The full, rich life of Chet Flippo, who passed away at the age of seventy in late June, was celebrated October 14 at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where he had spent his last years as editorial director of CMT.com and writing the Nashville Skyline column.
Chet was something of a mentor and role model. He was eight years older, having grown up on the eastside of Fort Worth. He showed up on my radar as the Texas correspondent for Rolling Stone magazine, the music-oriented publication based in San Francisco that fostered a new kind of cultural journalism and launched the careers of many writers including Ed Ward, John Morthland, John Swenson, Cameron Crowe, Joe Klein, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Hunter S. Thompson, and Joe Ezterhas.
His first byline in Rolling Stone was a story on a Fort Worth band called Bloodrock, semi-famous for their teen car crash saga, “DOA.” Chet also took the photos accompanying the article.
Chet was a key figure in putting Austin and its music scene on the map. If producer Jerry Wexler hadn’t enlisted Chet to find Doug Sahm, Willie Nelson might not have happened. Chet was living in Austin with new wife, Martha Hume, attending graduate school at the University of Texas (his dissertation at UT was about the rise of rock journalism) while filing stories for Rolling Stone about people and sounds that the good people in San Francisco weren’t aware of. His byline was attached to the first national story about the Armadillo World Headquarters, his first feature on Doug Sahm returning to San Antonio from San Francisco made the cover. Without Chet there would have been no coverage of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Fourth of July Picnics, where rock and country sensibilities converged.
I was running the record department at the Electric Fetus in Minneapolis in the snowy spring of 1973 when I read a story Chet had written about Doug Sahm at the Soap Creek Saloon that made me so homesick, my girlfriend and I moved back to Texas that summer. Only we didn’t go to Fort Worth; we went to Austin. The first night we went out, we went to hear Sir Doug at Soap Creek. The whole scene at the old roadhouse out in the cedar brakes west of Austin was everything Chet had written about: a cool hippie scene with a distinct cosmic cowboy flavor with the one musician who could play every indigenous musical style found in Texas holding forth on stage.
Within a year or so, Chet left Austin to open up the New York bureau of Rolling Stone. The magazine’s entire operations would eventually follow him there. We’d only met a few times, but I guess he’d seen my writing because when there was a shooting incident at a nightclub where a stray bullet almost nicked Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who was in a video truck outside the club, Chet suggested to an editor that they contact me. I got my first Rolling Stone byline thanks to Chet, and thanks to Tim O’Connor, the shooter, who was working with Willie Nelson and later became Austin’s biggest concert promoter . (Tim later told me he had to leave the state for a year because he’d had a prior arrest).
I continued to file stories as a stringer for Rolling Stone, which prompted me to drop out of college, in spite of Rolling Stone’s meager pay. That led to lots of freelance, a pop music column in Texas Monthly, and ultimately a writer’s life. Martha Hume, Chet’s wife, assigned me several stories for Country Music magazine, where she worked, including a piece on Jimmie Rodgers’ home in Kerrville, where the Blue Yodeler and the first country music star spent his last years. I even got to share a byline with Chet on a story about a benefit-gone-wrong for imprisoned boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter featuring Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Review. (Through that story and some unusual circumstances, I sold Bob Dylan two used record albums while minding the counter of a friend’s record shop).
I quit writing for a few years to manage a band called Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, which included my then-girlfriend and now wife, Kris Cummings. The band’s first gigs at the Lone Star Café in New York were informed by Chet’s presence and by Martha Hume’s guidance how to work the New York media.
The passing of Martha last winter and my missing a remembrance of Martha hosted by Chet in June prompted a trip to Nashville for Chet’s remembrance.
It was a fine time.
Before the proceedings, I had a chance to visit with Chet’s niece and with his younger brother Ernie, while Mickey Raphael, who was representing Willie Nelson and Family, pointed out all the folks who had showed up.
The memorial opened with a series of photographs laying out the life of the son of a fundamentalist preacher father and a tough, rifle-toting mother. Chet was an aspiring photographer and writer as a young boy who knew how to focus, how to operate a mimeograph machine, and how to publish an underground newspaper before he was thirteen. Until the image popped up on the screen, I did not know he, like me, was a high school cheerleader – high schools in Texas cities had boy and girl cheerleaders both. Photographs of Chet with Willie and President Jimmy Carter, with Dolly Parton, with his beloved Martha, and with a parade of other notables rolled out, one after another.
Then, the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “At the Crossroads” played on the sound system. Most of the gathering did not know the song, its composer, Douglas Wayne Sahm, or its significance. But they couldn’t missed the chorus: “You can teach me a lot of lessons, you can bring me a lot of gold, but you just can’t live in Texas, if you don’t have a lot of soul.”
The voice of Johnny Cash sang “I Shall Not Be Moved” before Cash’s daughter Rosanne Cash stepped to the podium. Noting that since the Armadillo World Headquarters no longer exists and that the Lone Star Café in New York is just a memory, she said there wasn’t a more appropriate place to celebrate Chet’s life than Nashville, in the building where the kind of country music greats that Chet respected most were honored upstairs in the Hall of Fame.
She was followed by Bill Carter, who ran security for the Rolling Stones in the mid seventies when Chet was covering them extensively for Rolling Stone. Carter opened by relating how the Stones feared Flippo and his investigative talent for unearthing details that lesser journalists never got. Carter went on to relate how Chet and him became and remained good friends over the years despite their initial adversarial relationship. No wonder. Mickey Raphael whispered that Carter was working for the Secret Service when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Chet had been a cryptographer in the Navy with top-secret clearance. No wonder these one-time adversaries were friends for life. They were both former spooks.
“Chet set an high standard for journalism,” Carter said. “He led a big, bold life.” He also captured the craziness of the Rolling Stones on the road at their peak, Carter related, epitomized by the run-in the band experienced with San Antonio authorities, egged on by media czar Rupert Murdoch, who first planted his flag in the United States buying the San Antonio News, which was making a big deal about the inflatable twenty foot phallus that Jagger used as a stage prop. That prompted a line by Flippo about “no big dicks allowed in San Antonio.”
Flippo’s relentless pursuit of the story while covering the Stones tormented Mick Jagger, who complained, “He’s everywhere” to Carter. “In every city, he knew exactly where we were and what we were doing.”
Carter introduced the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose John McEuen told the story of how Chet wrote about their Will The Circle Unbroken project in which a band of hippies, as McEuen described the Dirt Band, collaborated with a bunch of country music old-timers including Mother Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson to make an album. Turns out, Chet even joined the chorus of recording. The three players, joined by songwriter Matraca Berg, then launched into a spirited rendition of “Keep On The Sunny Side.”
Peter Cooper, the music journalist for the Nashville Tennessean, read excerpts from the “Fishing With Bobby Bare” chapter of Chet’s book Everybody Was Kung Fu Dancing, which went a long way explaining Bare as the kind of country music iconoclast that appealed to Chet. Cooper was followed by Bobby Bare himself, who said,” I did take Chet fishing. We went bass fishing and wound up catching a lot of crappie.” Bare recalled his first meeting with Chet in New York and how he didn’t fit the Rolling Stone writer stereotype he expected, and of subsequent visits in New York and later in Nashville. He also credited Chet for making him a rich man. The photograph of Bare that accompanied the first article Chet had written about Bare showed the singer-songwriter putting a plug of Red Man chewing tobacco in his mouth, which got him a million-dollar endorsement from Red Man
Rosanne Cash returned to the stage, recalling that Bobby Bare sang harmony on her very first record, before singing “The World Unseen,” a song she wrote after her father, Johnny Cash, had passed, supported by John McEuen on mandolin.
CMT ran a brief video tribute reel that was better suited for television viewing, followed by music executive Paula Batson who spoke of her long friendship with Chet and Martha and of her understanding that no matter how tight they were, when Chet was on the job interviewing one of her clients, he was relentless in pursuit of his story. Paula spoke of the early eighties “when Texans owned New York,” specifically citing Chet, Rolling Stone publisher Joe Armstrong, and Texas Monthly/Newsweek writer Richard West, another mentor of mine, and of Chet and Martha as a couple (“You knew they were sweet enough for each other”), and their deep knowledge and understanding of high culture and low culture.
A video of Jann Wenner, the cofounder of Rolling Stone, affirmed Chet’s role in making country music and country musicians hip. Without him, the magazine would have never covered Willie, Waylon, or Dolly Parton, much less Gary Stewart, George Jones, and Charlie Daniels. But he was hardly just country. “He was the best music writer we had,” Wenner said. Period.
Dierks Bentley sang “50 Miles” (of elbow room) with the Dirts and Matracha Berg before Ernie Flippo spoke on behalf of the family, noting that “50 Miles” was a song we sang at church,” and spending a good chunk of his remembrance celebrating all the misspelling of Flippo’s name (Chet and Martha saved all the misspelled letters) and how one reader decided Chet Flippo was the best made-up name in Rolling Stone. Chet was the only Chet in the family. Chester W. Flippo, Sr., their holy roller preacher father with a prominent mane of tall hair, was Chester, or C.W., but never Chet.
Ernie represented the family well, maintaining his composure until the last line, when he said Chet departed this world too early.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, joined by Bentley, Bare, Cash, and Berg, closed with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with a recent photograph of Chet alone on a Florida beach on the big screen behind them.
Gone too soon, perhaps, but a well-spent life.
Afterwards, I visited with Chet’s older sister Shirley. Ernie had mentioned that Shirley was being chaperoned by her nine year old little brother on a car date (“a chartreuse Mercury”) when Chet first heard Hank Williams on the car radio. That initial exposure would eventually lead to writing Williams’ biography Your Cheatin’ Heart.
Hank Williams is not well-known in Nashville today, despite being the single most-influential voice in country music. Nashville’s changed, but so has Austin, New York, Fort Worth, as have music and music journalism. But the words of the chronicler remain, telling the stories of a very special time and some special places, inhabited by a parade of good people.
A remembrance card at the memorial quoted Chet from A Style Is Born: The Rock and Roll Way of Knowledge in the tenth anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, published in December 1977. Great writing, he observed, is “like a letter from home, a transitory home, a home for the soul, a storehouse of everything meaningful to me. Music was, and still is, the starting point (proving the old analogy that was you listen to forms the soundtrack to your life) but that encompasses one hell of a lot.”