Keeping the spirit and artistry of Peter Cooper alive.
Before they embark on a tour of England Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz spoke to AUK’s Lyndon Bolton on a three-way Zoom call. Though both live in Nashville, Jutz was dialling in from where he grew up in Germany and Brace was still back home, flying over that night. Brace is best known for his roots rock band Last Train Home but he is also the founder of East Nashville label Red Beet Records having previously written about music for ‘The Washington Post’. Inspired by Bobby Bare the young Jutz left Germany for a life in music stateside. There he has played with Nanci Griffith, Mary Gauthier, David Olney, and Kim Richey among others. As well as Last Train Home Brace teamed up with neighbour and highly rated Nashville journalist and songwriter Peter Cooper. Together they wrote and performed, later to be joined by Jutz. Together they released the acclaimed ‘Profiles in Courage, Frailty & Discomfort’ and ‘Riverland’. Both albums are a mix of songs by Brace and Cooper alongside those of Thomm, who won Songwriter of the Year at the 2021 IBMA bluegrass awards. His songs have been recorded by dozens of artists, and he teaches songwriting at Belmont University.
Tragically Cooper died last December leaving Brace and Jutz, and so many others, not only feeling an immense loss but facing a fundamental appraisal of their musical direction. They kept going. As Jutz put it, “we have to keep playing the music”. What follows explains why.
When were you last over in the UK and what are your thoughts ahead of this tour?
Eric: I’ll start as I booked the last tour back in 2019. Thomm, please correct me if I’m wrong, one thing I’ve learned as I age is my memory is faulty! Yes, it was March 2019 and we had an excellent time. We played in many of the places we are going to this time and we were with Peter. Going back to those places so soon after his death is going to have a lot of emotional layers that we’re still wrestling with. But we’re glad to do it. Though almost a cliché, he’d have wanted us to do it.
Thomm: Without a doubt yes, There’s really nothing that softens the blow of losing Peter but Eric and I had done a couple of tours together without him when he was busy with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Vanderbilt University. Perhaps that will make it a little easier but certainly he will be with us every step of the way. Eric and I played a couple of shows last week here in the States and yes, it’s weird, we look into the middle and miss our brother in music, but it’s also, life’s for the living. We’ve discussed do we want to stop or do we want to go on and we both gave a pretty energetic yes, we want to keep going. It all comes down to a very simple thing, keep playing the music.
How close to stop did you get?
Thomm: We only got close to stop because in April 2020 we couldn’t tour for almost three years due to the pandemic. I can only speak for myself but in my mind there was no question that we were going to stop playing music. Again, because Peter would have wanted us to play the music we made together and the music of other people we’d played before so there’s no reason to stop.
Eric: Thomm and I have different musical projects going. At any given moment we each have at least two things going on. We’ve played a few dozen shows together but what Thomm and I have never done is recorded together. We’ve often asked ourselves, “why aren’t we making a record right now? Let’s do an Eric Brace and Thomm Jutz record”. Thomm has done several duo records, with Tim Stafford, Tammy Rogers, he’s got one with Mike Compton in the can and he’s got this English and American folk music of Cecil Sharp coming out soon. I’ve been working with my band Last Train Home and the multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman doing some fake 1930s sounding music so there’s always stuff going on. Only last week Thomm and I were saying we had better block out some time and make a record. There was never any question of stopping making music, just a question of scheduling making the music together. I’m really happy when this tour came about as I had contacted Paul Kenny at Twickfolk (first night of tour) and others like Chris Lee up in Yorkshire. I’m thrilled that this is our first real tour back.
Without giving too much away, what have you got in store for your UK audiences?
Eric: You go ahead Thomm.
Thomm: We’ve got a whole bunch of new stuff, we’ve got stuff Eric and I have written and we’ve got stuff by other people. Also, stuff we played as a trio. It’s a challenge, we’ve spent quite a bit of time getting ready. We’re excited and still working on our repertoire a bit. It’s a living, breathing thing, particularly with the new record in the back of our minds.
How has your music together evolved, especially in the context of your individual activities?
Eric: That’s interesting, you go Thomm.
Thomm: In a weird way Eric is into the songwriting and arrangements of the 20s and 30s. My mind is in that space as well. Eric comes from a more jazzy incarnation, I come from the world of Jimmie Rodgers and certain bluesmen. My music has evolved in that way, if you want to call it evolved and not call it taking a step back. I don’t think we have written any songs that relate to our relationship with Peter that we play on the tour. It’s still a little raw. I don’t think Eric and I are driven to, “oh my god we must write a song about Peter”. That would probably feel a little cheesy to us.
Eric: That is always an open question because watchwords for singer/songwriter material are authenticity, honesty and phrases like “baring your soul” and “opening your heart”. I don’t know how Bob Dylan would ever consider that to be his songwriting style. You know, you want to tell almost a parable about the modern world by mining the past. I’ve watched Thomm’s explorations of early mountain music and early blues with great fascination and great inspiration. I love watching what he comes up with based on that. I’ve always been amazed at Peter Cooper’s ability to be autobiographical and somewhat universal while still telling his own story. I’m not interested in writing songs that say, “oh you hurt my heart and here’s what I’m going to do about it” which seems to be the default position for young songwriters. It was my default for 20 years when I was writing songs with Last Train Home. A lot of it was, you know, just about my heart, my relationships. Now I feel inspired by Thomm and Peter as much as I ever was by Paul Simon or Lou Reed or Bob Dylan because they taught me to tell really interesting stories by mining the past. Thomm and I just wrote one about a Canadian wheat thresher in the 1920’s!
How did you find that?
Eric: Well, you know.
Thomm: We always keep our eyes on the charts.
Eric: As soon as I saw Taylor Swift had written a song about 1920s wheat threshers I was off! No, it’s where things all tie together. I was reading about the Trans Canadian Railway, and the great wheat boom in the early 20th century. The invention of the electric toaster caused a huge boom in the demand for wheat so the railroad company brought in migrants from the eastern seaboard to thresh the wheat. I thought that must be an interesting kind of person. What I find myself doing is getting out of my own head and putting myself into someone else’s head, whether fictional or actual. And I’ve learned that from Thomm as much as anyone else.
Thomm: I don’t think there’s a rule that says you have to do this or do that. Again, look at Dylan, he exemplified that. He just did what he wanted to do. Writing about yourself can be very claustrophobic. Write about other people and all of a sudden a cosmos of things you can write about opens up. Writer’s block may become writer’s fear but you’ll never run out of songs again.
Eric: Perhaps you know this but what you’ve just had is a mini masterclass from Thomm who is a professor of songwriting at Belmont University here in Nashville. He has to encourage these young songwriters who are so full of youthful angst about who cares for what or who loves them or not. Thomm has to guide them to think about things in a different way. Whenever I hear him talk about that stuff I think it’s fascinating. I love it.
I watched the video of Thomm’s keynote to the Southeast Regional Folk Alliance a year ago when he discussed image, not talking about yourself but about other people. Thomm, you gave a wonderful example of two men, one who talks a lot and the other very little. How do you combine images and people in songwriting?
Thomm: Sometimes you can bring these two together. That song was the image of two of my neighbours Ray and James. I thought one talking all the time and the other one silent was just such a perfect image of humanity. Most of the time my writing is based on images that are meaningful to me, I call these living images. They don’t always involve people, usually more about landscapes and places. I think living images are just another way of seeing my mythology which we talk about as expressions of faith or whatever you want to call it. Right now I’m in Germany where I was born. Today I covered 13 miles just walking through landscapes and places I’ve known since I was a child. They mean something completely different to me today than they did 40 years ago. Some mean more, others less. At the end of the day it all boils down to the Sanskrit “neti neti” meaning “not this, not that”. My whole life boils down to this. If you apply logic it comes to “everything is this, everything is that”. As you move through space and place you find what engages your senses and what you write about. That all sounds very philosophical but it’s absolutely not. My writing is, I hope, clear. It’s just that much of life is weird.
Your songs are very clear depictions of people and places. If I didn’t know otherwise I’d say you had grown up in the places in America where your songs are set. What in your songwriting now do you think comes from your early life in Germany? Did something come with you to America that you’re aware of or did it just happen?
Thomm: That is a really interesting question. I live in Nashville but I spend a lot of my time in my mind and physically in southwest Appalachia that looks a lot like the Black Forest of Germany. Sometimes I’m not sure which I’m thinking of. It becomes less and less important but today I thought I come from this place that speaks to me in many ways then I vividly remember listening to ‘Born In The USA’ for the first time in my parent’s living room on their turntable. I heard Springsteen singing about American small towns. I didn’t understand the lyrics but they showed me there was a different world over there that I wanted to explore musically and otherwise. Seeing Bobby Bare on TV was a huge influence too.
Eric, how have your other activities such as journalism and running your record label developed alongside your songwriting? Do you keep them separate or are they all one?
Eric: I think they are all one thing. I remember first becoming friends with Peter Cooper after moving here around 2004. He was a writer for The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper. He and I had known of each other’s writing for a couple of years. When we started on the journey of making music together and I knew he was a songwriter we used to get this question a lot. He would jump in and say, “it’s all one thing”. It’s all thinking about the world, you and the outside and finding the words to talk about it to somehow bring a wider understanding, and even meaning, to your existence out there. He was adamant that talking about music wasn’t just trying to be a critic and to explain the music. He wanted talking about music and making music to evince or provoke some kind of emotional reaction in someone. He was so careful in his choice of words and how he presented things. In that way he was inspirational to me. I have to admit I used to think of my activities separately so I had to put on my critic’s hat or put on my sensitive songwriter’s hat. There was a fluidity of thought that was helpful doing both but around Peter I realised the language about music was the language about the world and so it’s all of a piece.
Thomm: Peter was a master at that. Peter was the person who allowed me as a songwriter and me as a teacher to exist at the same time. Same as for Eric, Peter saw the world like that. He was the champion of so many people. He had such a unique way of looking at the world, in his case often through baseball! He called me an ex-German and would show those suspicious of my background that they were talking nonsense. We are all digging from the same well.
How would you describe Peter’s legacy, or is that too soon?
Eric: As Thomm said, Peter championed people. Especially at a local level. He made a point of saying that you don’t need to go spend 500 bucks on a ticket when you can go see Kevin Gordon or David Olney for five bucks down the street. Go do it. He was able not to get his ego involved. Songwriters worry about, “how come they got the opening gig? Why didn’t I get that gig”. There’s so much insecurity. Peter never showed any of that. He just loved that Tim Carroll was at The 5 Spot every Friday night or Jon Byrd was up at Dee’s every Wednesday night. As he said, “just because Kenny Chesney is famous, that’s not why you’re not on country music radio. You do what you do and I do what I do”. One thing Peter did was to write songs that no-one else could have written. I think his own championed vision was of music makers and music fans all working together. The people at his memorial in Nashville in February and the thousands and thousands who posted comments about Peter all said the same. He had a big musical heart. He was ‘The Champion of the World’.
Thomm: He certainly was but Peter was acutely aware that you had to put in your 10,000 hours to be able to do it. He didn’t have any time for people who were phoney. Peter showed us all how to love really hard and wide. Sometimes he forgot his own wellness over that.
You’ve both talked about your own approaches, styles and thoughts. What would you say you most have in common, and the least?
Eric: What we both have in common is that we’re both excessively in love with Norman Blake. What we have least in common is that I’m a mediocre guitar player and Thomm is one of the greatest guitar players I have ever met. He makes me better every time I play with him.
Thomm: Thank you. I think what we have in common is we just like to hang out with each other, we have meaningful conversations and we enjoy playing each other’s songs. The biggest difference is that Eric likes white asparagus and I don’t.
Who do you look to for inspiration or does that matter less now you’ve done so much yourselves?
Thomm: It matters less and it matters more at the same time. Losing Gordon Lightfoot was a huge blow to me, I’ve been such a fan for so many years. He was the songwriter who didn’t just write great lyrics but also wrote incredible melodies but I wouldn’t necessarily say I was trying to write songs like Gordon Lightfoot, not at all. So in many ways these influences become more important and less important. I’ve absorbed enough Guy Clark not to listen to him all the time because he’s become part of my unconscious mind. There’s a filter if you want to call it that, running in the background where you go, yeah, that’s the gold standard, not that I’ll ever get there but I’ll always remember “I’ve seen the David the Mona Lisa too and I’ve heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’“. Don’t worry about anything else, just keep that in your mind.
Eric: Same thing. As I’ve gotten older I’ve had to confront the limits of my own ability. When I was a kid I listened to Doc Watson and when I was fifteen I regularly saw The Seldom Scene in Washington DC. They would do John Prine songs and John Hartford songs and Emmylou Harris would jump up on stage. They were a real gateway for me to the world of both bluegrass and the singer-songwriter stuff. Peter and I had that in common as well. Some of these people are so good they inspire me more then they influence me. But so do the people right in front of me like Peter and Thomm. There’s a guy in DC named Karl Straub who’s been influencing me for 25 years! When I was a kid listening to Peter, Paul and Mary I would hear Gordon Lightfoot songs and I would hear Bob Dylan songs or old traditional songs. All were a big gateway for me. I just wanted to know their secrets. Like Thomm I’ve just listened to so much of all that back then I’ve probably absorbed them so I’m not listening to a lot of that stuff right now. It’s mostly older now, pre-rock and roll music to figure out where it all came from. I’ve been immersing myself in the popular songs of the 20s and 30s, what they call The Great American Songbook. I’ve been trying to get inside that and write my one versions.
What is your assessment of americana as a genre? Where is it going and what are you handing on to the next generation?
Thomm: I don’t know what I’m handing on to the next generation. As a teacher on the songwriting program at Belmont University I hope I’m handing on that loving great songwriting is enough. Commercial success is something else, that’s for other people to decide. What you consider is great is for you to decide and following that as a North Star spending a lifetime aspiring to be a great writer, that’s enough. I don’t want to think what I’m passing on with my songs, that’s not relevant but if it’s relevant to other people then that’s great. Jason Isbell is a great songwriter and musician. The musical side of songwriting is perhaps less valued so it’s writing poetry rather than songs. But it’s meaningless what I think about all this. No-one cares and nor should anyone. In terms of songwriting I think Taylor Swift is great. I think she has reinvented herself five times in 20 years. She’s inspired legions of young people, especially female, to become writers.
Eric: Taylor Swift played to 70,000 people each show for three nights in Nashville last weekend with another 20,000 milling around outside the stadium. My wife and I walked through those crowds just listening to those young people, mainly women, being inspired. I remember Peter writing defending Taylor Swift saying, “she might not be writing for you so just keep that in mind”. I was listening to folklore and it’s good stuff if not considered americana. I think most of what’s happening is in the acoustic world. Thomm’s good friends Sierra Hull and her husband Justin Moses, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Madison Cunningham, who is also an incredible electric guitarist and so complex, like Steely Dan! Chris Thile for 25 years has been one of the most unbelievably creative people on the planet, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, Sarah Jarosz and the Watkins kids. So much there. When we started Red Beet Records 15 years ago we put out a compilation of East Nashville musicians; Elizabeth Cook, Kevin Gordon, Peter Cooper. If I had to put that out now it would be a ten record set!
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Eric: Thomm, you go, I have to think about this.
Thomm: It’s tricky. I’m listening to The Carter Family, I’m listening to Norman Blake and I’ve been listening to a lot of Gordon Lightfoot.
Eric: I’m going to call up my recent playlist. I’ve been listening to a lot of Nat King Cole and I was listening to Taylor Swift and I was listening to ‘Hackensack’ by The Fountains of Wayne over and over again. I just love that chord progression, that melody, one of those things you never get tired of. And it’s only 2 1/2 minutes long!
And finally one more, I’m always interested to know what writers are reading?
Thomm: This is always a difficult question, what to take on an overseas trip. I talked to my wife before we came over about not reading anything too distinctively American when you’re in England. That being said I have the new Charles Frazier novel ‘The Trackers’, also a compilation by Carl Gustav Jung on active imagination, something I’m really interested in and the last one will be left blank to buy something when I’m there. Last time we bought a book called ‘Wilding’ but if I don’t find anything I will finally try ‘Ulysses’.
Eric: Peter Cooper’s brother texted me this morning to say how much he is enjoying ‘Deliver me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska’ by Warren Zaynes. That was an important album for me. And a recommendation from Chris Lee in Beverley who is hosting a show, ‘The Blackpool Highflyer’ by Andrew Martin, a railroad mystery set in the late 1800s. Wonderful.
And what could be a more suitable accompaniment to touring England? Thank you both so much for your time and I look forward to meting you on your opening show at Twickfolk.
Thomm: That was so much fun.
Eric: Thank you very much.