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I was 12 years old when I found him under a bed in the attic. His words in Rolling Stone made rock ‘n’ roll tactile for a pre-teen like myself. Cleveland’s suburbs were tame as Mayberry then, but when Chet Flippo wrote about The Rolling Stones, or Dolly Parton, or the tragic Who Concert in Cincinnati, I felt it in my bones.
Chet Flippo was mythic. He was Hemingway amongst the rockers, with his lean prose, his grasp of detail and deep insight into people – not to mention the adventures!
As a 19-year old freelancing for the Miami Herald, I made my first pilgrimage to Nashville for Fan Fair, the annual assemblage of country stars at the fairgrounds, to meet and play with country’s most devoted. When uber-publicist Liz Thiels asked if I’d like to interview Chet Flippo, who had just published the book On The Road with the Rolling Stones: 20 Years of Lipstick, Handcuffs and Chemicals, I nearly fainted.
While Chet the journalist and author was my gateway to “the Outlaw Movement” blazed by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, I never thought I’d cross paths with him at an event where stars posed for pictures in livestock barns.
Trying to be cool, I nodded.
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With directions in hand, the next morning I drove past the Parthenon to Thiels’ apartment. When the door swung open, there he was: long, thin legs folded up, round glasses and that shock of wheat-colored hair falling across his brow. Standing up, his eyes glittered as his lips spread into a big smile.
So this is what a satyr looks like, I thought. Only Chet was even better.
He talked about his adventures with the Stones, writing the Hank Williams biography, Your Cheating Heart, and the glory days when Rolling Stone really was wild. He addressed the craft of writing and reporting, balancing enthusiasm with critical distance and indulged my questions about his wife Martha Hume’s You’re So Cold I’m Turning Blue, the book that in many ways informed my voice as a critic.
I even asked for an autograph, something I’d not done with Kris Kristofferson, Dan Fogelberg or Patti LaBelle. Chuck signed my book in black Sharpie with this missive: “Whips & Chains & Lipstick Stains.”
When it was all over, easily 100 generous minutes, he hugged me and said I seemed to be a fine young reporter, adding that he thought I’d have quite a career. Just the sort of things grown-ups say to eager kids, but Chet made it feel like he meant it.
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Over the years, few thrills compared to seeing Chet in a room. A fountain of knowledge and clever asides, his bright smile meant whatever event we were at was going to be great. He could talk about anything, laugh at whatever was happening and offer tiny bits of wisdom punctuated with an encouraging, “You’ll figure it out.
Whether he was Billboard’s Nashville bureau chief, touring books like the beloved Everyone Was Kung Fu Dancing or just watching a band, he was welcoming and regal, quick to say hello or wave to the seat next to him. He was curious, enthused about artists, but willing to call foul on watered down music, bloated marketing and opportunists pulling light and missing the meat.
Chet’s “Nashville Skyline” CMT missives were a stop-what-you’re-doing proposition. Whether considering — then sometimes skewering — out-of-touch superstars, championing older acts like Don Williams, standing up for the Dixie Chicks’ First Amendment rights on the heels of Natalie Maines’ controversial political statement, or praising Taylor Swift when no one else would, the former University of Tennessee journalism professor kept schooling me, especially about the lenses I looked through. He also reminded me, in his most unassuming way, the importance of thorough reporting and the courage to speak up about what most people wanted to gloss over.
He wasn’t a sensationalist. He was modest and shy, and very private. He didn’t believe in exploiting tragedy, scandal or gossip, though he loved songs that were ignited by real-life drama.
Dapper and jovial, Chet was always quick with a compliment or a kind word. Often about something I’d written.
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My crush continued unabated. Sometimes so flustered, all I could do was joke about it. He’d smile, and say, “Well, that’s okay.”
Somehow, it was.
When his wife Martha Hume, an equally titanic journalist/encourager/editor, passed in December, my heart sank. Theirs was one of the greatest loves I’d ever seen. They savored life. The loss seemed impossible to grieve.
I saw Chet at Martha’s memorial five weeks ago. He looked frail, but he always sort of did. Surrounded by friends, he basked in viewing slides from their life and hearing remembrances from the assembled who came to share.
“Wow,” I said when I hugged him.
“Yes…” he replied, delighted.
He’d been in and out of the hospital — small things, nothing that would alarm you, people might say. Chet was still going to work at CMT, writing his “Nashville Skyline” column and embarking on a piece about Norbert Putnam for The Oxford American’s music issue in the fall.
And then he was gone. Complications from a collapsed lung, I was told. Although the young girl reading his swashbuckling adventures in that Cleveland attic, hoping for a life half as romantic, is inclined to think he just missed his Martha too much.
Holly Gleason is a freelance writer based in Nashville and a longtime country music industry insider.
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