“If I had Johnny’s cash & Charley’s pride, I wouldn’t have Buck Ow-en on my car,” Mac Wiseman sang in the 1969 hit “Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride,” which lends a whimsical title to Peter Cooper’s new book, Johnny’s Cash & Charley’s Pride: Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures in Country Music (Spring House Press).
Cooper, a songwriter, producer, journalist, and director of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s museum, understands music and the people who make it. They trust and confide in Cooper, often about the acoustic guitars that changed their lives.
“Guitars can be a lifeline,” Cooper says, citing a warped Kay from Loretta Lynn’s childhood home that “turned her heart to music.” When Lynn received a better guitar on her 18th birthday, she discovered herself as a songwriter, Cooper adds.
“Without those guitars, we would never have gotten to know Loretta Lynn.”
Similarly, “an acoustic guitar allowed Taylor Swift to express her feelings,” Cooper maintains. “She said, ‘I was the only girl playing guitar and writing songs in my high school, and I don’t want that to be the case anymore for other girls.’”
Cooper believes many young women have picked up guitars because of Swift’s example, and he condemns the vitriol often directed at her. “I can’t figure out how she became such an intelligent, empathetic, and generous hate magnet,” he says, laughing.
‘Guitars can be a lifeline. Without those guitars, we would never have gotten to know Loretta Lynn.’
Another frequently misunderstood artist’s career pivoted on an acoustic guitar, Cooper says. In 1986, after being dropped by his longtime label Columbia Records, Johnny Cash “wound up taking his acoustic guitar around music row, auditioning like a 20-year-old just off the bus.”
“When [rock and hip hop impresario] Rick Rubin approached Cash and asked him what he would most like to do, Cash said, ‘I want to play acoustic guitar and sing with nothing else going on.’”
With American Recordings in 1993, he did just that, and Cash went from broken down country singer to revered icon. “Stripping down to just acoustic guitar set all of that in motion.”
Cooper frequently passes Cash’s Martins, which are displayed in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s Precious Jewels exhibit, but the guitar in that collection that touches him most is Maybelle Carter’s Gibson L-5.
Given the primitive recording technology of the 1920s, Carter knew she needed the L-5’s punch so her guitar wouldn’t get lost in the mix, Cooper says.
Though Carter came from poverty, she paid $275 for that guitar, which equals more than $4,000 today. “Throughout her life Carter never parted with the guitar, even though it would have fetched a pretty penny,” says Cooper. “I look at the scratches her fingernails made on the wood, and I think about how much sacrifice that guitar meant for her.”
Knowing the stories behind these guitars, Cooper adds, “makes you realize they’re such powerful things.”
Below, Johnny Cash sings “Ghost Riders in the Sky” solo acoustic on German TV, and Charlie Pride sings “Just Between You and Me” on The Lawrence Welk Show:
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.