Oct 2, 2010 Artist of the Month
Posted by Adam
Originally from South Carolina and presently located in Nashville, Peter Cooper is a man of many trades. He is a music critic (The Nashville Tennessean), a producer (Fayssoux McLean’s Early), a professor of country music history (Vanderbilt) and most importantly an amazing songwriter and performer. For the purposes of this article we will focus on the latter of this list and his short but brilliant recording career.
My personal introduction to Cooper’s music came the way that I discover so many artists, through a live recording. I was listening to a copy of one of Todd Snider’s What the Folk performances and in between sets Peter comes in and plays two quick songs. The first of the two tracks was one of the greatest crowd grabbing opener’s ever. “Nirvana Was Better Than Pearl Jam” is funny and probably true. It is the kind of song that makes the crowd pay attention to you even if they have never heard of you. Following that was the song that instantly had me interested in finding more out about Cooper, “What’s the Use”. It follows along as the obviously over intoxicated hero makes one bad decision after another during a night that should have ended three drinks and two bars before. What really struck about the song was the way he injects conversation into a song seamlessly with lyrics such as “You say you’re gonna cut me off, leave me be, you say you got a word for people like me… it ain’t a good word, you don’t have to say it again”.
I began frantically scouring the internet to find out more about this guy to no avail (at the time he had no website and this was just prior to the Myspace craze) , so I sent a message to the Todd Snider listserve asking if anyone had any more information for me. To my surprise my answer came in the form of an email from Cooper himself. He introduced himself and told me that he had just released his debut ep, Clown Juice.
Not too long after that I was excited to find out that Peter would be opening up for a run of Snider shows I would be attending in Dayton. This was my first chance to see him live and as he has done every time that I have seen him, he blew me away. Cooper put on the best opening set I have ever seen especially from someone that was virtually unknown by the crowd. He is engaging on stage, fills the space between songs with witty banter and always seems to nail the tunes.
Since then I have had the opportunity to see him live on a number of occasions. He was gracious enough to come to our bar and do a show a few years ago and Jerry Brightman, former pedal steel player for Buck Owens, met him there and they put on a spellbinding three hour show filled with Cooper’s originals and appropriate covers.
In addition to releasing two full length solo records since then he has also teamed with Eric Brace of Last Train Home to put out two phenomenal records. Earlier this year I had the chance to go see them together live two nights in a row which you can read about here. Prior to the second of those shows the two of them stopped by the home studio to appear on our podcast which can be downloaded here.
Normally, at this point in the article I would break down my favorite three or so recordings of the artist, but I am going to do a little something different on this one. Cooper’s second solo release, The Lloyd Green Album, and his second collaboration with Eric Brace, The Master Sessions, are actually my two favorite of his releases but, since they were just put out this month I will be doing full length reviews of them hopefully today. I will just say that it is remarkable that the same person released two of my top ten records of the year.
I would like to highlight Cooper’s first three efforts because they were also very good.
The aforementioned ep, Clown Juice, contains three additional songs other than the two that he played that night in Nashville. “Gospel Song” (which will later re-appear on The Lloyd Green Album) is still my favorite Peter Cooper song. Does a line get any better than, “There’s gonna be some wreckage when your dreams and your habits collide”? “Andalusia” is the story of Hank Williams Sr. and Cooper’s grandpa and their interactions in Andalusia. Rounding out the ep is the song, “Thompson Street”, the place in Spartanburg, South Carolina where Pink Anderson sang.
Arriving three years later in 2008, Cooper’s full length debut, Mission Door, really opens the door to what he is capable of as a songwriter. Immediately you notice that Cooper has found a muse instrumentally in Lloyd Green who is a session work master playing pedal steel on countless number one hits. Green’s absolutely flawless pedal steel playing weaves its way in and out of this entire album, perfectly complimenting the outstanding songs and also setting us up for the next Cooper record that would bear his name.
Something that really begins to show on this record is Cooper’s ability to tell someone’s story through a song. He can make anyone’s life seem significant whether or not they were famous. This is a feat that many have tried and few have mastered and Cooper does it better than anyone. One such song on Mission Door is “Take Care”, the story of Townes Van Zandt that both idolizes him and does not pull any punches when it comes to his shortcomings.
Further along in the album is the greatest marriage of sports and song ever, “715 (For Hank Aaron)” is a brilliant song even if you aren’t a baseball fan. Written while Barry Bonds was chasing Hank, the song chronicles the real life struggles that Hank faced when he was legitimately breaking the home run record.
“Sheboygan” looks at the idea of predestination through a different window, one where even acts that aren’t the most ambitious or moral can be looked at as divine. Along the same lines is “One By One”, the best track on the record. In this one the narrator commits a heinous crime after having a one-sided conversation with a bartender basically justifying his upcoming act.
Later in 2008 marked the beginning of what will hopefully be a long lasting collaborative endeavor between Cooper and Brace with the release of You Don’t Have To Like Them Both. While this album only hints at what they produce together live and have mastered with their new release, it is full of remarkable songs and harmonies. They had not yet begun writing too many songs together and had both recently released their own albums, so they decided to fill the spaces in the record with covers of songs that were written by friends of theirs.
Among the songs and songwriters chosen for this album was David Olney and his song “Omar’s Blues #2″, which in my opinion is the standout on this record. It exhibits the harmonies that these two find that have the ability to transform any song into a masterpiece. Todd Snider’s “Yesterdays and Used to Be’s” is another track that is excellent cut on this one. Cooper takes the lead vocals on this and delivers a first class version of his good friend’s tune.
The only song that the two wrote together on the record was “Lucky Bones”, a song that Brace began with Jim Lauderdale and later finished with Cooper’s help. Brace takes the lead helm for this one and it is an amazing country tune that would have sounded right at home at any honky tonk in the country.
That wraps up the first part of Cooper’s recording career. I promise to have the reviews of the new ones up in the next few days, because they are both spectacular. If you are not familiar with Cooper check out his site here or Red Beet Records’ site here. As a selfish side note, I’d like all of you to buy two copies of every one of his albums so that he can start to think about quitting that nagging day job as a music critic and therefore make more frequent trips to Ohio to perform.
As always the reward for making it through my long winded ramblings, here is a video clip I filmed a few years ago of Cooper playing “Sheboygan” as part of an opening set for Snider at the Canal Street Tavern in Dayton.