Dana Cooper, Roughly Speaking

Was a time, and not so very long ago, when Houston was, as they say, a happening music town. The bottom had yet to drop out of the oil bidness and the nightclub-hopping general public spent its money freely. It was, if you can imagine, a good time to be a musician in Houston, and an especially good time if you happened to be a member of the reigning triumvirate of Houston's acoustic music scene: Shake Russell, Jack Saunders and Dana Cooper. Cooper, for one, remembers the time fondly.

"It was pretty wild, I hadn't really seen anything like it before. Every club that I went into in the Montrose area was jammed every night, it didn't really matter who was playing. A lot of people were going out every night of the week, drinking a lot, you'd find lots of Mandrax or uppers on the floor of the club at the end of the night. People were indulging themselves quite a bit back then. It's funny, the contrast there from then to now is really noticeable. Once people finally sobered up, things got kinda bad, but it was a great time to be playing music down there."

It's not just Cooper who remembers those good times. Most followers of Houston's acoustic scene -- the same folks who lined up around the block in the late 1970s to hear Cooper and Russell and Saunders play two sets a night for three straight nights at the now defunct Steamboat Springs -- remember them as well, if somewhat hazily, and Cooper's niche in the scene was so solidly cemented by his ten-year stay in Houston that even now, after having called Nashville home for the past six years, he's still regarded as a more-or-less native son.

Of course, much happened for Cooper before the Houston boom, and much continues to happen after its demise. Cooper grew up as a singing-songwriting-guitar playing prodigy in Kansas City. When he finally got around to dropping out of college, he headed to Los Angeles, where Elektra Records snapped him up and released a debut solo album, Dana Cooper, in 1973. But what sounds in retrospect like a singer-songwriter's early '70s wet dream turned into a record industry nightmare in short order.

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"We were about halfway through the project," Cooper recalls, "and somebody heard some of it and all of a sudden I was like the prodigal son there for awhile, I couldn't do any wrong. But about a year into that deal the whole thing just disintegrated. There was a big turnover and they just dropped the bottom third of their roster, and of course that's where I was, being a new artist and everything. That was one of the roughest times in my career, 'cause I went knocking on doors for about seven or eight months after that happened, looking for a new situation, and I got to the point where I guess the whole thing got me a lot more down than I realized, and I moved away and went back to Kansas and Missouri and just kinda hung out there for about six months and recuperated.

"Pretty soon after that I just quit for all intents and purposes for about two years. I lived in San Francisco and went back to college and worked a job, did an occasional opening for somebody and played down at Fisherman's Wharf sometimes. I still wrote my songs, but I didn't really perform very much. I got to where I just really didn't enjoy it. But after a couple of years of trying to lead a normal lifestyle I realized I'm not really all that normal, and I guess I want to play music."

That's about the same time Cooper's friend Shake Russell, who he'd known since the two met in Kansas City in 1968, started writing letters, telling Cooper about the burgeoning Houston coffeehouse scene and encouraging him to move to town and get in on the action.

"He kept saying, 'You gotta come to Houston, man, it's booming here,' I guess about '75, '76, so I started going there from San Francisco just for a week or two at a time. That's how that whole Songs on the Radio thing (a 1978 album featuring Shake and Dana) came about."

The Shake and Dana pairing proved to have enormous local appeal and led to two recordings, the Shake Russell/Dana Cooper Band album, released by MCA in 1981 and now a hard-to-find collectors' item, and the Comin' Home LP, released by indie Twin Dream in 1982. But by the early 1980s, the Houston leisure-time economy had started to fold, and the duo's divergent business philosophies had begun to clash.

"We made such a good living just playing around the state that nobody in the band wanted to go out on the road. Once we had that MCA album deal coming through, I'd gotten a guy at the William Morris Agency interested in putting us on tour with some acts like the Little River Band and Poco. But nobody wanted to go out and do it because we were going to make as much for the entire band on the road as we were making per man in Texas. It was really a shame because I felt like we could have done a lot with that -- that album got quite a bit of attention. But once that all fell apart, I bowed out of the deal. I decided I didn't really have much say as partners with Shake at that time. I just felt like the things that I wanted to do weren't getting done, and Shake obviously had another idea in mind for the direction of the band, and also we just kind of went our separate ways. That's when I did the DC3 thing, which was another tough time. Here I went from playing acoustic guitar and being one of the front guys in the band to heading up a three-piece rock band, and the people that came to see DC3 just didn't know what to expect. They didn't like it. So I had to start over building a new audience from that point, and that took a couple of years to get leveled out."  

Dana Cooper's DC3 released an indie single, pleadingly titled "Give Us the Money," in 1983, an eponymous self-produced cassette in 1985, and another called Perpetual Man in 1986, but Houston never quite bounced back from the oil bust, and never quite caught on to the more rock-oriented DC3. Come 1988, Cooper and Linda, his wife of 16 years, decided a move was in order, and the town they chose was the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee.

"I'd never set foot in Nashville. I always bypassed it. Nashville to me, all through the '70s and '80s, there was nothing coming out of it that I gave a damn about."

But the folk singer's trade is much like the migrant worker's; you follow the work. In the same way that he'd been drawn to Houston a decade before, Cooper heeded the advice of old friends who had settled in Nashville.

"Geographically, it's a great place to work out of. It's almost exactly equidistant from Houston, New York, Chicago... it's a lot easier to travel out of than Texas for me. I had a lot of friends there, a lot of singer-songwriters that I've known over the years, and they kept writing me letters and saying 'Oh man, this is a great place, you should check it out.' So finally I went and visited and I was really taken with the people there, just a lot of real unusual non-country artists and musicians that have moved there from New York and L.A. because the quality of living is so scary in those places. And I was taken with the friendliness of all the people I met in the business. You could actually set up an appointment, go sit in somebody's office, go have lunch, play them a tape. It's hard to do that in L.A. or New York. So I'd go there every couple of months for a week or so and sleep on a friend's couch, go play the Bluebird and just check stuff out. Linda and I decided we'd go ahead and make the move. It was kinda scary, because I'd never lived anywhere for ten years in my life like I did in Houston."

The move hasn't made Cooper rich, but it has paid off in tangible ways. After years of trudging the song-publisher rounds, he's recently found peers such as Trout Fishing in America, Maura O'Connell and Rex Foster lined up to record his material. He's also taken on something of a guru-role in the city's alternative (read: not strictly country) songwriter community. "I get calls occasionally," Cooper says, "from writers that are coming through from other places, and they'll go to a publisher and ask who around here does this kind of thing, and I'm one of the people they'll refer them to. That's kinda neat. It doesn't pay the bills, but I have my place there."

Cooper's other place, the one that occupies most of his time lately, is the road, on which he tours almost continually, trying to make up for lost time in California and Texas, where steady gigs and recording obligations kept him tied to home.

"I just started doing the road thing a lot more, because as I've been doing it I've found that there are a hell of a lot of people out there that want an alternative to country radio and rock radio and pop radio -- it's all so limited on what they'll play on the radio anymore. These label folks are narrow-sighted, I think -- they're not seeing the immensity of the audience out there that's dissatisfied with what's being made available to them. I just happen to be in a place where I can play everything from folk clubs to rock clubs and bars and stuff, and it's interesting to me what's going on out there. We're selling stuff from off the stage and out of the back of the van, and it's paying for itself. It's obviously a very grassroots, long-term way to develop something, but you know, I'm seeing a little light at the end of the tunnel these days."  

Cooper's also continuing to record, with the release of a solo acoustic album of both very old and brand-new material, Roughly Speaking, being celebrated on the tour that brings him through Houston this week, and a less-folk, more-rock project in the works with Nashville session guitarist and long-time Cooper buddy Josh Leo that should be ready for release within the year. Last year's The Thrill of Love -- a one-time project with Russell and Saunders ("the trio that never was," says Cooper with a laugh) -- sold well (and was voted 1993 Album of the Year by Press readers), but it's a solo career that Cooper continues to try to build. And while it's hardly nostalgia for the glory days of the Houston folk boom that Cooper hopes to build that career on, the continuing goodwill of his Houston residency gives him as good a launching pad as any.

"I get a lot of people who come up to me at gigs down in Texas saying things like 'When I was a kid, my parents used to take me out to see you, or my older brother or sister used to take me out to see you,' and these people are in college now, and they're coming out and liking it, so that's pretty cool. I always tell them to be sure to turn their kids on to it, so when I'm a real old fucker somebody'll still be coming out."

Dana Cooper celebrates the release of Roughly Speaking 9 p.m., September 1 at McGonigel's Mucky Duck. Tickets $6. Call 528-5999 for info.

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