Country music lost an ardent champion with the death of Chet Flippo, a pillar of '70s rock criticism and one of country's most respected journalists. He was 69. Flippo died June 19 at a local hospital after a lengthy illness, leaving a legacy of articles and books that brought the music new fans as well as new respect from cultural arbiters.
Flippo may be best known for his acclaimed 1980 Hank Williams biography Your Cheatin' Heart. But it was at Rolling Stone in the 1970s, at the height of its influence with rock audiences, that the senior editor and star writer used the cred he'd built with his uproarious, uncensored coverage of the Rolling Stones and other acts to convince the mag to cover country.
He exerted similar influence for five years as Billboard's Nashville bureau chief, where he was among the first to focus attention on the honky-tonk renaissance that revitalized Lower Broadway in the mid-1990s. For the past 12 years, he'd served as editorial director at CMT. The Scene asked two people who knew Flippo from different angles — his friend and colleague, music journalist Ron Wynn, and his frequent subject, singer, songwriter and bandleader Paul Burch — to share their memories.
I was in awe meeting Chet Flippo in Memphis for the first time almost 25 years ago. Having been a huge fan for a long time, I mumbled something about how much his writing meant to me. He instantly put me at ease by thanking me for a review I'd written about his superb Hank Williams bio Your Cheatin' Heart almost eight years before for a Connecticut newspaper.
It floored me that he remembered and liked it. Before the night ended we were talking about a host of subjects from baseball to mystery fiction. A friendship developed that was unlike any other I've enjoyed.
Chet made a point of keeping in touch whenever he came across something I'd done he enjoyed. We often discussed the connections between country and various types of black music, particularly blues and soul. Both of us lamented the fact there were so few black artists who ever got a shot at country success. We also were disappointed there wasn't more interaction between fans of blues, soul and country music.
When I moved to Nashville in 1995, we got a chance to see each other more. But with Chet, it didn't matter if you saw him once a month or once a year. He was always warm and supportive.
The calls and/or praise he gave me for my participation in film projects on Muddy Waters and Deford Bailey, in CD sets on blacks in country music and in the first volume of the Night Train to Nashville R&B compilation meant more than I can ever document.
He was a master at finding and describing the essence of great music. Chet thoroughly knew and loved country's tradition, but never stopped following current trends and artists. He didn't let sales or popularity affect his assessments, nor did he assume an act lacked talent or integrity just because it had multiple hits.
Chet Flippo constantly debunked the truism "nice guys finish last," even though he certainly had no problem standing up for what he felt was right. He proved every day it was possible to be great both in your profession and as a human being. — Ron Wynn
Chet Flippo was the first person in the music business to support me in Nashville, and his efforts — in fact his insistence that I be counted — was a monumental moment in my youth and for my work. He included me in his full-page front-page story on the Lower Broadway scene in 1995 for Billboard (and I later found out he extended his deadline to include me after hearing my debut album).
I remember putting my photo under his office door after hours, in complete disbelief that he had asked for it. Though my album was made for $1,000, for a French label, and had virtually no availability anywhere in the world, for Chet that was all the more reason it should be included in a story about roughneck kids who loudly talked trash about modern country music and were willing to back it up, regardless of the consequences.
In my youth, I held Music Row's label heads in contempt for what seemed to be their reckless disregard for the subtleties of their own culture and their history, and a barely concealed contempt for their audience and the musicians they employed. Perhaps, I thought then, even their own better selves. Whether Chet agreed with me or the other Lower Broadway performers didn't matter. Many people thought those thoughts privately, but in Greg Garing, BR549, and myself, Chet was finally hearing it, and audiences were responding to it. Chet made it news and made us, by his chronicle, musicians: contributors to the culture, and entertainers — high or low — to be regarded and considered.
Chet was also my editor at CMT for four years, and he managed to teach, entertain and supervise while still reviewing my work and the work of my peers with unflinching enthusiasm, thoughtful critique and keen insight. He was a friend, a chronicler of characters great and small (regardless of good or bad behavior), and never hesitated to give lazy artists a hard time, even while working under the nervous eye of a corporation that depended on those artists for filthy lucre. Everyone who worked with him felt a sense of accomplishment to get his advice. And we all will enjoy looking back on his decades of essays, books and liner notes that managed to only heighten the anticipation of hearing the music within as he heard it.
Chet made Americana a national name. He was the first to step forward and offer kindling that we could put our matches to. He codified it. As for his writing, Chet brought to Rolling Stone, Billboard, and CMT what Gay Talese brought to Esquire — a sense of involvement, connection and dedication to the moment, and the promise that his byline alone signified a belief in the humanity to be found therein.
And Waylon gave Chet his motorcycle — which Buddy Holly gave to him. Now ain't that a hoss? —Paul Burch