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.