“Chet Flippo was an insightful, kindhearted soul in a cutthroat business,” Kinky Friedman said Wednesday (June 19) following the death of his longtime friend.
Flippo, who has served as CMT and CMT.com’s editorial director since 2001, died Wednesday in Nashville following a lengthy illness at age 69.
At Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s, Flippo gained a national reputation as a country music authority and contributed liner notes to landmark albums such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken and also Wanted! The Outlaws featuring Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser.
Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner recalled that Flippo’s first assignment for the magazine was in 1970 to cover Janis Joplin’s high school reunion in Port Arthur, Texas.
“In the 10-plus years that followed, he wrote literally hundreds of articles, interviews and record reviews. And, yes, he was our resident country music expert for most of those years, but he was equally at home writing about rock (the Rolling Stones, the Who) or the music industry (Clive Davis, Seymour Stein). He was also a great friend and colleague to a league of Rolling Stone staffers. As one good friend wrote on Facebook today: ’Wherever Chet went, fun followed.’
“Chet was an important person at Rolling Stone,” Wenner continued. “He was part of the that golden era that produced Hunter [S. Thompson], Tim Crouse, Tom Wolfe, Howard Kohn, Cameron Crowe et al. Those were his brothers at RS. He was well loved and will be long remembered by many, many of us.”
Crowe was just 15 when he began writing for Rolling Stone. Later acclaimed as the writer and director of films such as Jerry Maguire, Vanilla Sky and We Bought a Zoo, Crowe included a reference to Chet Flippo’s name during a scene in Almost Famous, his 2000 film inspired by his initial work for the magazine.
“Chet Flippo is one of the great bylines in the history of music journalism,” Crowe told CMT Hot 20 Countdown. “Take a trip through the archives, find his books, read his reporting. You’ll find every color and all the soul, hilarity, pain, flavor and depth of what it is to love music. He mentored many and inspired all those who worked with him.
“’Don’t call him Chet,’ they said. ’Everybody calls him Flippo.’ It was one of the great secrets about Flippo — all that genius just happened to reside in the heart of an unforgettably charming guy.”
Although Flippo also wrote books about the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and others, he always gravitated to true art, rather than celebrity.
“He was naturally drawn to people who’d overcome tragedy, obstacles and failure,” Friedman said. “I remember him complaining about getting this great offer to do a book or a cover story for Rolling Stone on Jimmy Buffett. At the time, Chet wasn’t that excited by it. Chet liked Jimmy — everybody does.
“At the time, though, Chet had an eye and ear for the salient features of many kinds of music — and not for those who were important, like Jimmy Buffett or the Rolling Stones. … They’re important people to their record companies and their fans and their publishers.
“But Chet, I think, was more simpatico with people he saw as significant. … I think people like Warren Zevon or Roy Orbison or Levon Helm or Waylon or Billy Joe Shaver or Tompall Glaser or Hank Williams were significant in Chet’s mind.
“I think Chet and Marty Stuart are, in a way, co-curators of the spiritual museum that is Nashville. Marty does it with memorabilia and his music, but Chet did it all with words. And that may be the hardest thing to do.”
Stuart said he has lost a dear friend.
“Chet was such a great gentleman,” he said. “He truly was a statesman. The first time I remember reading his name was when he was a writer for Rolling Stone and covering what Waylon and Willie and Tompall Glaser — the Outlaws — were doing.
“Chet’s pen gave us in country music credibility and an audience in ways we might not have achieved otherwise during that time. He was a great friend of country music from outside the family — and when the time came that he came inside the tribe, he was a natural fit because he always belonged to us anyhow.”
Flippo was sent by Rolling Stone to cover the recording sessions for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1971 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which featured performances by such country icons as Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter and Doc Watson.
“We were considered a rock ’n’ roll band at the time,” Dirt Band member Jeff Hanna said Wednesday. “Chet was a great country fan, and he later wrote that great book about Hank Williams. We got to know him pretty well. He hung out and had a great time.
“He was a classic fly on the wall. He did a great job of kind of blending into the fabric in the studio. He wrote a really great article about the proceedings. It was a great boost, especially for the iconic performers like Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. We became really good friends. I loved his writing. He was very astute and great with the turn of a phrase. He was a really sweet guy.”
Bill Carter met Flippo in 1975 when Flippo was covering a Rolling Stones tour for Rolling Stone magazine and Carter was along as the band’s lawyer.
“He titled my book Get Carter,” the attorney explained. “He said that on the Stones’ tour, every time he turned around, Mick Jagger was shouting, ’Get Carter!’ … He always knew what we were doing on the tour.
“Years later, I asked him who his informant was. He said, ’Oh, I bribed the chambermaids in all the hotels. When we arrived in a new city, I’d pay the chambermaids to tell me what was on your desk.’ . . . I thought his book was the best inside thing ever written about the Rolling Stones. He was just so analytical.”
Carter added, “He was a sweet soul. I don’t know if I’ve ever known anyone nicer and kinder. … He was deeply spiritual. Much like many of our generation, he did things that some of the old fundamentalist Christians frowned on, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t deeply spiritual. I really enjoyed a lot of conversations with him about his faith.”
Flippo also set a sterling example for aspiring journalists to follow.
“Chet told us what mattered and why it mattered,” said Jay Orr, Flippo’s former CMT coworker who now serves as vice president of museum programs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. “He opened the eyes and ears of his readers to music they hadn’t heard or fully appreciated before. Without him, it’s hard to imagine that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings would have found their audiences as easily or as fully as they did.
“Chet wrote frequently for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. His participation in a project meant that the quality would be high and the message clear. He made a tremendous contribution to the legacy of country music, and he will be missed.”
Veteran journalist Michael McCall, writer-editor at the museum, said Flippo always led by example.
“Chet had such rock-solid integrity, as a journalist, as a music critic and as a friend,” he said. “He championed those who created music with originality and style, and he punctured the balloons of those who relied too heavily on formula and mimicry.
“As journalist and author, he wrote with brevity, clarity and insight. He could be critical without being cruel, funny without being flippant and sincere without being overly sentimental. He knew how to praise with genuine enthusiasm and without it sounding like publicity hype. He also mentored so many of us on how to do a job we love.”
While Flippo’s many friends and readers are saddened by his passing, Friedman put the loss into perspective.
“Chet, in the words of Larry L. King, has been bugled to Jesus,” he said. “That was an expression Chet liked very much.”