Paul Cooper was a country singer. Old school. Not the kind they have now days. Those boys are more concerned about their washboard abs than they are about the music that they’re playing. Paul Cooper was a real country singer – Grand Old Opry style.
His band was old school too. No rock and roll licks there. Just plain old corn pone country. Paul was always a little scornful of contemporary country music. When we talked about the state of the Nashville music business, which we did frequently, Paul would scratch his grizzled head and grin. “I don’t know what kind of music that is,” he’d say, “but it ain’t country music.”
When his son Alan called me to tell me his daddy had died, I was numb with shock. And when I got up this morning and looked over toward Oak Mountain, toward where the Cooper farm has always been, it was like there was a big hole in the sky. Paul Cooper was gone. An era has ended.
I used to sing with Paul’s band at the old stone gym. He played for the senior dance there twice a month. It was always a treat to play with them — to hear music that’s rare on the radio these days. And it was a treat to watch the dancers.
I myself have never been a dancer. When I was a kid, I was scared to go to dances. What if nobody asked me to dance? What if I looked weird when I danced? At that age, I wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin.
I remember my first dance. Seventh grade. The gym was decorated with paper streamers and a glittering disco ball but it still smelled like socks and sweat. My friends and I lined up against the wall with our hearts in our throats – sweaty palms and dry mouths. Nobody asked us to dance.
That pretty much put me off dances.
Until a couple years ago when Paul Cooper asked me to sit in with his band Country Time. The band was a local country music icon — they’d been playing in this area for over 30 years. In fact, they’d been honored in the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame with the Classic Country Band of the Year Award seven years in a row. I told him I’d sing at the dance, as long as I didn’t HAVE to dance.
When we got there, we noticed there weren’t many wallflowers. People moved to the dance floor immediately. They did partner dances like the Texas two-step and the Foxtrot. These folks were elegance on the hoof. But there were also people out there who didn’t care much about choreographed steps. They were moving for the sheer joy it. It wasn’t graceful. It wasn’t elegant. But the difference between the junior high dance of my youth? These people were completely comfortable with who they were — comfortable in their own skins.
The band sounded great and Paul Cooper sang old-time hits. His voice was gravely from years of hard work. It wasn’t a pretty voice, but it was honest and strong. He sang old songs that you can’t hear on the radio anymore. George Jones, Earnest Tubb, Hank Williams. It was a tribute to a bygone era and I could have listened to him all night.
I got to sing too. “Cheatin Heart” and “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Miss Patsy Cline. The crowd always liked that one and when I was done, everybody clapped and clapped. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Paul grinning at me, glad to share his stage.
After a while, the band played the “Twist.” Some gray-haired ladies drug me out on the floor. Smiles lit their faces and the music transported them to an earlier time when joints didn’t hurt. I danced with them, twist for twist, but halfway through the song, I was horrified to find that I was having a hard time keeping up with a pack of senior dancers. I made it to the end of the song and limped off with my tongue hanging out.
Before we knew it, the band had played three sets and they were packing up to go. Johnny and I helped pack up too, as much as we could. I wrapped cords and loaded stools and Johnny helped load the heavy monitors and amps. I was always amazed at how much gear it took to put on a live music show. But Paul, even though he was 80, still didn’t mind all the trouble – if the payoff was playing music.
I think Paul’s band held the record for the longest established music group in the country music business. At least in these parts. Despite the temperamental nature of musicians and artists, he kept it together and kept those country hits coming. I know that Nashville, like any other business, is constantly evolving. Styles change. Porter Wagoner sequin suits are replaced by Alan Jackson ripped jeans. But with the passing of Paul Cooper, we lost a musical treasure — a relic from a time when steel guitar was king. And that makes me sadder than I can say.
Gentry, a Carroll County resident, writes a weekly column for the Times-Georgian.