“The best songs take five years to live and five minutes to write,” Ross Cooper told me during our interview. After a pause he added “or fifty years.”
We sat down to talk about his new album, Give it Time, which hit stores March 18, 2013. It is a slow burner of an album, full of carefully crafted lyrics that resonate long after the last listen. When he speaks of the album, Cooper reflects on all of the recent transitions in his life. “In a lot of ways, this feels like my first album,” he muses. The first of these transitions, the happier one, came when he graduated from college last year. More bittersweet was his decision to give up riding bareback horses in the rodeo to focus full time on his music career. It was a tough choice, one that required he give up his dream of qualifying for and riding in the National Finals Rodeo in Los Vegas. However, it was clear that he could not do both. Rodeo and music are both physically demanding and time consuming careers that demand a lot of travel and they, unfortunately, do not overlap. I understand the pull of the rodeo. My father did some riding himself back in his high school days. Oregon and Texas both have their share of amateur and professional rodeo cowboys. We bonded over that for a minute. It gave us something else in common. Rodeo is, by and large, a small town sport. He laughed when I told him how rodeos gave me the only chance to cheer for people from my rural community. This lead to a conversation about something else Texas and Oregon have in common—large rural areas with few large towns and the comparative geography that leads to.
“When I say I’m from Oregon people always say, “Oh, you’re from Portland.” I’m like no, I am part of the entire rest of the state that is not Portland.” I say. As it turns out, Cooper can relate.
“When I tell people I’m from Texas, they are always like ‘Oh Houston, is it close to that?’ I’m like ‘No.” They’re like ‘How about Dallas,’ and I’m like well...” He drifts off because close, in Texas, is a relative term. For most natives, the six hour drive from Lubbock to Dallas is “close.”
Cooper can relate to stories of living in a small town that is always compared to larger cities. And, it’s not just geography. Increasingly, Austin is seen as the only hotbed of Texas music and the rest of the state is over looked. The diversity of musical influences and styles in the state get boiled down to Alternative Country played in a dive bar on Sixth Street. People remember Willie Nelson is from Austin, but they tend to forget that Beyonce is from Houston. In the case of Lubbock, this is particularly unfair. Lubbock has its own storied history of singers and songwriters that rival the depth of talent in any city. Joe Ely calls Lubbock home; Jimmie Dale Gilmore grew up there. Mac Davis’ Lubbock childhood inspired one of his best known songs. I asked him what he thought was the root of so much creativity in the town.
“I always say that it is like an island surrounded by dust,” I can almost hear his half smile over the phone. This doesn’t meant that he found life there boring or isolated in the traditional sense of the word. Texas is a microcosm of America, and that can be found in the roots of its music where country, blues, rock, tejano, zydeco, folk and R&B meet and blend into endless combinations. Cooper grew up listening to a range of artists, from ZZ Top to the Mavericks. The later caught his attention more than the former. During his childhood, the local radio stations were filled with a wide range of Red Dirt artists like Cory Morrow and Pat Green. Then, just when a young Ross Cooper was starting to this about maybe wanting a career in music, his brother introduced him to the music of Ryan Adams.
“He was the first person I listened to and though this is what I want to do,” Cooper recalls. It was an introduction to a kind of songwriting and a level of diversity that he had never heard to before. Ryan Adams is the sort of singer that every genre wants a piece, someone who seems only two or three degrees of separation from any other artist. Cooper admires his level of craftsmanship, particularly over such a prolific career. “He is the Neil Young of our generation,” Cooper opines.
I ask him to pay his brother forward and recommend five albums to any other people out there looking to become singers. He shift over to his record collection and I can hear him flipping through records over the phone. Van Morrison’s comes quickly enough, as does Ryan Adam’s Cold Roses. After a moment of internal debate he settles on Townes Van Zandt’s self-titled LP. When considering a “more commercial” choice he tosses aside Elton John in favor of Leon Russell’s Carny. He describes “My Crickets” as the best and saddest country song Russell has ever made. The list stalls as he considers whether Gram Parsons should be represented by Grievous Angel or Sweetheart of the Rodeo, his album with the Byrds. I break the tie by reminding him that Emmylou Harris sang back up on Grievous Angel.
Cooper is more comfortable than a lot of artists with the designation of Americana, probably because he grew up on it and the genre is a cross section of his hometown’s musical heritage. “Some call it country, some call it rock,” he says. It’s the music that draws from the roots of American music he explains. Like most people steeped in the genre, he knows that it proceeds its official history. Springsteen’s Nebraska, he explains, would be an Americana album now. He prefers the designation because, ““It where you hear all the really poetic lyrics.”
Of course, any discussion of Americana is going to bring up the umbrella nature of the genre. I bring up The Alabama Shakes as an example of an act in the genre who seems to be there less because they fit the genre and more because they are not going to be played on Top 40.
“I would love to have a song like that,” he says, wistfully, referring to The Alabama Shakes’ break out hit “Hold On.” We talk for a moment about “it songs,” song that just suddenly seem to be in every commercials and every movie trailer. I admit that these days I am more likely to get a new song off of a television show than off the radio. Cooper agrees that there is a much broader scope of ways to discover new music, but when it comes to the internet, he is old school. He has neither Pandora nor Spotify. When he hears new music he likes he just buys the album.
“I probably waste a lot of money that way,” he acknowledges, “but when I heard a song I like, I want to know what these guys are all about.” We agree that this probably stems from living through an era when there were singles and album cuts and the later were almost always the best tracks.
Of course, we do live in the internet age, a time when music is increasingly purchased and consumed one song at a time. In keeping with this idea, I ask him which song from the album he would use to introduce the world to his music. He offers “Give It Time,” the melancholy first and title track. “It was the first song where I could hear the whole song from beginning to end and I just had to write it down.”
Here is where I have to enquire about a rumor I found in his press kit. Does his album, in fact, have my favorite style of song, a murder ballad?
“Which song are you asking about?”
“I don’t know the name,” I reply. “I just heard there was a murder ballad and was hoping.”
“There are…I guess there are three. I don’t know, I think I’m a happy person,” he replies in the tone of someone who just realized he put three murder ballads on an album and is now searching his psyche for signs of Spade Cooley.
It turns out that “Girl in the Pines” is probably the song I had heard of. It is a fairly straightforward addition to the lengthy cannon of American murder ballads. “Witches” was inspired by a ghost story from his childhood, and morphed into a story about a boy avenging his brother. “Girl in the Diner” is a song about shady women in bars, which causes him to preface its description with “I hate to say this to a woman.” I assure him it’s okay, that there is a long history of women and diners in country music.
“When I was younger, about 7 or 8, I actually wanted to be a diner waitress when I grew up because that it what all the best country songs were about,” I confess.
“That’s awesome” he laughs. “It’s never too late.”