With additional reporting by Sarah Skates
Revered music journalist Chet Flippo passed away early Wednesday morning (June 19) following a remarkable career that shined a national spotlight on country music like never before. Flippo died at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville after complications from a brief illness. He was 69. He had spent the last 12 years at CMT and CMT.com where he served as Editorial Director.
Flippo’s wife Martha Hume, also a noted music journalist and author, died on December 17, 2012. Loved ones believe he never recovered from her passing. “The two of them were really one,” sums longtime friend Liz Thiels.
“To anyone who cares about writing about popular music, he’s a huge figure and it’s a great loss,” says historian and friend Robert K. Oermann. “He wrote about music not just from a fan’s perspective, and not just from an industry perspective, but from an artistic perspective. Those people who can step outside and take a clear-eyed view are very rare and Chet had that ability until the end. With a very clear head and clear mind, he analyzed what was happening musically and culturally with this city and its most famous export.”
Flippo was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1943 and served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. His bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism led to a job as Contributing Editor for Rolling Stone while in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin. During his tenure at the venerable magazine, his work boosted country music’s profile. “He was the one who brought country music culture into the pages of rock publications by profiling Waylon, Willie, Tanya and Dolly,” continues Oermann. “He was a real ground-breaker in so many ways, and all this while he was based in New York in the midst of a culture that had nothing to do with country music. But his Texas heritage served him well.”
Flippo was promoted to Rolling Stone New York Bureau Chief in 1974. After the publication moved its offices from San Francisco to New York in 1977, he became Rolling Stone Senior Editor. He covered a wide range of artists and subjects including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Joseph Heller, Tom Wolfe, and the Who. “Chet Flippo is the man who took country music out of the country and sent it around the world through Rolling Stone magazine,” explains journalist and friend Hazel Smith. “He knew that country music was as good as any other kind of music and he represented it 100 percent.”
Flippo and Hume settled in Music City in 1995, when he began a five-year run as Billboard’s Nashville Bureau Chief. They established plenty of relationships, but Flippo didn’t open up to those around him. “He had the manner of what he was: a preacher’s kid,” explains Oermann. “He had a reserved quality about him, but was not without humor. He was good company when you got him going.” Flippo was also interested in photography, and was an avid animal lover who enjoyed the company of his dog, Trixie.
“This is a stunning loss to all of us,” adds CMT President Brian Philips. “Chet was a stoic Texan, fiercely loyal and intensely private. He was honest to the core and widely regarded as a bit enigmatic, even among his closest colleagues. For all, it was a terrific privilege to work with Chet Flippo. If you knew Chet and you knew how much he loved Martha, it does not seem quite so surprising that he has gone to join her so soon. We will love and respect Chet forever.”
Flippo left Rolling Stone in 1980 to write the definitive book Your Cheatin’ Heart: A Biography of Hank Williams. His seven titles also include books about Paul McCartney, Graceland and David Bowie, as well as On the Road with the Rolling Stones. Of the latter, Philips recalls, “Long ago, I read and re-read my frayed paperback copy of this book, living vicariously through Chet’s exotic pirate stories. Chet’s 1978 Rolling Stone magazine cover story ‘Shattered’ (featuring his nose-to-nose confrontation with an angry Mick Jagger) is the kind of no-holds-barred music journalism that doesn’t exist anymore, anywhere. Chet was a fierce advocate for country music long before country was cool. Chet articulated the virtues and joys of country music with a passion and intelligence that helped make the genre respectable even among snobs and city slickers.”
“He was a true intellectual,” agrees Thiels, “one of the smartest, brightest minds I ever ran across. What he did for country music and Nashville was an enormously important contribution. Because he was from Texas he understood the importance of country music. And he caused others to understand why it was an important artform—a voice of the people. He had great respect for this music, and the people who made it, and the people it was about.”
Flippo and Hume paved the way for writers that followed. “Years ago, there were so few of us that were seriously interested in country music,” remembers Oermann. “It was looked down upon by everyone, but we were passionate about it, so we bonded with each other. Chet and Martha are the reason I have written books, they introduced me to my agent, they helped others. He led the way for all of the critics that followed, myself included. The rest of us wouldn’t be here without him.” Later, Oermann and Flippo worked together as historical consultants on TNN’s acclaimed Century of Country docu-series. Flippo also penned TV scripts for VH1, CBS and CMT. He also contributed liner notes to Wanted! The Outlaws, the 1976 album that brought the Outlaw movement to national attention. Flippo and wife Martha also sang background vocals on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which brought together the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis.
His career included lecturing at the University of Tennessee, publishing an anthology of articles titled “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Dancing,” and contributing to the New York Times, TV Guide, Texas Monthly, and Q Magazine of London. In 2000, he was hired by Sonicnet, where he worked until moving to CMT. His contributions were honored with the Country Music Association Media Achievement Award (1998), and The International Country Music Conference’s Charlie Lamb Award for Excellence in Country Music Journalism (2006).
Survivors include sister Shirley Smith of Brandon, Fla., and brothers Bill Flippo of Saginaw, Texas and Ernest Flippo of Abbington, Mass.
Arrangements have not been finalized. The family asks that memorial contributions be made to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
This story will continue to be updated as it develops. MusicRow offers sincere condolences to Flippo’s loved ones.
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