What's left when the show is over..

Red Dirt Wunderkind Branches Out

Pilgrimage to Gilley's

John Zendejas and I headed down to the world famous Gilley's to interview the youngest reigning crown prince of the Red Dirt genre, Johnny Cooper. It didn't occur to me until later that I'd actually lived in Dallas for more years than Johnny Cooper had been alive when he started touring, and I'd never even set foot in the place in all that time. Some Texan I am.

Images of Urban Cowboy ran through my head, complete with the infamous mechanical bull (and yes, they still have it). While we were interviewing Johnny back in the green room, there was this line dance class being held out on the dance floor. This was very much a Texas establishment. No Blue Moon on tap (or in bottles) here, as this was the home of Bud Long Necks.

While the aficionados of the genre will probably argue that Oklahoma is the "real" home of the Red Dirt scene (and the color of the native soil around the Stillwater area gives it it's namesake), the old school Texans can point to Willie, Waylon and the boys as having quite a fair bit to do with the evolution of the whole thing.

As we meet Johnny Cooper, I'm struck by two things:

He doesn't look like what one could expect. In fact, his hat struck me as something you'd quite easily find in Jackie Greene's wardrobe.

Second, he's so damn YOUNG. Here's a kid who started touring at 15, had cut two albums by 17, and at the age of 20 had his 3rd album in the can with 5 years of touring under his belt. Impressive, to say the least.

John had told me about Johnny's legendary shows, and after seeing one for myself, I was really struck by the huge diversity of his fanbase. There were men and women and children of all ages, of all walks of life. While I was expecting a fair bit of cowboy hats and boots, I most certainly wasn't expecting what I witnessed that night.

Before the show, John and I sat down with Johnny and talked about his shows, breaking out a much expanded band, recording his new album "Follow", and growing as an artist. I walked away very impressed with his energy, sincerity, and his sense of direction.

The shots from the show can be found here:

And Johnny's website is here:

Going Big Live

JZ : I’ve noticed something different from past gigs is tonight you’ve got a twelve piece band with you.

JC: Yeah, man!

JZ: How many times have you done that?

JC: This will be the second time that we’ve had all twelve people up on the stage and we’re now starting to package it as we can do a five man show, or we can do a twelve man show.

ML: Your traditional line-up is what, four?

JC: Five, we just added a keyboard player about three months ago.

ML: So what’s your twelve-piece?

JC: Bass, drums, two guitars, and then we have two backup singers, we have a DJ that comes in, and then we have three horn players and a percussionist.

JZ: Some of the stuff that I’ve heard on the new CD, the production is so much bigger than “Ignition” that I could see where that would kick ass on stage.

JC: Yeah, man, I tell you what. It’s hard to play a show like this and go back to not having all that stuff there… like tomorrow night we’re gonna have to play a show in Tulsa and not have the full band there. But, it’s all good; it’s all about working up to the point where you can travel around with twelve people all the time.

JZ: Right.
ML: Is it harder to rehearse a twelve piece than your normal line-up?

JC: Really, not so much man, and a lot of that is a credit to the musicians. The three horn players we bring in are all cats from Denton and UNT. It’s a big music school and the guys we use for the horn players are all from that school and they’re all trained musicians that can sight read.

ML: You just hand them charts and they’re good.

JC: You just hand them charts and they’re good to go. As long as those charts are correct, then there’s no worry at all. The percussionist guy – he’s just a groove machine, man, so you know we just let him go to town. He just gets it; he hasn’t listened to a lot of the stuff but maybe a couple of times, but when you’re groove based, as long as you can lock that groove then you’re good to go. Same with the DJ, we’ve worked with two different DJ’s and they both do a great job of just adding a different effect. I know for a fact that a lot of the fans that come out to the shows on regular basis are like- “Holy crap!” when that DJ comes out.

ML: It’s kind of a cultural shock-

JC: Yeah, and it’s really cool though ‘cause it’s something totally left field that we kinda throw at you, which I feel like we’re kinda left field in our genre anyway, so…

JZ: So it’s the second time that you’re doing this and you’re gonna have people out here that go to the Hank shows in McKinney that have seen the five piece band, or maybe the four piece band, but it’s gonna be the first time that they’ve seen the “production”…

JC: Exactly- and we pull out all the stops, man. From song one to the last song there’s something going on.

JZ: You still dropping covers in the set?

JC: We only play two cover songs and it’s a Robert Palmer song and a Michael Jackson song. Actually three songs, we do a song called “If Loving You Is Wrong”.

JZ: Then doing a lot more of the Johnny Cooper stuff-

JC: Oh yeah; the stuff we pick for covers are fun songs that we play for everybody because there may be people out there that may have not heard us and sometimes a good cover song can win those people over.

JZ: Absolutely… I’ve got a lot of friends who see the live show quite regularly and they always rave about how you’ll pull out a Thin Lizzy tune or a Timberlake song; so how do you pick the cover that’s gonna work?

JC: Man, ya know, I don’t know what’s ever gonna work…
[Everyone laughing]

JC: We kinda just go for it, man… and sometimes, dude, we’ve had people boo us ‘cause I’m up onstage beatboxing. But you know what, it’s what I love to do and that’s the way I write music. Sometimes it may be a rap song or a hip hop song and sometimes it’s a country rock song. I have no control of that really; it just comes out when it comes out.

ML: Do you think that it’s to some extent like a perception of the folks that are into the genre they’re used to? Like in the bluegrass arena, right, it’s a very regimented audience and they’re used to a certain format and then when you do something that’s like outside the edges of that you’re kind of pushing their ability to dig it, right?

JC: Yeah, it’s funny ‘cause I’ve seen that expression on people’s faces…

ML: What the hell is this?

JC: Yeah like “What in the world? - But I kinda like it…”
[Everyone laughing]

JC: Ya know, it’s cool when we’re playing a moderately hip hop type kinda song and there’s people out there two-steppin’ and it’s just cool to see that, more than anything. My main goal, I can speak for me and all the guys in the band, we just write and make music for everybody- for someone all the way across the world. We want one of our songs, at least, for them to be able to relate to no matter if it’s a guitar solo or one line that I sing. If I can help somebody relate one song to what’s going on in their life then that’s all I want.

ML: That’s cool and it’s to your credit that you’re willing to take chances in the genre because a lot of folks won’t do that. They’re like they know their audience and they don’t want to take a chance on alienating them or whatnot and so they stay within those artistic constraints that are imposed by the genre itself. To grab the sack and go out there and say no we’re going to go outside of that is a cool thing.

JC: Yeah, it’s interesting and it’s more fun than it is anything for me seeing the expressions on people’s faces when you pull something out that they may have not ever seen before and it’s just fun to feel that reaction. You can feel everybody and you can feel the vibes just floating around.

Getting Horny in the Studio

JZ: “Blue” is one of those songs that comes across as kind of outside of the red dirt thing- it’s different. Did you play that in the first twelve piece band show and how did it go over?

JC: Yes- it went great! When we were recording that song we were hearing horns and kinda like a Motown feel. It’s just great to be able to take all that right now traveling with the record on the road. It’s really cool because I haven’t always been able to do that. And now we get to have it where exactly what you hear on the record gets to be presented live, which is so much fun.

ML: That’s really cool…

JC: Because every day that the horns aren’t there I’m hearing them in my head. We go into a certain part and when they’re supposed to be there I hear them so it’s just fun to actually have them there.

ML: Now when you were starting out on the studio side of this album were you knowing at that time that you were going to have the band on the road, as well? Or was it something that came up later?

JC: You know I said to myself whenever we started making the record that I wanted to branch out and find different sounds, different things instead of just guitars, bass, drums. We would just start kinda experimenting and start throwing things over to a guy named John Painter who actually played all the horns himself, all three parts on every song…

JZ: Live horns?

JC: Yeah he did it all himself. He’d cut one part then go back in there and stack it and, man, he did a great job. He also went back and transcribed everything for us, charted everything for us so we could take it to the guys and let them play it (live).
When we were recording everything I just wanted to push the envelope a little bit and see what all we could get away with and make it sound good. We started adding horns, keyboards and all kinds of stuff and it was a lot of fun. Through the whole record there’s not really many parts where there’s or never a feeling where it’s like somebody going “Look at me, look at me while I play this guitar solo…” or “Look at me while I play this horn part”. Everybody has their one little section and everybody gets highlighted. The keyboards will have a part where they get highlighted. Then the horns will get highlighted. Then the guitar will get highlighted; the same with the bass. Everybody gets a turn to almost take like a solo throughout the record. It’s really cool to hear they keys do their thing then the guitar play off that and the horns play off that.
It’s just fun- how much the record sounds like a real band. The guys that we recorded with; our drummer, a guy named Tommy, is from Finland and he came down and did all the drums. I played rhythm guitar and my bass player Cody played all the bass parts. We had a guy come in and play all the keyboard parts that’s a friend of ours that plays out with the B52’s right now. His name is Paul and he used to play with Prince and all kinds of cool cats. We all just got together and it really felt like we’d been playing together for thirty years or something…

JZ: It’s got a very live feel to it.

JC: Yeah, it’s really funny, but there was something that happened that first week. We were all just on the same page. I can’t give you an answer of why we were… I sang some stuff on the scratch vocal takes that we ended up using because I sang some of the lines better that first week of recording than when I did when I went back in to do a final vocal take. There was just that feeling going on. Ya know, you can take the best musicians in the world and chart out everything on that record and tell them to go play it and it won’t sound the same.

JZ: Right.
ML: In the studio did you do the backing tracks- guitar, bass, drums, and then overdub the rest of the instrumentation?

JC: Yeah- we did drums and bass first. We all played together and just made sure that we had all the drums and bass that we needed and from there I would go do guitar parts. Add on and add on.

ML: So it’s pretty much a layering process vs. a live take kinda thing…

JC: Yeah, it is. It’s a layering process for sure. But it depends- some songs you do the whole live thing. A lot of the songs on the record you’re listening to the first to the fourth take of drums and bass. We only tracked everything about three or four times. I hear all these horror stories of people going into the vocal booth and they’re on take a thousand five hundred… on one song.

Everyone laughing]

JC: My thing is, if you can’t sing it right by the fourth or fifth time then it’s not gonna get any better. If you can’t make it happen in the first five takes…

ML: And you kind of lose that cohesive feel that there’s a band there when you do that much overdubbing and you do that much single person in the booth with the cans. There’s some of the feel that gets lost.

JC: Yeah, a lot of that comes down to producers, too. If you have good producers that are doing what they’re supposed to do then everything runs smoothly.

ML: Who’d you use for this one?

JC: We had two guys – Glen Rosenstein and Dexter Green. Dex also played a lot on the record as well as produced. He played a lot of the lead guitar stuff. He’s an awesome musician- the dude can play guitar better than most people I know, he can play drums better than most people I know, he can play keyboards better than most people I know and then on top of that his ears are just amazing.

ML: So he’s a Rick Parker type…

JC: Yeah, man, it’s ridiculous. Sometimes makes me sick just how good he is…
[Everyone laughing]

JC: And it’s funny because, ya know, he sits at home in his basement and records all the time and he may see sunlight, like, every four days…

ML: Definitely a Rick Parker type.
JZ: Is that where you recorded the new cd, at Dexter’s place?

JC: Yeah, we recorded everything in his basement in Nashville. We went up there and I hung out at Dexter’s house and we tracked some acoustic stuff when we were writing some songs. He and I wrote a few tunes for this record and, man, we got to talking and just felt like there was no reason to go spend a bunch of money on a studio when we can do it here and make it sound just as good.

ML: Now did you do the mix there?

JC: Yeah, we did all the mix there, too- a buddy of ours Joe came in and mixed it all down. He’s done a lot of stuff with Ben Folds mixing down a lot of his records… so Joe came in and he’s just another one of those guys that’s just amazing when he gets… I found out with this process, the key ingredients to making a good record is:
Number 1) Have good musicians; if you have good musicians, that’s a big chunk out of it.
Number 2) Have somebody that knows how to record stuff well, as far as mic placement goes and stuff like that…

ML: Especially on drums, phasing errors on drums are the shits to get out once they’re in there.

JC: Oh yeah… other than that you need a good engineer that’s back there hitting record and doing all the stuff and that’s all you need, man. You don’t need a freakin’ million dollar studio to make it happen. You really don’t. As long as you have good musicians and people that know how to capture your sound. That’s all that matters…

JZ: You guys using ProTools?

JC: Oh yeah, ProTools. ProTools all the way. Everything on this record is all straight up somebody played it.

JZ: Awesome…

JC: There’s a few things on there that you might think was a drum machine or something like that, but that’s just because our drummer was that good!
[Everyone laughing]

Branching Out At 20

JZ: You spend a lot of time on the road, doing a lot of shows a year and you’ve been doing the “Ignition” thing for a while… at what point did you go “it’s time to make a new record”?

JC: It was just time. I recorded “Ignition” when I was 17 years old. I’m 20 now and we got a long life out of that cd. We recorded the cd, put it out and it really didn’t start catching any wind beneath it’s wings until about a year after it was out. So it was like we had this record out for a year and now people are finally getting it and its brand new to a whole bunch of people who thought it came out two weeks ago or something. So we just tried to milk that record as much as we could and we got four songs radio play on the Texas – Oklahoma market that are playing all the Texas music stuff.
You know, I was going through some different changes with the band and getting everything figured out. I had a bunch of songs together and it just got to the point where I was ready. I’m 20, it’s time to go do another record.

JZ: I saw a live acoustic video of you in a radio station studio on youtube doing “Try” (that ended up on the new album) and I thought, man, what a really great performance and it’s very cool how it fleshed out on the cd…

JC: Yeah, It’s like night and day, man…

JZ: But, it’s a great song like it was and you just took it and blew it up bigger.

JC: That’s one of the more difficult songs that we do, man, is that one. It’s a real groove oriented song and if that groove isn’t there, it just doesn’t sound right. It’s a tough song to play and we battled for months in the rehearsal studio with the live band just locking it down. The cool thing about the new record is that there are so many little things; there’s so many cool little parts that make a song have its own identity. You have to be really on top of all the little parts that go into that. It’s just tough ‘cause everybody has to be at the top of their game and making sure all the little stuff is there…

JZ: The devil’s in the details…

JC: There ya go, exactly man and I’m a huge detail oriented person. So, I feel bad for the rest of the dudes in the band, like my bass player is the same way, but if you mess up- I’m gonna hear it. I am gonna hear it and I’m not gonna yell at you or something like that, but I’m just gonna let you know that you messed up, man. That way it doesn’t happen again.

JZ: So, once you got it rolling, did the songs come in a short period of time or are they songs that you wrote over a long period of time and took into the studio to flesh them out?

JC: Some of them were and some of them weren’t. We had a few songs that we wrote, you know, the week that we were there recording. The majority of the stuff, I’d say about eight out of the ten songs I’ve been, you know, messing around with, playing with for about four or five months.

ML: So ideas from the road type of thing?

JC: Yeah, yeah a lot these songs what you hear now on the record is…

ML: The evolution of something you wrote in a hotel…

JC: Yeah, you can youtube videos that you can see the evolution, man, where you can go watch these videos and see how this song got started. And there are a lot of things that are different. Some of the songs we have a different guitar part that was there. Now that guitar parts not there anymore, but it’s replaced with something different. Man, it’s just funny… I was just on youtube the other day looking at some of our stuff that’s on there watching some of these videos from four or five months ago and just going “yeah, that’s how we used to play that ha ha ha ha.”
[Everyone laughing]

ML: How much time did you spend in the studio on this one?

JC: We were there for about a total of a month and a half, but it was real weird ‘cause we played every weekend. So I’d play Thursday, Friday, Saturday, hop on a plane Sunday morning, get to Nashville Sunday night. We would record Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and then I’d fly back to where ever our gig was on Thursday. I did that for about a month and a half of just constantly going back and forth, back and forth, just to get everything squared away.

ML: So was it a challenge doing the gear switch between the live and the studio side?

JC: Man, it was really kind of refreshing, in a way. Cause when you’re in the studio you are, like, focused on one thing for twelve hours. So it was nice to spend a week recording and then come play live ‘cause you can kind of get rid of things. Now where it was confusing on some parts was for a good while, while were recording some of the songs we were playing live were a little bit different. We had some different, um, some of the songs weren’t structured as they are now…

ML: Minor differences in arrangements…

JC: Yeah, the arrangements on songs were different while we were recording. So that would be a little weird, ‘cause we’d go record and that’s how it would be for the cd, but then we’d come back and play live and some things were a little bit different. There may be one song that has a turnaround that was two times instead of one, so I always had to shut my mind off and remember that when we started playing live, some things are different. ‘Cause for the week before that I was cutting the song in a whole different way. It was just weird having to bounce back and forth having to remember that there was supposed to be something here until we got to the point where we got everything recorded and everybody in the band could sit down and listen to it and go, alright this is the way the arrangements are going to be from now on.
It’s cool now ‘cause we got everything on a click track and we can play our whole set live and you can actually take our cd and if you were to videotape us playing live you can take our cd and it matches up perfectly. Like, my words, you could videotape me singing that song and take the actual song off the cd and put them together and it matches up perfectly… That’s kinda cool, in a way.

ML: A lot of times there tempo variances- speed up, slow down, that sort of thing.

JC: We always make our drummer play with a click track, so that way there’s no finger to blame on anybody- if you rush it, it’s your own damned fault ‘cause you’ve got CLICK CLICK CLICK going on in your head…
[Everyone laughing]

JZ: On the road, you’ve stayed on the Texas-OK circuit for a while… I’ve noticed you’ve got a date coming up in N. Carolina, have you got plans at getting this cd out on the road to places you haven’t played before?

JC: Oh definitely, that’s my main goal… I want to be playing anywhere and everywhere that we can. I think this new record is a good step to getting that direction. Number one, you got to have something that’s marketable to the general public, man. If you don’t have that, then you’re never going to be able to reach that goal. So a lot of writing this record, like I was saying earlier, was writing songs for somebody a million miles away that they can still jam to. That’s what we tried to do with this record. I can’t tell you if it worked or not. Maybe when I’m 60 or something, I’ll let you know if it worked. Right now I just enjoy getting to do it, more than anything. I get to wake up every day, hang out with my best friends, and play music. The fact that we’re getting a chance to play in N Carolina and Washington D.C. and some of these other places is just really cool ‘cause that’s what we want to be doing…

ML: So you done any festival gigs?

JC: Oh yeah. Summertime, always, always… I mean, this week already, yesterday and the day before that we played two outdoor festivals. So during the summertime every weekend we’re outside doing something.

ML: It has its pros and cons in this weather…

JC: Oh yeah, it sure does, man, but it’s good for ya.

JZ: You’ve got a great reputation as a live act. You really want a band to come off live better than they do on record…

JC: We’re just going with what feels right. We’re a bunch of dudes that, I like to say, we play music for a good reason. And the reason why I say that is ‘cause I know a lot of bands that play music for the wrong reasons. More than anything, music always comes first for us. Don’t get me wrong. We have an awesome job filled with all kinds of perks of being in a band. But, if you can’t make the music come first every day then you’re never gonna be able to succeed at what you want to do. For us, that’s the one thing that I’ve always felt blessed for. It’s that everybody in our group, no matter what, they just want to make sure the music is good. And if that’s good then everything else is kosher. We could be having to sit out in the heat for 12 hours in our van, but as long as we sounded good that night- it don’t matter. That’s why we’re here. It’s the only thing we love to do- play music.

ML: So for the folks that are gonna read this and have never heard you or heard of you, how would you describe the introduction of what you do?

JC: You know, what I’d say more than anything is with us you’re gonna get a little bit of everything. You’re gonna get some funk. You’re gonna get some rock. You’re gonna get some jazz. You’re gonna get some blues. You’re gonna get some country. You’re gonna get some hip hop. We’re gonna give you a little bit of everything. And what I always tell anybody that’s never listened to any of our music is, if you don’t like the song we’re playing right now, wait a couple minutes for the next one. I just try to ask everybody to do that. We just have fun. Our main live goal is for you to come out and forget about everything that you had to deal with that week. For the hour and a half that you spend with us, no matter where we are, we’re gonna take you out of your every day normal life. That way if you had a bad week at work or whatever, Friday night we’ll make sure that you don’t think about it one bit. And we’ll make sure that every time you come out to one of our shows, you leave with a smile and feeling glad that you got to come hang out. We’re gonna make sure you have a good time.