Peter Cooper

The more banjos are in the world, the better….

Interview with Peter Cooper – journalist and musician

© Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

Peter Cooper has been a long time columnist for “The Tennessean,” writing about country music. He is also a Grammy nominated musician and songwriter. In November 2014, he left the newspaper and went to work for the Country Music Hall of Fame. I met Peter in 2013 at my hotel in Nashville and here is what we talked about:

Tell me about your role in the music industry?

I write for the biggest daily newspaper here in Nashville “The Tennessean.” I review music and special events, like the CMA awards last night. I interview artists and also teach country music history at Vanderbilt University. I play music and tour about hundred days a year.

How do you teach the history of country music? Do you start from the beginnings, the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers?

No, I start from the 80s and move up. Then I go back to the roots. Students have to learn first about something that they are already familiar with and then extend this knowledge.

Is Nashville the center of country music?

Nashville is becoming the biggest center of non classical music in the world, even ahead of New York. Apart from country music we have the greatest rock bands. We have swing and Americana, jazz and pop.

What do you play?

I play guitar and I sing. The music falls into the Americana category.

Are you a songwriter as well?

Yes, in fact, talking to people like Tom T. Hall, John Hartford, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson has helped me as a writer, understanding the craft.

Who has covered some of your songs?

Bobby Bear, Todd Snyder, Irene Kelly.

Why do you like country music, what is so exciting about it?

I like many things. The instruments in country music make a pleasing sound. I like the language, the interesting storytelling form. I love a lot of the singers and the singing.

Do you have a favorite line from a song?

Yes. There is a Guy Clark song called “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. It begins: I would play “The Red River Valley” and he’d sit in the kitchen and cry.” It’s about a young man’s relationship with an old man. When I hear this first line I am immediately transported to the scene. I want to know more.

How about the line “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”? (Kris Kristofferson, Me & Bobbie McGee)

Oh yes, that’s great line. Kris Kristofferson has been really helpful to me. He is a kind person.

Do you like bluegrass music? Why is it so exciting?

I love it. The technical level is so high. You have to be a superb instrumentalist to play bluegrass properly. You are operating at a very high level musically and rhythmically. There is energy in the sound created by a bluegrass band, I love the harmonies.

What is the difference between bluegrass and country music?

I was just talking to my class today. It’s better to play them something, to show them the difference in sound. There are many exceptions. In modern country music the banjo is used more often than the pedal steel guitar. And the fiddle has almost disappeared.

How did you hear bluegrass music?

I was in high school. I got into a very progressive band, The Seldom Scene. I would go see them every week. The traditionalists would sneer at them because they played Bob Dylan songs. They were out of the box. They didn’t sound like Bill Monroe in 1945. To me, it was an entry point to so much new great music. I discovered Gram Parsons and Nanci Griffith.

What do you think about bands such as Mumford & Sons? Are they good for bluegrass?

Yes, it is an entry point. The more banjos are in the world, the better. I support real people playing real music.

Where is bluegrass music going to go in the future?

I think it will probably always be niche music. There is always a blow up and people think “oh, it’s going to become big’. But then it dies pretty quickly.

Thanks Peter, very nice talking to you.

Lilly Drumeva