Dana Cooper may live and work in Nashville these days, but to those of us who've been around here a while, he'll always be a Montrose Houstonian, literally synonymous with the place. Mainstays of a rootsy folk scene percolating at Anderson Fair in the late '70s -- which also featured such luminaries as Eric Taylor, Nanci Griffith, Vince Bell, Lyle Lovett and Lucinda Williams -- Cooper and musical companion Shake Russell were headliners, big boys on the local block. One thing that kept them in demand was that they were always good for a lift; their shows made you feel good. Cooper's 1994 album, Thrill of Love, which featured Russell and local boy Jack Saunders, won Houston Press Album of the Year.
Since Cooper first came to notice on the Kansas City blues scene at 16, critics have paid special attention to his "literary lyrics" and highly accomplished guitar work. Made of Mud is no exception. Cooper's gentle, clear-sighted commentaries on songs such as "Empty Glass," "Comic Tragedy" and " Step into the Light" are humanistic, delicately handled and very much in the now. His vision of a soldier who remembers how his father "fought for peace on earth / just to live in a world of hurt" in "World of Hurt" is a sterling example of the high quality of his pen. Cooper's neighborly singing can beg comparison to sweet-voiced masters like James Taylor (check out the excellent "Bird on the Wind" or "Nothing to Fear"), but he has never been afraid to locate a good groove and amp things up a bit. With producer Richard McLaurin on electric guitar and ace Scott Miller sideman Eric Fritsch on keyboard, the album rumbles with plenty of roots-rock swagger, especially on "Sit This One Out" and the title track. As a songwriter, Cooper shows he's paid attention during his 30 years of trial-and-error authorship. On Made of Mud, he repeatedly demonstrates personal warmth, intellectual vigor and a Zen grasp of imagery, metaphor, story line and poetics. The album is chock-full of insightful lines like "What can I compare us to / a comfortable pair of shoes / stumbling down the road / flapping and broken toed?" In sum, Made of Mud illustrates why towering talents like Lyle Lovett and Maura O'Connell sing on Cooper's albums and cover his songs. It is as fine a work as Cooper has ever done, a fully realized statement by an artist operating at the height of his powers.
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