Peter Cooper: Nashville Scholar, Fake Hillbilly Hater

The senior music writer and columnist for Nashville daily The Tennesseean and a professor of country music history at Vanderbilt University, Peter Cooper also steps out as a performing songwriter when his schedule permits. He rolls into town Friday night at McGonigel's Mucky Duck as part of a duo with Last Train Home front man Eric Brace.

Cooper and Brace both have individual efforts on CD, but they've also recorded an album together, You Don't Have To Like Them Both, as well as a recent collaboration that produced the just released Tom T. Hall tribute album, I Love: Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow, in which they and other guests cover all the tracks ("Sneaky Snake," "Dance of the One-Legged Chicken" on Hall's 1974 LP Songs of Fox Hollow.

Selected by the Nashville Scene as one of the Ten Most Interesting People In Nashville last year, Cooper also recently wrote a stinging Tennessean piece entitled "Country Boys Are Wearing Out Calling Cards," in which he laid bare the emptiness of the average so-called country music song.

Rocks Off: You hit right on the nose with your article about all the lame, not-believable tropes and stock images that dominate the songs cut by the major players in Nashville these days.

Peter Cooper: I don't think that's news to many people. All these guys singing about how much they like the smell of hay in the barn, how much they love those small-town sweethearts - that stuff isn't fooling anyone much anymore. Most of the stuff that gets cut today is the product of co-writing, which is another factor in dumbing stuff down to the Rascal Flatts level.

There hasn't been a single country hit this year that was written by just one writer. And that's all driven by the big publishing houses and major labels. But with that said, I'd also have to say that I don't really want to hear another Texas artist do the whole Lone Star Beer, taco, floating-on-the-river thing either. That's equally trite and empty. These Texas guys who talk all this smack about Nashville are a bit off-putting too.

RO: Mark Germino recently said that it's wrong to identify Nashville as what's wrong, it's the country-music industry and the people with big stakes in that who are dumbing the music down as per the examples in your article.

PC: He's exactly right. Night after night there is probably as much serious musical talent in Nashville as any town on the planet. But whereas in Texas you've got an audience that works days and goes out to hear music at night for fun, the sad truth is that in Nashville most of the events where the best music is are just a few songwriters playing to an audience that is mostly other songwriters. And that's kind of a shame.

RO: What is the story on your Tom T. Hall tribute album?

PC: Eric and I brainstormed that one up, and the big thrill was getting to go up to Tom T.'s house and hang with him some while we cut the songs. And we got all these special people in there like Jim Lauderdale and Patty Griffin, who is so great she seems almost effortless. It was amazing how she just walks up to the mike and nails it. Three minutes and she's done. It was a fun project, and a lot of good feeling went into making that little record.

RO: What is up with the Brace/Cooper gigs?

PC: Well, we've worked together off and on quite a bit. This gives him another outlet outside his band, and he's just a great voice. And there's probably nothing in music that I find more fun and fulfilling than singing harmony. So it works out well for both of us, and we enjoy traveling together and doing these shows.

RO: You've been a working journalist for years. How did you begin your songwriting career?

PC: I've been lucky enough to hang around some pretty good writers in Nashville, and I've just always been a writer, so that was an obvious branch for me. But I don't think I would've ever gone out performing like this if it hadn't been for Todd Snider.

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper, "Wait a Minute"

RO: What's the story?

PC: He and I don't live far apart and have become good friends. A few years back we were sitting around playing some songs and he says, "Hey, I've got a string of dates up in Wisconsin, you want to come along and open the shows?" And I said sure, so Todd said I was going to need something to sell at the gigs or else it was going to be a financial disaster for me, so I cut a CD. It's really that simple.

RO: What's your take on Houston?

PC: Well, Houston has a special place for anyone who is a student of country music and songwriting. I wish I'd been able to go to the Old Quarter or Sand Mountain back in the day when all that talent was hanging around those places, performing there.

Fortunately, Eric Taylor is a good friend and he's told me a lot of the lore about the Family Hand and that scene that Houston had going on in the late '60s, early '70s. And that movie that came out last year about Anderson Fair [For The Sake of the Song] was an eye-opener and such a pleasure to watch.

RO: What is your take on why so many important modern songwriters came out of that scene?

PC: If you really look closely, Townes, Guy Clark, Eric, Vince Bell, Steve Earle, Rodney Crowell, Richard Dobson, all that amazing set of songwriters who coalesced in Houston, they were all really under the spell of Mance Lipscomb and Lightnin' Hopkins, so they were under the spell of the blues.

And at some most basic level, they've all kept the blues element in their writing and performing. They could never have been hillbilly writers or Tin Pan Alley writers because they came at it from that acoustic blues angle that they picked up around Houston seeing Mance and Lightnin' do the gig.

Eric Brace & Peter Cooper perform 7:30 p.m. Friday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck.

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