He never said a whole lot. A well timed “hmmmmm,” or a little giggle was all most people got out of him. Get to know him a little better, and you might hear a hair-raising story or two about Waylon or Willie or Kinky or Keith, or—on more mournful occasions—the plight of country and/or rock music and/or the state of journalism today. What could you ever say besides, “hmmmmm,” or maybe offer your own little giggle in response?
Chet Flippo was always right, always insightful—even if he played it all very close to the vest. He was an iconic, owlish presence, always watching, ever true to his journalistic mission. He seemed born to be a witness to it all, a scribe type from the get-go. If you were the type of person to nervously fill in the silent spaces, you would go on and on. That, of course, was the genius of Chet…and no doubt how he got the really good low-down (on Waylon and Willie and Kinky and Keith).
I met him through his wife, my dear fried Martha Hume, who came to Knoxville from New York in the late '80s to work at Whittle Communications, and dragged Chet here with her to witness all the weirdness over toward Vestal, where they lived for a while. There, he set up shop in a back room, working on a book about Roy Orbison and biding his time between better things to do.
Meanwhile, a gaggle of starstruck kids (like me) traipsed through their South Knoxville manse, jaws dropped at all the gold albums on the walls, the record collection, the first editions of books written BY MARTHA AND CHET! They were both bona fide geniuses, generous enough to share their home and hearts with up-and-coming writers (like me).
Martha was the talkative one, Chet hung back and watched. When he said something besides “hmmmmm” or “heheheh,” it was always absolutely hilarious, insanely insightful, or jaw-droppingly profane (a fellow star-struck kid from the '80s, Deb Barnes, described the combination of his soft-spoken manner and creativity with cursing as “Mr. Rogers on a not-so-beautiful day in the neighborhood,” which is perfect).
His own story was epic—he was a Texan, the son of a holy-roller preacher who’d eloped to Mexico with a wild child (that being Martha) then moved off to New York City (New York City!) to become bureau chief for Rolling Stone magazine in the days when it was still based in San Francisco. You can Google for lots of biographical details; there are already obits aplenty. He hung out with a lot of rock stars, he made country cool, he was writing back in the day when writing was still writing, he had the best chili recipe in the world.
The funniest, best, and truest thing he ever said to me was offered as a semi-joke, at a time when I was working for Lamar Alexander during his run for president in 1996. Chet suggested as the ultimate Republican campaign motto: “Cut the crap!” Concise and to the point—it wasn’t Lamar’s style, but it was very, very Chet.
Chet died this morning at 3 a.m., probably muttering something under his breath like “I am tired of this f--king sh-t.” I believe he wanted to be reunited with his beloved Martha, who died this past December. No doubt they are rocking the firmament this moment as she tries to affix his halo while he squirms and groans and yells, “Cut the crap!” Roll over Beethoven, indeed.