Eric Brace and Peter Cooper: don't judge Nashville by Rascal Flatts
For those who suspect that music journalists are failed musicians, here’s the proof that some of them can actually succeed.
Eric Brace wrote for the Washington Post until he took the decision a few years ago to move his band Last Train Home from Washington to Nashville. Peter Cooper is still music correspondent for the Tennessean, balancing that with a blossoming career as a singer-songwriter and using up his annual leave for the pair’s current UK tour.
Neither of them, though, sees the writing and the music as separate.
“I became a journalist after I was already playing music,” Brace says. “What we did was we took our love for music into writing about music, and now we’ve sort of come full circle, and having written about it for 10 or 15 years has made me a better musician because I’m thinking about it, I’ve seen enough other people do it, learned some of their tricks too.”
Adds Cooper: “My job in Nashville involves getting paid to ask questions of John Prine and Kris Kristofferson about writing songs, so I don’t know if it’s helped but it surely can’t hurt. It’s afforded me an opportunity to be around fascinating, creative people.”
Brace now has his own label, Red Beet Records, on which the pair recently released the album You Don’t Have to Like Them Both and have a second album coming out in September. Cooper is also about to release his second album, recorded with pedal steel virtuoso Lloyd Green.
If that’s not enough, the pair have also just completed a tribute to the children’s songs of Tom T. Hall. Working at Hall’s house, they rerecorded his classic 1970s album Songs of Fox Hollow, with appearances from Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Elizabeth Cook, Tim Carroll, Duane Eddy and Hall himself. That’s due for release next year.
They’re touring Britain as part of the East Nashville Revue, along with Phil Lee and other artists who choose to make their homes in the working-class area across the Cumberland River from the prestigious parts of Music City. It has become a haven for singer-songwriters and musicians of all kinds who aren’t caught up in the commercial country factory.
“It happened to be the last decent place that someone could move in Nashville, get a house who wasn’t rich, and thus it became kind of an artists’ community – artists and drug-sellers, and sometimes they’re one and the same!” Cooper says.
“In this kind of fairly small plot of land … you’ve just got amazing, life-changingly good musicians who are right there. We can walk to Todd Snider’s house or Kieran Kane’s house, there’s kind of music in the air. You walk into a coffee shop there and you have a gig somewhere that night and you haven’t lined up a bass player yet, there’ll be three to choose from in the coffee shop who are world class.”
For Brace, moving to East Nashville gave him the encouragement he needed that he was making the right move.
“Up in Washington, people would still kind of look at me funny and go ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ Down in Nashville you’re just one of millions. You’re surrounded by so many great people that no matter what, if you’re taking music and songwriting seriously, you’re going to get better. You’re around some of your heroes so you can’t help it.”
Even though they see themselves as a separate entity, the East Nashville artists are accepting of mainstream Nashville, and are glad when one of their community manages to get a song cut by a big artist and make a little money. And it works both ways – Kenny Chesney sings harmony vocals on the pair’s next album.
“There’s plenty of collisions, I think, friendly collisions of spirit there,” says Cooper.
“There was a time in my life when I felt like the very best music should earn the best money, should be the most popular. Well, very seldom does it happen that way … It’s not fair, but that’s okay … Wonderful people get dreadful diseases, wonderful songs are never sung, and all we can do is try to make music that hopefully speaks to others but that makes us feel better once we’re done making it.”
“The commercial country people are trying to make scads of money, and that is the point of their existence,” adds Brace. “So for people to say ‘Oh, they’re not showing a lot of artistic integrity’, well that’s not really their point and I don’t blame them for that at all. That’s just the way business has evolved. There’s not one major business that’s about integrity other than profit.”
In many ways, Brace and Cooper have more time for the Nashville money-making machine than for the other big music city peddling their kind of music, Austin.
“The Austin music scene is fairly insular. The whole Texas music scene kind of feeds on itself,” says Brace. “Nashville, especially in the Americana world, is very outward-looking, I think. And Nashville has sort of an infrastructure to promote itself.”
Cooper is even more outspoken: “Some of my very favourite musicians are from Texas. Most of them have moved to Nashville.”
He is particularly critical of Austin artist Cory Morrow, who encourages his fans with the phrase “Nashville sucks.”
“I see John Prine at the Target store. I see Emmylou Harris at the restaurants, Nanci Griffith at Brown’s Diner. Those people suck? Guy Clark, from Texas, lives in Nashville. I don’t judge Patty Griffin by Cory Morrow, you know. I don’t know why I should be judged because of Rascal Flatts.”
Eric Brace and Peter Cooper are on tour in the UK, in varying combinations with other members of the East Nashville Review. Check out their pages for details:
Eric Brace on Backroads
Peter Cooper on Backroads