Chet Flippo, Journalist Who Championed Country Music, Dies at 69
Rick Diamond/WireImage, via Getty Images
By PAUL VITELLO
Published: June 23, 2013
Chet Flippo, a dean of pop music journalism whose profiles of artists like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Tanya Tucker for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s heralded vast new popularity for country music among broader audiences in the United States, died last Wednesday in Nashville. He was 69.
His death, after a long illness, was announced by the country music cable channel CMT, where he was editorial director. No cause was given.
Mr. Flippo covered a wide range of subjects for Rolling Stone from 1970 to the early '80s, including John Lennon’s legal troubles, the Rolling Stones’ bacchanalian tours, Bob Dylan’s serial reinventions and Janis Joplin’s 10th-year high school reunion, in 1970.
But in an era of rock celebrity mania, he also insisted on writing about a more down-to-earth musical form, still referred to in the early 1970s as “country and western,” which he had grown up with as a boy in Fort Worth.
In 1972, Mr. Flippo wrote about a longtime country singer who had “generally been overlooked,” and who was “probably the most underrated writer in America today,” Willie Nelson. Mr. Nelson had written hits for other singers, but would not have a major hit of his own for a few years more.
The following year, Mr. Flippo wrote about a 36-year-old artist who had been on the verge of stardom for a decade but was still playing four sets a night at roadside joints like Jack Jackson’s Fantastic Cow Palace, Home of the Nashville Stars, outside Colorado Springs, Waylon Jennings. Mr. Jennings, he wrote, was finally catching a break, about to hit the road as the opening act for the Grateful Dead.
“The longhaired kids — they like country music too,” he quoted Mr. Jennings saying the day after his last show at the Fantastic Cow Palace. “They just don’t feel welcome in some of these redneck joints.”
And while Dolly Parton was already a perennial country star, she was still seeking crossover success in 1977 when Mr. Flippo wrote the first long Rolling Stone article about her, introducing her to the magazine’s rock ’n’ roll readership as “country music’s best-kept secret for years.” Later that year she released “Here You Come Again,” her first million-selling single.
Mr. Flippo, who later became a journalism teacher, wrote a historical primer on country music for American Libraries, the bimonthly magazine of the American Library Association, explaining to those at the furthest fringe of the potential crossover audience why they should care.
“Country and western music is, by turns, simplistic, bigoted, emotional, maudlin, jingoistic, provincial and dominated by male chauvinism,” he wrote in that 1974 article, titled “Country & Western: Some New-Fangled Ideas.” “Why then is it so durable and so popular? Because its above-listed characteristics accurately reflect the concerns and attitudes of roughly one-fourth the population of the United States.”
Bill C. Malone, the author of “Country Music U.S.A.,” considered a definitive history (first published in 1968, and now in its third revised edition), said Mr. Flippo was an important mediator between the rock audience and country fans. He did not create the broad interest in country music that developed in the ’70s and ’80s, Mr. Malone said “But he got a lot of people listening who wouldn’t have before.”
Chet Flippo (known to friends as Flippo) was born in Fort Worth on Oct. 21, 1943, the son of Chet W. Flippo, a minister, and the former Johnnie Black. After graduating from Sam Houston State University in 1965, he served in the Navy until 1969, worked for a small newspaper in Texas and received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 1974.
He became Rolling Stone’s bureau chief in New York that year, when the magazine was based in San Francisco, and senior editor in 1977, when the magazine moved its headquarters to New York.
Mr. Flippo left Rolling Stone to write books in the early ’80s, moving to Tennessee, where he taught journalism at the University of Tennessee for three years and was the Nashville bureau chief for Billboard magazine. He joined CMT in 2001.
He published six books, including “Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams,” published in 1981.
Mr. Flippo’s survivors include a sister, Shirley Smith, and two brothers, Bill and Ernest. His wife of 41 years, Martha Hume, also a music journalist, died last year.