Eric Brace and Peter Cooper Discuss “Master Sessions”

Eric Brace, front man for Last Train Home, and Peter Cooper, a Nashville songwriter and journalist, released “Master Sessions” last month, one of 2010’s delights, an alluring album featuring a couple of their boyhood heroes – Lloyd Green and Mike Auldridge — playing along. They also get contributions from Richard Bennett (Mark Knopfler), Jen Gunderman (Jayhawks), Pat McInerney (Nanci Griffith, Don Williams) and Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson). Kenny Chesney and Jon Randall lend their considerable harmony talents.

Brace and Cooper took a few minutes to answer questions about the project and their work together. They will appear at the Taphouse in Hampton on Jan. 23.

How did the “Master Sessions” come about? When did you two decide to ask Mike and Lloyd to play on the recordings and what was their reacton?

Peter Cooper: We realized Mike Auldridge was coming to Nashville to do some recording, and we knew that Lloyd (who lives just outside Nashville) was a fan of Mike’s dobro playing. Eric’s wife, who is the brains behind Red Beet, said something like, “You guys are insane if you don’t get them to record together.” We asked them, and it turned out that Mike had always wanted to cut an album with Lloyd, and Lloyd had always wanted to cut an album with Mike. Even if that meant they had to cut the album with us.

Eric Brace: As a music geek teenager, I used to go see Mike’s band The Seldom Scene all the time up in D.C. and was a huge fan of his dobro playing. As a grown-up I was lucky enough to make a record with Mike in a side-project he and I put together, The Skylighters. We’d gotten to be good friends and I knew what a huge fan of Lloyd’s he was. Peter had gotten to be very close friends with Lloyd, and he and I had been scheming on how to get this to happen — to record with both Lloyd and Mike. When we found out Mike was going to be in Nashville for several days, we asked him if he’d stay an extra day to do some tracking with us and Lloyd. His answer was something along the lines of “Hell yes!!!” Then we had to come up with the songs!

Seven of the songs were written or co-written by the two of you. How were they chosen?

PC: I’m a fan of Eric’s writing, and I always want to hear when he has a new song cooking. He’s been kind and supportive about my songs as well, and so we’re comfortable showing each other our newest works, even when they’re works in progress. Some of these songs were melodies and fragments that Eric had, that I wound up hijacking… er, I mean adding to. Some were songs that I had that needed Eric’s harmony and sensibility.

EB: I had recently recorded and album by my band Last Train Home, and Peter had recently done a solo record, so we didn’t have a lot of extra material lying around. So he looked to finish some things with his pal Don Schlitz, and I asked Peter to try his hand finishing a couple of mine that I’d gotten stuck on. Though I’ve lived in Nashville about 6 years now, I don’t know much about the “co-write,” where people sit down together and write a song. The co-writes that Peter and I did happened when I got stuck about 75% of the way toward two finished songs, “Circus” and “Missoula Tonight.” I handed them to Peter and said “Help!” It turns out that among his other talents, he’s a great “finisher”… the Mariano Rivera of songwriting.

There are two co-writes. How do you guys work together? You were both journalists before you found smarts and got out. Who’s the editor and who’s the cub reporter?

PC: I remain employed (somehow) at the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. So I haven’t been smart enough to get out, at this point. Eric wrote the initial melodies and lyrics of both of the songs on which we share credit. I was inspired by his beginnings to contribute my ideas. Really, these would have been terrible songs without me. Thank goodness for me.

EB: The truth is, Peter’s right. Both “Circus” and “Missoula Tonight” had been sitting on a shelf for a while, not good enough to see the light of day (or the darkness of the studio). He made them better. As a songwriter, I get defensive about other people’s suggestions about my songs. Peter somehow makes it work… He’s got two songs on “Master Sessions” that he co-wrote with Don Schlitz (“The Gambler” and a zillion more huge songs). I’m going to have to learn how to do this co-write thing better!

How were the covers chosen? Who suggested what?

PC: The most fun we have is probably in choosing covers. We get to go through our music collections, which are substantial, and bring up every song we love. It’s a long and wonderfully entertaining process. I think I suggested “Wish We Had Our Time Again,” and every other song was a dual “Yeah, that one!” moment.

EB: We do have a blast listening down to records and wracking our brains for suitable songs… we don’t want anything too obvious. And Peter has extraordinary song recall. We have to find songs that we can bring something to with our voices, specifically our voices together melodically and harmonically. Then we want to make sure that the songs are ones we love and can stand behind and believe in, lyrically. We like to choose songs by friends or people who inspire us (or both, d’uh)

You recorded a Seldom Scene tune, “Wait A Minute.” Do you recall the first time you heard that live?

PC: I first heard that song on my 15th birthday, when my dad took me to hear the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. It was the band’s greatest hit, even though it wasn’t really a hit on any chart. But I loved it from the first hearing, to the point that I would request it at every opportunity. I remember being 17 and shouting “Wait a Minute!” at the Seldom Scene, and Scene member John Duffey freezing up, like he was waiting a minute. Finally, banjo man Ben Eldridge said, “Is it okay to stop waiting now?” Somehow, I was pleased rather than embarrassed.

EB: I was probably 15 years old (which was ten years before Peter was 15 years old), and it was at the old Birchmere. I probably went with my best friend in high school, who was a huge Seldom Scene fan. That first show blew me away, hearing John Starling and John Duffy and Mike Auldridge singing together like that… having so much fun on stage, cracking up and picking incredible tunes on their instruments, and then making you cry with a slow song like this. They — perhaps more than any other single act — made me want to play live music.

Talk about the recordings in Nashville.

PC: Having Lloyd and Mike sit next to each other and play off each other was amazing. Most of what you hear on these tracks is live music, played by real people. Except they aren’t actually real people. They’re superheroes. In athletics, the higher up you go, the harder it gets. Think you can hit high school pitching? Try college pitching. Try minor league pitching. Try major league pitching. Holy cow. But in music, playing with the best makes it easier. Everything I try to convey in the construction of a song, Lloyd and Mike hear and accentuate and elevate.

EB: Once we nailed down that Lloyd and Mike were up for it, we lined up the rest of the players, the songs, and the studio. House of David and 16 Ton Studios are places we’ve both worked before, down on Music Row here in Nashville. The other folks on the tracks are the most supportive players alive, and Mike and Lloyd just flew right along, so gracefully and musically. They were the easiest and most profound (if I may say so) sessions I’ve ever been a part of.

What, if anything, surprised you about playing with Mike, Lloyd, and the rest of the gang?

PC: Nothing surprised me about recording with these people, but everything thrilled me. This is my dream list of players, and this was the single best grouping of songs I could imagine. I don’t mean that I could conceive of how it would sound, but I do mean that I well understood that this was the group of people who could make it sound the best. And, though I hate to send him a compliment, Brace isn’t a half-bad singer.

EB: Sometimes you expect folks who are the very best at what they do to be arrogant and selfish and mean-spirited, but in music, almost by definition, to be great, you can’t be those things. Maybe solo pianists are or something, but if you’re a truly great ensemble player, I think a generosity of spirit lurks not far below the surface. All these people are great people AND great musicians.

How has the East Nashville scene influenced or aided your career — if it has? Are there songwriters there you’d admit to hanging out with?

PC: East Nashville is a remarkable creative community. If you stand on a stage here, you’d better bring your best stuff. Kevin Gordon might be in the audience. Jon Byrd might be there. Todd Snider might be there. Kieran Kane might be there. I take every opportunity to talk with these people, learn from these people and steal from these people.

EB: Phil Lee has become my go to guy for inspiration. I listen to him all the time. And he’s an East Nashvillian. I think he’s really in the pantheon with the greats. And now I can call him up and have coffee in our little ‘hood whenever I want. It’s an amazing thing. Almost like a sitcom with musician friends popping in all the time. Having released three compilations of music from East Nashville on my Red Beet Records label, I’ve gotten to know many in the scene (so many more I don’t even know yet!). We could put out 10 compilations a year that would all be filled with great songs and musicianship. It’s a great place to live, and it does inspire you to do better work, just so you can hold your head high in the coffee shop. I remember sitting in the parking lot of a java joint strumming my guitar a while back, playing Jon Byrd my latest tune, since I was proud of it, but I also wanted honest feedback.

Will you and Peter tour? What’s that like?

PC: Eric and I tour most all the time. We’ve been to England, Germany, Alaska (totally counts as a foreign country), Holland, Spain, Belgium and other environs together. It’s absolute hell. We show up in places we haven’t been before, greet people who are happy to see us, sing in harmony and smile while people applaud. What a terrible hassle. Oh, and we have to listen to music while we’re traveling, talk about our heroes, tell stories and laugh a lot. I wouldn’t recommend this life to anyone.

EB: The perfect life. Except for that Peter guy.

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