There's a long tradition of creative types combining careers in music and journalism, both in both jazz and other genres. But former Washington Post staffer Eric Brace and current Tennessean senior writer Peter Cooper have joined forces to do something even more difficult and impressive. They are the primary forces behind Red Beet Records, a label that is giving exposure, attention and a voice to several noteworthy performers who reside in East Nashville.
Cooper's forthcoming third solo disc Opening Day, set for release Sept. 10 — his sixth album overall in five years — seems an ideal time for both men to take a retrospective look at their label, now more than eight years old.
Brace and Cooper are experienced and knowledgeable journalists and working artists. That puts them in ideal position to comment not only on day-to-day problems involving performers, but difficult ongoing issues regarding arts coverage in newspapers and print publications. They answered questions via email recently regarding Red Beet Records, music writing, performing and other areas.
What is the origin and evolution of Red Beet Records?
Eric Brace: When I moved to Nashville in 2004, I was still hoping to get a label deal for my band Last Train Home. It was the beginning of the bad time for labels, and they weren't signing anyone who wasn't going to make them a ton of fast money, so I realized I would have to put out my own records. I had run my own label, Top Records, up in Washington D.C. in the early '90s, so DIY didn't scare me. But I knew that I didn't want to just have a vanity label putting out only my music.
So my wife, Mary Ann Werner, and I talked about it and brainstormed about a name, and decided our first release would be about our new home, East Nashville, and we would call the label Red Beet Records. So in 2005, we released The Other Side: Music From East Nashville to highlight the amazing musical scene I'd found myself in, with songs by folks like Elizabeth Cook, Todd Snider, Peter Cooper, Jon Byrd, and tons more. We had collected so many great songs, it became a double album. We've put out three East Nashville compilations now, and there's no way we can keep up with influx of creative folks. From there, we released a side project of mine called the Skylighters, which was with some bluegrass heroes of mine, Jimmy Gaudreau and the late Mike Auldridge.
After that, we were putting out Last Train Home records, Peter Cooper's solo records, and records by the duo we formed, cleverly named "Eric Brace & Peter Cooper." We have a great graphic designer, Bill Thompson, and we have a great business manager, Lindsay Hayes, and we'll just keep putting out two or three records a year. If I hit the lottery, I'd love to do more in capturing the local music scene and putting out more records by folks and friends, but for now, we'll keep doing what we do.
Peter, what was the motivation behind the title Opening Day, and is it a baseball-themed release?
Peter Cooper: This album isn't themed around baseball — though the cover shot is of me at my first Major League baseball game, when I was 8 — but it deals a lot with hopes and disappointments, and baseball taught me a lot about these things. The song "Opening Day" was written around the time my first — and, I'm thinking, last — son was born. Upon arrival, he was a blank slate, and that reminded me of the first day of the baseball season. He was practically perfect at first, and I figured that might not last forever, which reminded me of every other day of the baseball season after that first one. Baseball is designed to break your heart, and "Opening Day" is the saddest song I've got about hope.
What are your feelings about the East Nashville music scene?
EB: When I used to write for the Washington Post, my job was covering the local music scene. It was great and inspiring, but it never came close to what East Nashville has. The musicians and songwriters who move to East Nashville come here for a reason: they all want to make great music and they want to make it with each other and they want to share it with each other. They're at the coffee shop talking about their next project or they're joining each others' recording sessions to sing harmonies. I can name six recording studios within a mile of my house off where friends are making records right now, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
There's so much going on here that I don't know about, and that in itself is inspiring. It makes me want to go the Family Wash or the 5 Spot or the Purple Building or the Foo Bar or any of those new places that are opening up to hear some of the new music that's being made. It's great the the music scene feeds off the other things that are happening in East Nashville, too. All the restaurants and shops. Being here, being a part of this scene, makes me want to create. It also makes me a harsher critic of my own stuff, because I don't want to release anything that my musical friends might shrug their shoulders at. It forces me to be better, at all levels.
PC: East Nashville right now is full of distinctive and, I believe, splendid music. I'm not sure that it all coalesces as one "scene," but I'm also not sure that it needs to. I'm not supposed to sound like Kevin Gordon, and Gillian Welch isn't supposed to sound like Todd Snider. That said. a lot of us do hang around the same places, bumming drinks and listening to each other. I think what's happening in East Nashville is less a scene than a flowering.
East Nashville was the last Music City place that a lot of creative types could afford property and still be close to the city. Now, we've got a confluence of artists and writers, pickers and singers and chefs. Every trip to the coffee shop is a cultural exchange. That's good for those of us who find some joy in creation, and it's also good for those of us who find some joy in appreciating others' creations.
How does being both musicians and journalists impact what you do? Why did you decide to stop music writing, Eric? And does being a working musician have any impact on your current position, Peter?
EB: I left the Washington Post in 2003 in order to take my band Last Train Home on the road full time. We had gotten an offer from a major booking agency to join the roster if we could take it on the road full time. Even though the job at the Post was pretty spectacular, I figured if I didn't hit the road, I would always regret it. I didn't know then that I would end up in Nashville, but the road led pretty directly here once I decided to make music full time.
I've written a little bit for the paper since then, but mostly I've concentrated on music and on Red Beet Records. Before I began writing about music, I had been playing in bands in Washington, so I brought a certain awareness of the process to my writing. But I had to develop a more critical ear. It's one thing to think, "That rocks!" or "Man, that's terrible" and another to write some clear sentences about why something rocks or why it's terrible.
Developing that more critical ear was the best thing that ever happened to my music. I couldn't let myself get away with things that I'd criticized others for, and it forced me to sharpen everything: songwriting, guitar playing, singing, stagecraft. There are so many facets to what we do, I didn't want to fall down on any of them. The one thing I did tell myself after sitting through and writing about more boring shows than I care to remember was to never put on a boring show. I doubt I've managed that, but I think about that every night I'm performing.
PC: Writing music and writing about music are, for me, of a piece. They each provide a way for me to tell stories. And in each of them, I wind up telling my stories as well as other peoples' stories. Each form allows me to practice clarity, simplicity and empathy, and those aren't bad things to work on, in writing or in other pursuits. I can pretend to keep journalism and music-making separate, but sitting and talking about songwriting with Kris Kristofferson or Tom T. Hall or Randy Newman has to inform my own writing and understanding the process of writing and performing and touring helps me to write about others who are doing these things.
Now, that doesn't mean I think the best music journalists are also musicians. Two of my favorites are Peter Guralnick and Frye Gaillard, and I've never known either of them to sit and strum a guitar. For me, though, the playing is a nice crutch for the journalism, and the journalism is a nice crutch for the playing. Anyway, I probably shouldn't call writing-about-music "journalism." It's not like I'm embedded in a war zone or doing anything particularly difficult or unpleasant. Though there was that one time I sat through an entire Dave Matthews Band show.
What are your future plans in regards to recording and touring as well as the label?
EB: Peter and I have been averaging around 75 shows a year the past three years, and we'll probably keep that level of touring up. We'll be exploring more countries in Europe over the next year, and heading back to the places we love most here in the states.
In November I'm going to releasing a folk-opera (for lack of a better term) about the California Gold Rush called Hangtown Dancehall, which I've written with a Washington songwriter Karl Straub. We'll have a CD-release concert on Nov. 2 at 3rd & Lindsley for that. And early next year, I've got a duo record coming out with Jerry Lawson, the great singer from the Persuasions. Peter and I have another record that we're mapping out that will come out next year as well, so we'll be keeping pretty busy.
PC: Eric and I are on the road several weekends each month, singing songs from from all our albums. We've done three duo albums, and I've done three solo albums, and we also draw from Eric's work with his excellent collective, Last Train Home. There are some Nashville CD release shows for Opening Day, though: I'm playing Music City Roots on Sept. 11, with a band that includes mandolin ace Sierra Hull, multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, bass great Mark Fain and the excellent guitarist Thomm Jutz. I'm also doing a full-length CD release show on Sept. 13 at Station Inn with another tremendous band (working out a couple of final details, but Andrea Zonn, Thomm Jutz, Dave Roe and Pat McInerney are all in).
What got both of you initially interested in music as players and writers?
EB: There was always music in my house growing up and my older sister and brother and I always sang along to records: Peter, Paul & Mary, the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. Then, when I was in high school, I started going to see live music on a regular basis, and in the back of my mind I thought how great it would be to up there on stage making music. Washington had a ton of great bands in the '70s that I would go see: the Seldom Scene, the Nighthawks, the Skip Castro Band, the Roslyn Mountain Boys, the Slickee Boys. I loved it all and wanted to do that. In college I joined a bluegrass band, singing lead and strumming guitar, and though I loved it, I never thought I'd keep going, but here I am.
PC: I started playing songs in public when I was in high school in Northern Virginia. When I was 15, I went to the Birchmere and heard a progressive bluegrass band called The Seldom Scene. That band was my entry into the American roots music canon. From the Scene, I learned about Emmylou Harris, The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Gram Parsons and lots of others. Soon I was seeking all this stuff out, and standing in the cold outside the Birchmere, four hours before Nanci Griffith was due to take the stage and two hours before they'd open the doors, just so I could get the best seat in the house.
By senior year of high school, I was writing (very bad) songs and playing at prestigious venues such as Terlitzki's Deli. When I moved to Nashville in 2000, I didn't play out much. It wasn't until around 2005, when Todd Snider asked me to open some shows for him, that I started performing and recording in earnest. Todd gave me an invaluable apprenticeship, as I watched him in the studio and on stages, wrote songs with him and played (very bad) bass for home on the Leno and Letterman shows.
I got into writing about music when I was attending Wofford College (go Terriers!). An English professor was supposed to review a Guy Clark show for a weekly paper, and the professor got sick and couldn't go. He called me and asked me to review the show in his place, since I may have been the only other person in Spartanburg, SC who knew who Guy Clark was. I thought, "Hey, I'm a 21-year-old know-nothing, so surely I am qualified to go to a concert and write about whether Guy Clark is any good or not." I did, and he was. Guy was playing with accompaniment from his son, Travis, on bass, and in the middle of the show a friend of mine started crying and saying, "I wish Guy Clark was my daddy."
I wrote that into the review, and the editor called to ask if it really happened. "Sure," I sad. "You can ask anyone who was at the show." From then on, that weekly kept asking me to write reviews and profiles. When I was a middle-school teacher (something I write about on the new album) I used to make calling-card calls from the teachers' lounge to interview musicians like Kelvin Welch and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I'd spend more money on the phone call than I'd make for the stories, but it put me in contact and conversation with fascinating people. I lost money doing this for years.
Who are some of your influences in music and journalism?
EB: I've always listened to a wide selection of music, and I've always wanted to combine things: bluegrass, country, jazz, rock and the people I love most have been hybrids: Emmylou Harris, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Seldom Scene. They all managed to bring lots of different elements to their music, while keeping the lyrics at the forefront. I love Paul Simon's lyrics, he's probably at the top of my list for combining narrative stories with humor and sadness and everything life has to offer.
But Dylan is probably the most important in showing that you don't need anyone's permission to do anything you want, for better or worse. Journalistically, writers like Hunter Thompson and Lester Bangs did what Dylan did, expanding the subect matter and the ways you approach it. Other groundbreakers, like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, maintained an elegance that is impossible to match. I read lots of all those guys over the years and hope they all influenced me. They certainly inspired me.
A recent article in The Atlantic essentially concluded that the Americana scene or movement is a restrictive one that mainly welcomes white folkies and overage rockers, and is interested only in senior black acts with minimal current audiences. What do you think of that assessment?
EB: I think Americana is a really valuable umbrella term, giving people like me a place to reside, musically. So many times people have asked me to describe my music, and I end up hemming and hawing and just confusing the issue. Now I can just say, "I play Americana," and that can be that.
On the other hand, since Americana is such a broad term, that could mean bluegrass or blues or folk or rockabilly. So I still have to define myself. Given that it's such a broad term, it can mean Tex-Mex and Piedmont blues, swamp rock and jam bands, and some of that music will be played by people of color and some of it will be made by white men in their middle age who are obsessed with rootsy music.
Since the music label is so tied in with the Americana Music Association, the question is really, "Does the AMA restrict its membership to middle-aged white guys?" and the answer is no. I think it's doing an admirable job spreading the word about what Americana is and can be, and the people who care most about those genres of music will find it there and join up.
PC: There is no "Americana scene." It is a big-tent genre that encompasses so many forms of American roots music. It does in fact include old white folkies. It also seems to include old black folkies and young folkies of various descent and rock 'n' rollers and bluesers and twangsters and even some accordion players. The biggest Americana ascent this year has come from Jason Isbell, who doesn't appear to be old and isn't a folkie.
At last year's Americana Music Awards, I shared a dressing room with Booker T. Jones, shared a stage with tremendous drummer Brady Blade and witnessed an incredible performance from Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, and none of them struck me as being white, folkie or fading. I guess Booker T. is old now, but I'm not sure that's his fault, or that it makes "Green Onions" sound worse or makes his production on Willie Nelson's Stardust any less compelling.
I can't think of instances where anyone wanted to be called "Americana," and was told, "No, you don't have that classic Americana look and sound." I think all you've got to do to be "Americana" is to say, "I'm Americana." It's like becoming a music manager. Just go to Sunset Grill at lunchtime and hand out a few cards that say you're a music manager. Bingo, you're in the business. The only thing that'll get you fired from "Americana" is getting on contemporary country radio playlists.
What are your thoughts about the quality and content of what is deemed "contemporary country" music?
PC: I believe the term "contemporary country music" is inclusive, and that bluegrass, Americana, country-folk, country-rock and other styles all may be considered contemporary country, since they are being made in this contemporary time. There's a big difference between "contemporary country music" and the Contemporary Country radio format, and if we don't love what we hear via that radio format, we would all do well to stop complaining and just go off and listen to something that we like.
The song about the pickup truck and the dirt road and the tailgate and all this is clearly not for me, and FM terrestrial radio seems to play that one a lot. So when that happens, I switch over to satellite radio or I play something in my iTunes or I pop an actual CD in the dashboard. That said, there are some songs and performers on those big country stations who do appeal to me. I've heard Kenny Chesney singing a Keith Gattis song on the radio, and Miranda Lambert singing a Don Henry song.
But terrestrial FM radio in most formats provides aspirational music to passive listeners. I don't aspire to be at the dirt road party, and I'm not a passive listener. Let's not discount all the wonderful music being made today, though, just because we don't care for much of what's in the Top 10. It's not Emmylou Harris' fault that you don't like the guy screaming hick-hop lyrics about how country he is.
EB: Current major label country releases are so driven by what corporate FM radio wants that it's really just the soundtrack to radio advertisements. I think major labels are constantly on a quest for the highest selling widget of the year. I can't fault them for that. I'd love to sell a lot of widgets, but what I'm trying to do is write a great song and make a great record. I just don't think that's the motivation of most music row labels or publishers.
Is there a future for music (and for that matter arts) journalism in America?
EB: There's always room for thoughtful writing on the creative arts. In a marketplace where writing is devalued as just filler for papers, magazines and websites, I imagine it's hard to get talented writers and critics to enter into that world. But if someone can figure out how to make money off web page hits, then the writer with the most thoughtful and well-written blog is going to have a career writing about music. It might be a stand-alone page that one writer creates, or it could be under the umbrella of a larger news or arts organization, but it will exist.
PC: Writing about musicians is telling stories about people. Done well, I think that's engaging, intriguing and maybe even important. I don't understand, and don't care to understand, the specifics of newspaper and magazine profit-making, but I do understand that there has been great public visibility and response to pieces I've written this year about the deaths of George Jones and Cowboy Jack Clement, about a 91-year-old studio engineer who invented the fuzz-tone guitar pedal, about a twenty-something guy seeking to be a country star, and about many other music-makers.
People read these pieces, and react to them. If people keep reading and reacting, I'd assume it's in the best interests of newspapers and magazines to keep running this stuff.