
arrived at the appointed time. “He put me at ease," Flippo wrote later, "shook my hand, got
me a beer, and said, ‘Hoss, you were right about that album. The things you said were right
on target and I appreciate that. We need that.' ”
And he was no professional sourpuss. His enthusiasm toward exciting new developments was
as contagious as his curmudgeonly streak toward the more disheartening trends.
On the recent opening of the new Music City Center, Flippo wrote, “It’s breathtaking in
its immensity and breadth and most of all in its promise. [It] may as well be called
Starship Nashville or even Starship Music City for its grandeur and unlimited potential.”
Three years ago, after I’d written about “Ain’t No Grave,” the sixth installment in the
remarkable Johnny Cash-Rick Rubin collaboration, he sent me a simple note. “Dug your piece
on the Cash album.” That meant a lot.
After I heard yet another new country single in which the singer boasted, in effect,
“I’m more country than you,” I shot Flippo a note begging him to “Please, PLEASE make
this stop!” as it was one of his pet peeves as well.
I’m not much on the idea of a great honky-tonk in the sky, where the spirits of
departed music greats gather, strap on ghostly Telecasters rather than harps and
joyfully belt the night away in one giant all-star bash.
If there were such a thing, though, I’d sure as hell want to read what Chet had to say about it.
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