In Memoriam 2019: Media & Entertainment


Heidi Nieland HallHeidi Nieland HallPhoto: John Russell, Vanderbilt University

Heidi Nieland Hall

Award-winning journalist, fierce and devoted friend

At the height of her powers, Heidi Hall would lean back in her chair in The Tennessean newsroom and announce loudly, “I’m editing freestyle,” with a huge grin on her face.

Heidi, who led the education coverage and religion coverage at the paper, was a fearless journalist, insatiably curious and devoted to her craft — she lived for a deadline and a breaking news story. Whether she was interviewing cancer patients, editing a major investigation or writing a quick feature about a dog returned to a shelter because its owner feared it was gay, she approached each story as if she was having the time of her life. (The abandoned dog, by the way, was eventually adopted by someone with more sense, as Heidi would have put it.)

Heidi made her own way in the news business — armed with her wits and the ability to tell a good story — after becoming estranged from her Jehovah’s Witness family in her early 20s. She worked her way up from small papers in Missouri to editor jobs in Florida and Tennessee before joining the communications staff at Vanderbilt.

A 6-foot-3 redhead with a fiery personality, Heidi lit up every room she entered. Once you met her, you never forgot her. I know I never will. As those who knew Heidi well understood, her greatest passion was for her friends, her husband Jeffrey and the family she’d made for herself after leaving home. She had no patience for transactional religion — in which salvation and acceptance were given only to a chosen few. She’d seen how that kind of faith could tear people apart, and she wanted no part of it. And yet she also saw how faith could bring people together. After years of being estranged from organized religion, she found a home among the Presbyterians, serving as a leader at the Downtown Presbyterian Church and Woodland Presbyterian Church.

Not long before she died this year at 49, Heidi wrote about her life’s journey in an essay for Religion News Service.

“I want an afterlife like my life has been: one like Revelation 7:9, a great multitude of diverse people existing together in love of each other and their Creator,” she wrote. “It’s not up to me to say who qualifies. In my search, I left behind conditional, behavior-based love and traded it for the unconditional grace shown by a true family, whose bonds have nothing to do with DNA.

“And I’m dying grateful for that.”

Bob Smietana is a former Tennessean religion writer and editor-in-chief of Religion News Service. —Bob Smietana

Larry Brinton

Longtime newsman

In an earlier, more provincial time — a time before cable-news ubiquity — local TV news sounded, well, local.

The man in the gray flannel suit crisscrossing the country selling whatsits could plop down on the bed in a hotel room, flick on the television and know from the anchor’s accent where he was. There were two long-lasting exemplars of the Old Nashville accent on TV. There was Ed Stratton, the man who declared Emma’s “the supoilative florist.” And there was longtime Nashville newsman Larry Brinton, who similarly drowned his vowels in molasses during his “Word on the Street” segments on WSMV-Channel 4 and WTVF-Channel 5.

Before he moved to TV on Channel 5 in 1979, Brinton, who died in July at age 88, was a reporter and editor at the Nashville Banner — starting out, as so many cub reporters of his vintage did, on the police beat. Colleagues and competitors often described Brinton’s knowledge of the city as encyclopedic, and it was knowledge that was well-earned.

A list of the stories Brinton covered for the Banner reads like a timeline of the top Tennessee stories of the post-World War II era: Patsy Cline’s fatal plane crash; the murders of Marcia Trimble, Kathy Jones, Stringbean Akeman and plenty of others beside; Gov. Ray Blanton’s fall from grace, which Brinton himself precipitated with a string of investigative stories and with the first interview given by whistleblower Marie Ragghianti. In Marie, the movie made about the sordid tale, Brinton played himself, as did a guy named Fred Thompson. (Brinton had two degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, by the way.)

Former Metro Detective Sherman Nickens told The Tennessean he spoke to Brinton almost every day for 60 years, including the day he died. Brinton was indeed of the old school — pencil-and-paper, tape-recorder, face-to-face, shoe-leather reporting. He was not a guy to email a public information officer to get a quote. Stories abound of Brinton taking calls in the small hours and hoofing it to crime scenes to get the first look alongside the responding police officers. It’s not that Brinton was particularly macabre — for him, the critical thing was beating The Tennessean. He got scoops deep into his career. After he moved to television, he kept breaking stories, notably during the investigation of the disappearance of Janet March and the subsequent arrest of her husband, Perry.

Brinton was one of the last of a breed, keeping his ear to the ground even after his retirement. My wife Olivia is a true-crime podcaster. Her first, Something’s Not Right, is conversational and has a focus on Tennessee crime, and she followed that with Flatrock, an investigation into the still-unsolved Kathy Jones murder. From time to time, Brinton would email her about one case or another. One wonders if, maybe, somewhere in the midst of that encyclopedia of Nashville lore that was Brinton’s mind, there was the idea to bring that molasses-soaked voice to a new medium. —J.R. Lind

Joe Sweat

Journalist, former head of Tennessee Municipal League

Joe Sweat was a journalist for justice, a freedom fighter, and a fiercely loyal friend with a wonderful sense of humor and a wonderful laugh. He used the power of the pen to disrupt injustice and to dismantle racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and unchecked government power.

Joe cut his teeth as an AP reporter covering the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike and Martin Luther King’s assassination. Whether he was writing about the abolition of the death penalty, religious freedom, fair treatment of immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ equality or freedom of speech, Joe was a tenacious advocate and someone you wanted on your side.

Spending time with Joe was a journey through the moral arc of justice and history. He engaged all of us in the great traditions of political philosophy, religion and history. Whether it was the history of Memphis, of Tennessee, of the United States or of the ancient empires, Joe always put the issues of the day in context as current expressions of the unfolding human drama.

He also argued with clarity, passion and humor. For several years I had a front-row seat for many conversations that took place in the Legislative Plaza cafeteria between Joe and the late John Jay Hooker — without fail, the two would challenge each other’s perspectives.

Joe had an insatiable appetite for knowledge, justice and camaraderie, and he shared that enthusiasm and passion with us. He was a fellow traveler, and our lives are richer because of him. —Hedy Weinberg

Chuck Dauphin

Country music expert, revered print and radio journalist

Chuck Dauphin will forever be remembered as one of country music’s most celebrated journalists and the genre’s undisputed sweetheart.

Born Charles Frederick Dauphin III on Feb. 17, 1974, in Dickson, Tenn., the CMA Award-winning journalist was destined for a life in country music. His mother, the late Frankie Paulette Dauphin, doted on her son and raised him on the music from her vast record collection. His father took him to Fan Fair — now known as CMA Fest — annually and would regularly drive him to town to shop for music at The Great Escape and Tower Records.

Dauphin’s fervid passion for the genre was easy to spot at an early age. Childhood friends remember him on the playground saying he would one day make something of himself in country music. He frequently called in to a stump-the-experts contest on WSM-AM, and he won so often that station personnel asked him to stop calling and instead join the panel. His dream of becoming a professional radio host was realized in 1991, during his junior year in high school, when he was hired on at Dickson’s WDKN. He worked at the station for 18 years, rising to program director, and came to be known by his on-air personality Crazy Chucky.

His extensive country journalism career included stints at WSM and Centerville’s WNKX, guest appearances on Sirius XM’s country channels and bylines in publications ranging from CMA Close Up to Rolling Stone to The Dickson County Herald. From 2011 until his death, he was a principal country music contributor at Billboard. He always championed the classic country greats, and his holy trinity of favorite artists was Garth Brooks, Kenny Rogers and Randy Travis. All the same, Dauphin was known for treating everyone like family regardless of whether they were a celebrity or a stranger, and he rarely turned down the opportunity to interview a new act. He was among the first music journalists to champion some of today’s most celebrated entertainers. His words on artists including Ashley McBryde, Brandy Clark, Brantley Gilbert, Carly Pearce, Cody Johnson, Luke Bryan, Luke Combs and Midland helped make them stars.

When Dauphin wasn’t on a red carpet, behind a microphone at a radio station, or reporting live from an event, he worked behind the scenes as a regular ghostwriter for many publicity firms across the country. His tireless work ethic and zeal to advance country music internationally were recognized in 2014 when he received the prestigious CMA Media Achievement Award.

Dauphin died Sept. 18 at Nashville’s Alive Hospice following a series of complications from diabetes. He was 45. In Dauphin’s final days, friends and industry colleagues congregated by his bedside to give him a proverbial country music festival that was filled with love and song. Among his visitors were Country Music Hall of Famer Randy Travis, John Schneider and Keith Bilbrey. Those who had the honor of knowing Dauphin remember him as a faithful Christian, a devoted son, a loving stepfather and a fiercely loyal friend. His memory will be eternal through his words. —Lauren Tingle

Raeanne Rubenstein

Famed photographer

From Andy Warhol to Dolly Parton, photographer Raeanne Rubenstein demonstrated an incredible knack for capturing her subjects, from Broadway in New York City to Lower Broad here in Nashville.

Rubenstein first made her mark documenting the heyday of the New York rock scene of the 1960s and ’70s, capturing intimate portraits, candid backstage shots and energetic live pics of Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Rubenstein’s work first appeared in alternative-press publications like the East Village Other before her images became staples in publications like Rolling Stone, People and Life.

In the 1970s, Rubenstein came to Nashville to photograph Johnny Cash for a magazine story. She eventually moved here and founded the celebrity magazine Dish, ultimately falling for the sounds and the scene, and she published several books of country music photography. Rubenstein’s reputation as a rock photog helped give her country music subjects a crossover appeal: Rubenstein’s images made country look cool during a time when it was struggling to grow a new audience and a new sound. —Joe Nolan

Robert RymanRobert RymanPhoto via Pace Gallery

Robert Ryman

Influential artist

Nashville native Robert Ryman was one of the most important artists of his generation — so important that Nashville continued to claim him long after he left town for New York in 1953.

He moved to New York intending a career as a jazz saxophonist, and even played with legendary pianist Lennie Tristano for a bit. But a stint as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art changed his life, and perhaps even the course of contemporary art history. Ryman began making paintings a year after his move to New York, and by the late 1960s he began showing work alongside artists such as Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, Eva Hesse and Yves Klein.

“It helps to think of Mr. Ryman as a kind of philosopher-carpenter,” wrote longtime New York Times art critic Roberta Smith in 2016, “with an inborn, almost mystical love of paint as paint.” His paintings were indeed mystical — ghostly white-on-white square canvases that bridged the gap between Minimalism and Abstract Expressionism.

In the late 1990s, art historian Sister Wendy Beckett distilled the power of Ryman’s work thusly: “Here is art floating free, on the fringes, art dependent on human involvement, as of course it always is, but Ryman makes us face it without escape.” He is survived by three sons — Ethan, Cordy and Will Ryman — who are all artists themselves. —Laura Hutson Hunter

Skip Woolwine

Radio man

Skip Woolwine was virtually destined to start the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame.

Woolwine, who died at 61 in November, dipped his teenage toes into DJing while a student at Montgomery Bell Academy, spinning 45s at house parties and dances, planting the seeds for his future career and laying the foundation for what would become a voluminous knowledge of Nashville soul and rock ’n’ roll history.

He got a gig as an announcer at WSM when he was just 17, the youngest on-air voice in the lengthy history of that august station. After taking the well-worn path from MBA up West End to Vanderbilt, Woolwine formed The Eldorados, a mainstay of fraternity parties in the 1970s. It was his first band but certainly not his last, as he went on to form the 1969s and Fade to Black, which played at two gubernatorial inaugurations and numerous Predators games.

But it was on the radio where he’d make his mark, working not just for WSM, but at WLAC and Y-107 under the name Michael O’Shea. Among his many notable accomplishments: He produced the Grand Ole Opry’s first European broadcast in 1980.

Woolwine moved to sales and eventually, along with his wife Trish, got into real estate. But radio still tugged at him, leading him to help found the aforementioned Hall of Fame in 2011. —J.R. Lind

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