Peter Cooper has worn many hats in Nashville. He’s a professor at Vanderbilt University, teaching a class on the history of country music. For years he wrote about music for The Tennessean. He now works at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and remains a tremendous songwriter and singer who has written some of the best music I have heard in the last ten years.
I came across Peter’s works a number of years ago through my good friend Eric Brace, founder of Red Beet Records. Cooper and Brace have collaborated on a number of projects for Brace’s label and, to me, they both personify all that is right about a city that so often gets music oh so wrong.
Cooper deserves mention among the ranks of Nashville’s best songwriters, troubadours too often unsung, like Tommy Womack and Will Kimbrough, Kevin Gordon and Jon Byrd. To this list I must add a name I didn’t know until I got Peter Cooper’s most recent record, Depot Light: Songs of Eric Taylor, which releases tomorrow.
As the title would suggest, Cooper has recorded an entire record of Eric Taylor’s songs. Admittedly, I was unfamiliar with Taylor’s work, but – as is often to case when I open up a record by Peter Cooper or anyone else supported by Red Beet Records – I discovered a previously unknown gem. Eric Taylor is a powerful songwriter, and Cooper’s renditions of his songs only leave me wanting to delve deeper into the original material.
I recently chatted with Peter about the gravity of recording another songwriter’s work, why Eric Taylor’s song resonate with him so, and carny life.
BRO – What about Eric Taylor’s music prompted you to do a whole record of his work?
PC – It’s all in the songs, which are absolute narrative masterpieces. It’s not that I wanted to somehow raise the profile of these songs or pay tribute to Eric. That’s a selfish project. I just wanted to sing these songs and hope that maybe someone will mistake them for my own.
BRO – Got a particular lyric of Eric’s that really turns you inside out?
PC – Eric doesn’t ever take a line off, so every lyric of every song carries enriched language and weight of emotion. I’m always compelled when he writes about fathers and sons, and there are two in particular on Depot Light that turn me inside out. One is “Charlie Ray McWhite,” which is about a grown son searching for his father, a drifter. The song opens with the son explaining, “He was coughing cold and crazy in the rain/Wish I’d had the sense to ask his name/When I think back on it now, it crossed my mind/But the man I was looking for was nearly twice the size.” So, he was actually in his father’s presence, he just didn’t recognize him because his expectations were of a stouter man, not this sadsack. Eric told me the song was true, except for the end, where the father has died. In reality, Eric was in Florida and found his father, but they soon began arguing and the reunion was a bust. The other father and son song I love is the title track, “Depot Light.” In that one, we don’t even realize it’s about a father and a son until the last line of the song. The narrator just offers details about a conversation at a train depot with a man who trades in low-level thievery: “The all night waitress, she just talks too much/So he steals her spoon and her coffee cup.” At the end, Eric writes, “If she’d come home, boy, I’d take her back,” which doesn’t reveal the characters’ identities. The very last verse line is nearly a repeat, with one word changed: “If she’d come home, son, I’d take her back.”
BRO – Is there a different pressure in recording a collection of someone else’s tunes when compared to recording your own?
PC – In some sense, there’s very little pressure in recording Eric Taylor’s songs because they’re all stunners. I mean, Roseanne Barr could sing these songs and it’d choke me up. But, in truth, there was a heavy sense of responsibility in doing this album. The responsibility wasn’t to Eric, it was to the songs themselves. The performances had to be up to the level of the material.
BRO – We are featuring “Carnival Jim & Jean” on this month’s mix, which is a dark carny song. On a lighter note, if you had a job at the carnival, what would it be?
PC – I love that song. It’s a song of desperation, yet in a way it’s the funniest thing on the album. I like how Jean’s hectoring of Carnival Jim cuts close to home: “You say the smell of cotton candy’s ’bout to make you sick/You won’t do no better without me.” If I had a job at the carnival, I’d like to work at the booth where people try to shoot basketballs into those small rims. I’d like to hector junior high hotshots who miss. I’d be like a cross between Bobby Knight and Don Rickles. Big fun, at the expense of hopeful young people.
Peter’s calendar is rather quiet for the rest of 2015, with just one show remaining between now and the end of the year. You can catch Peter, along with a collection of songwriting chums, at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville on December 17th. Cooper will also be returning to Jammin Java in Vienna, Virginia, on January 23rd, with his good friend Eric Brace.