Venerated Journalist and Performer Peter Cooper Has Died

Who sings the song marking the passing of a soul when the person who has died is the one we turn to on such solemn and grave occasions? Who writes the obituary for the man who was responsible for marking the passing of so many greats in country music when he is now the one being eulogized? In these moments, words and songs often fail in the ponderance of a life that if had never graced the Earth, would have left this world an entirely different place.

The song “He Stopped Loving Her Today” sung by George Jones is what we often turn to in country music to mark the passing of a performer. And for many years, the words of Peter Cooper of The Tennessean were the ones we sought out to help encapsulate a life whenever one of our favorite performers passed on. This is the very reasons it is Peter Cooper’s words that reside forever on the tombstone of George Jones, and why they will echo well beyond our own time.

Artist, journalist, performer, singer, songwriter, and historian Peter Cooper didn’t spend most of his life and career in a bright spotlight. His words came through faceless communiques from Nashville about critically important topics in country music, or in the liner notes of albums, the words of books, or the placards of displays. His music was uninterested in commercial application, and came to life in listening rooms and clubs, and through independent releases. His work chronicling the history of country music came in lecture halls and from the bowels of the Country Music Hall of Fame. But their impact was incredibly outsized.

It came to light on December 3rd that Peter Cooper had suffered a fall and a significant head injury—the nature of which we still do not have the full details of. Now it has been revealed that he succumbed to his injuries on December 6th. Making the passing of Peter Cooper that much more devastating is that it’s not at the expiration of a long life. It was a life fulfilled nonetheless, but he leaves us in the middle of moments when it feels like Peter Cooper is the person who’s best suited to fulfill purposes left undone.

It’s hard to know where to start enumerating the contributions of Peter Cooper to country music since they’re so vast. To some he’s known as a singer and songwriter who has released multiple albums, including ones in collaboration with Eric Brace, and another from 2010 called The Lloyd Green Album with legendary steel guitar player Lloyd Green. Cooper was nominated for a Grammy award for co-producing I Love: Tom T. Hall’s Songs of Fox Hollow, and played bass guitar for Todd Snider on The Tonight Show and The Late Show among other gigs.

But of course many know Peter Cooper from his bylines in country music’s newspaper of record, The Tennessean. He came up in the business as a music journalist. Originally from South Carolina, Cooper attended high school in Washington DC. When he was 15, Peter heard the music of the DC-based progressive bluegrass band The Seldom Scene and fell in love. He wrote his first music review as a senior at Wofford College after attending a Guy Clark show.

Peter Cooper moved to Nashville in 2000 and began writing for The Tennessean, composing columns and news stories that went on to help break artists, define history, and make some history of his own, including being called out by Toby Keith over a misconstrued Kris Kristofferson quote, and defending Taylor Swift in 2010 after her notorious off-key Grammy Awards performance.

Peter Cooper also wrote books, including 1997’s Hub City Music Makers: One Southern Town’s Popular Music History about Spartanburg’s musical legacy. He wrote 2016’s Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music. He also wrote Bill Anderson’s biography Whisperin’ Bill: An Unprecedented Life in Country Music also released in 2016.

As a historian and teacher, Peter Cooper worked as a senior lecturer at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and taught a country music history class. Then in 2014, he was hired by the Country Music Hall of Fame as a senior director, producer and writer. Many of the descriptions you read beside artifacts at the Hall of Fame were written by Cooper. This took Cooper even further out of the spotlight, but his work may have reached its most critical importance. Out of the public eye, Cooper helped keep the storied history of the music we all love alive.

Now it’s left to the rest of us to pick up where Peter Cooper left off: bringing passion to the work of preserving the history of country music as it unfolds in real time, doing it with honesty, objectivity, and with a servant’s heart, and hoping just like his words did, those words and works remain vital well after they were written.

Peter Cooper was 52.

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A celebration of Peter Cooper’s life is being planned for early 2023. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to either the Baker Cooper fund to support Peter’s son’s education, or the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, supporting their cultural organization’s educational mission. 

© 2023 Saving Country Music