You can come home again.
It was a very personal moment when Peter Cooper and Eric Bruce introduced the last song of their two sets with Thomm Jutz at Jammin’ Java outside Washington, DC. When the two were teenagers going to high school in the DMV area, they spent time at the Birchmere where they learned their craft watching the Seldom Scene and their renown dobro player Mike Audridge. It would have been incomprehensible at the time to imagine that one day they’d record their own version of “Wait a Minute” not only alongside the master himself but with the legendary steel guitarist Lloyd Green.
Brace was the guy Cooper introduced in Nashville nearly twenty years ago. “Just what Nashville needed, another singer-songwriter,” he quipped self-deprecatingly. Brace, who left his band mates from Last Train Home to move to Music Row, dubbed the night a theme about the “cruel inexorable passage of time.”
Along the way the two, and friend and collaborator Thomm Jutz, have seen the world and been inspired to write about it. Their just released Riverland is about Mississippi and was inspired by things they were reading.
It was Jutz who suggested they write a song based on Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi. The German born guitarist and Nashville transplant who has written extensively in verse about the Civil War, was also reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Soon the three became interested in the siege of Vicksburg as subject matter.
“Mississippi and the state were both looming large in our lives for various reasons,” Brace reflected in in the dressing room before showtime. “It was a confluence of things which is good when you’re talking about a river.”
Brace and his wife had taken a road trip and gone through Ft. Defiance where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi. There were shows in Natchez, Mississippi and Baton Rouge and the night when Brace and Jutz visited Under The Hill, the oldest tavern in Mississippi. There they felt the mysticism of the river.
“At street level you can’t not feel the presence of the river when you’re that close,” Brace describes of the imposing, mystic body of water. That translates in the lyrics of “In The Presence of The River”
“It draws me in, it makes me weep, it makes me wonder…don’t know about you but I quake and shiver in the presence of the river.”
Onstage Cooper would look at Jutz and Brace and joke about the folly of doing a whole album based on a trip they took. But then again he had already written a song “Uneasy Does It” about some personal angst (“just some stuff I was going through”) and turned it into a meditation about Jerry Lee Lewis’ favorite haunt and hideaway of Hernando, Mississippi. Cooper had also journeyed to the state with native Charlie Worsham for a literary project. The guitarist ended up writing the album’s introductory essay.
The trio’s fascination with history is comes to life in the numerous images taken from the Library of Congress and published in the rich liner notes detailing the subject matter explored over thirteen songs. In it we see images of William Faulkner’s home, the battle of Vicksburg and military trucks rolling through the University of Mississippi a century later during the riots over integration.
But it’s the eerie parallels to events of the present that make Riverland more than just a history lesson. In “King of The Keelboat Men,” Brace and Jutz write of the emergence of steamboats, you can’t help but think of present day economic insecurity brought by technology and automation. When the co-writers detail the environmental toll caused by the floods of 1927, the images of Hurricane Katrina loom large.
“Poor folks didn’t fare well in floods back then,” they write in the liner notes. “Come to think of it, some things don’t change.”
“Each song is about something and yes it might be about something in the past,” Brace adds, “but hopefully it’s about now and timelessness.”
In the song “Mississippi Magic,” the trio sings about the civil rights era and the preacher Will D. Campbell. He believed everyone was equal in the eyes of the lord. His radical vision that churches should open their doors to all including black people got him kicked out of the Southern Baptist church. As Cooper tells it, Campbell went to minister in prison to Lee Harvey Oswald and attended Ku Klux Klan meetings. “‘You’ve got a cross on your robe but you’re not following the word of Jesus,” Cooper quoted Campbell. “‘Let me explain it to you.’”
“They thought he was crazy.” Cooper says with bemusement as he tells the story.
Campbell was part of a traveling caravan known as “The Brotherhood” that included author Alex Haley and country singer Tom T. Hall. Along with other musicians and black ministers, they would tour college campuses at the height of Haley’s popularity for writing Roots. Campbell became part of the country music community and as Cooper recounts with a smile, “the only preacher who could talk to Waylon Jennings about God.”
Cooper and Jutz play the characters of Campbell and Hall in the song “Tom T and Brother Will.” At the albums premier at the Station Inn, Campbell’s voice could be heard over the track as his kids listened to the tape Hall slipped to Cooper. “Will’s got a cut,” Cooper says proudly about the song.
Cooper, who provided musical accompaniment on Hall’s autobiographical Audible edition, has become friends with the legend. In his book From Johnny’s Cash to Charley’s Pride, he provides an interesting historical anecdote that Hall once told him and triggered for me listening to “Mississippi Magic.”
“When I was a kid, I was told, and I believed, that mine would be the generation to end the things that were wrong,” Hall said. “My generation would put a stop to end the things that we’re ring. My generation would put a stop to ally hide at, and to whatever this racism was. My generation was the future, and the future was better than what had come before. Well here I am turning 80. And it wasn’t true. It was the same lie every generation tells the one that follows. So that’s a big sadness.”
“Isn’t that something?” Cooper responds when I bring it up. “Oh man that’s a killer. He’s an amazing man. He’s one of the most complex people I’ve been around.”
Cooper knew that Campbell and Hall built a whiskey still in the Sixties. Cooper was helping to put together the exhibit Outlaws and Armadillos for the Country Music Hall Of Fame. One day on a visit to Hall’s house, he asked where it was. Tom T pointed to a the corner of the room and Cooper quickly secured it for the exhibit.
Cooper spent three years assembling the exhibit and could be heard hosting an all-star concert from the exhibit’s opening broadcast on SiriusXM. He is still in awe as he remembers Jason Isbell coming to rehearsal asking if he could just join the band. “There was a moment where you had Bobby Bare singing “Marie Laveau” with Amanda Shires playing fiddle The guitar Arsenal was Dave Cobb and Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters, Charlie Worsham who is the hottest guitar player in Nashville and Jason Isbell.”
For Cooper who is a liaison to the artist community, his work at the Country Music Hall of Fame is the intersection between his day job and making music. Cooper has been fortunate to get advice from songwriters like Don Schlitz, author of “The Gambler” with whom he co-wrote “Suffer a Fool Like Me.” Schlitz’ methodical approach with Cooper helped lead to the finished song. “What is your wife like?” Schlitz wondered. “How did she get that way?”
Holding a thick folder of song lyrics pre-show, Cooper had an intense focus like he was walking the floor of a newsroom at deadline. The former music writer for The Tennessean, Cooper was once told by Johnny Cash that he looked forward to seeing his bi-line when he picked up the paper on his driveway.
Cooper is a student of history and on this night his 93-year old friend Mac Wiseman was in the hospital. He and Jutz had translated Wiseman’s life stories into the songbook “I Sang The Song.” Jutz sang lead vocal and words he wrote for Mac and John Prine sang on the album’s closing track. (Sadly Wiseman passed a few weeks later.)
Onstage during “Donut Girl,” Brace found himself watching Jutz’ guitar playing slightly in awe.
“I know,” he said coming out of the song. “I forget to start singing because of Thomm’s playing.
It was Jutz who wrote a song about a bend on the Cumberland River known on nautical maps as “Hartford’s Bend.” The famed songwriter John Hartford who penned “Gentle on My My Mind” had a house overlooking the river and boats would blow their whistles when they passed. The trio listened a lot to Hartford during the making of Riverland and Brace says he is surprised they didn’t include one of his songs.
In “Drowned and Washed Away,” the trio’s voices blended to describe the darkness of what you can’t see. Brace is still is in awe of a river that’s three-quarters of a mile wide but at one point became sixty-miles wide. He mentions the book The Great Flood of 1927. he empathy and ability to write about the characters whose lives were destroyed personalizes the tragic events.
Soon it will be July 4, a day that will live in infamy in Vicksburg. It’s also one of the two times of year that Brace re-unites his old band Last Train Home in Washington, D.C. Brace has been thinking a lot about the future of the band, the one he says was once described as might have been the next Jayhawks or something”
That was then and this now. Another song about the inexorable march of time is played. “Time Curves and Rolls Away.”
As night ended and Brace came off stage, shaking hands with well wishers. As he passes by me, he mentions it was about the best show they’d played. He could tell by the harmonies. They were just right.
I couldn’t help but think Mike Auldridge surely would have been proud.