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Interview: Singer-Songwriter Greg Trooper

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Forget the heat wave that’s turned New York City into one big sauna. There’s a patch of breezy countryside in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, in a shadow-dappled glade called Music Grove. It’s a particularly felicitous place to catch up with Greg Trooper, whose crackling blend of country, rock, folk, and R&B music epitomizes what the music biz labels Americana.

Straw fedora perched on his head, Trooper lounges on a park bench and talks about an upcoming gig, August 5, opening for alt-country duo Steve Earle and Allison Moorer — this summer’s artists-in-residence at downtown’s City Winery. Trooper and Earle go way back, a friendship forged in the early ’80s at the defunct Lone Star Café in the West Village, that old country music stomping ground. (Earle’s 1988 cover of an early Trooper song, “Little Sister,” can be found on the deluxe re-issue of his Copperhead Road CD.) “He’s been incredibly supportive of my music all these years,” Trooper says, without a trace of jealousy – despite the fact that Earle’s career has skyrocketed in the past few years, while his own remains at cruising altitude.

Earle’s not the only musician to cover Trooper’s music – Vince Gill, Billy Bragg, Robert Earl Keen, and a number of others have picked up his songs over the years. In fact the songwriting end of the business became so lucrative, Trooper relocated to Nashville in the mid-1990s, offered publishing deals too cushy to refuse. “I had a string of songs recorded by other artists before I moved to Nashville,” Trooper says wryly. “But once I was there, people started saying, ‘Oh, he’s around, we can get a song from him anytime.’”

While the songwriting paid the rent, Troop focused on his own performing career, where his heart really lies. “Being a singer and being a songwriter kinda go hand in hand – you can’t have one without the other,” Trooper declares. Each subsequent Greg Trooper album drew critical praise, and – even harder to win — respect from his peers. Yet he kept falling between the cracks when it came to record labels. First there was Popular Demons (1998), on Koch Records – produced by the legendary country guitarist Buddy Miller – followed by Straight Down Rain (2001) on Eminent Records. A deal with Sugar Hill Records lasted for two albums, 2003’s Floating and 2005’s Make It Through This World. “Then Sugar Hill dissolved – or at least, they dissolved me,” Trooper says with a philosophical shrug. He’s a classic example of a mid-level artist caught in the squeeze as the record business convulses and contracts.

In 2008, Trooper moved back to the New York area, a homecoming of sorts for this New Jersey native. At first, settling down in Brooklyn, he found himself playing catch-up. “I got back here, and the whole place had changed – neighborhoods, the cost of living, the clubs, the whole music scene. Most of the musicians that I’d played with here, their lives had changed.”

But now that he’s in the swing of things, the return to New York seems to have energized Troop. “In Nashville, the country music fan base retains older people, but in New York, it’s more cutting edge,” Trooper notes – especially for his type of music, which cross-fertilizes the country sound with folk, rock, and R&B.

“Definitely there’s more work up here, in terms of live performance,” he adds – a significant factor in today’s music business, with live gigs being the main source of income for most musicians. Trooper is known for his dynamic stage presence, even when it’s just him and an acoustic guitar – which is the usual set-up in the intimate venues where he tends to play. “Anyway, who could afford to take a whole band on the road?” he points out with a rueful grin.

Returning to the Northeast, Trooper had one ace in his pocket – an unreleased album he’d recorded in 1995, just before decamping to Nashville, with Eric “Roscoe” Ambel at the helm. He remixed the record and released it last year, as The Williamsburg Affair. Though the record was laid down 15 years ago, the sound – solid roots-rock, with resonant lyrics about love, loss, and moving on – seems anything but dated. The only clue to this record’s shelf life is one track, “21st Century Boy,” dedicated to his then-infant son, who’s now 16.

“My songs aren’t nearly as autobiographical as they appear,” he warns. “But even if the incident that inspires a song didn’t happen to me, I try to inject a point of view that makes it personal. At the end of the day, that’s all we’re trying to do with music — to make a connection.”

The Williamsburg Affair is a milestone for another reason – it’s the first album on Trooper’s own label, 52 Shakes (the name is a nod to his wife’s Nashville drive-in, Bobbie’s Dairy Dip). In typically laid back style, Trooper casually mentions that he’s got another, new album nearly finished to add to the 52 Shakes catalog. “I have a tour booked for the Netherlands in November,” Troop laughs; “I have to have the product ready by then.” As if it were just as easy as that.

The real challenge is financing the thing in the brave new world of self-publishing. Controlling his own product seems like an idea whose time has come, but it’s stressful to operate with no corporate safety net. At one point, Trooper floated the idea to his fans – an intensely loyal cohort – of soliciting funds from them to cover the costs of the new album. The response was a resounding “yes,” but Troop finally backed off that idea. “Then what do I do down the road — go back to them and ask for more money for the next album? That just seems like an upside-down business plan.”

Underneath that casual demeanor, Trooper admits to feeling pressure. Five years have elapsed since his last studio album, the wonderful Make It Through This World, which – thanks to the guiding hand of Dan Penn, the legendary Muscle Shoals producer – revealed a new soulfulness in Trooper’s singing. The desire to make this new album “worth the wait” hangs over the project.

“It’s not like it’s taken me five years to write the songs,” Trooper confesses, smiling. “It was more like, ‘It’s time to make an album, I’d better get writing.’” Knowing he could turn them out as needed – that’s the mark of a professional.

When it came time to record, Trooper had no trouble rounding up a crew of longtime bandmates to join him in the studio. The new wrinkle was adding his teenage son on drums on a couple of tracks. “He’s actually turned out to be a pretty good musician,” Trooper says. “Who’d have guessed?” Hmmm — could be something in the genes?

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