Story Time with Eric Brace, Peter Cooper & Thomm Jutz
If you could combine the elements of a house concert, a comedy show, a book reading and throw in a few history lessons, you’d have Eric Brace, Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz and a hell of a good night.
That’s what happened when the three transplanted Nashvillians with ties to the local Washington D.C. area, set foot onstage at Jammin Java for two acoustic sets of stories and song.
At center stage stood Peter Cooper, the part-time musician and former music writer for The Tennessean whose new book Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride just came out. Where Cooper was once used to holding a mic in front of country legends, he now awkwardly held his paperback open in his left hand, selecting passages of wit and wisdom from the book sub-titled Lasting Legends and Untold Adventures In Country Music.
The vignettes or interludes appeared on the set list as “Read.” He chose the first about Loretta Lynn. As Cooper sent out his well wishes to the hospitalized singer who had just suffered a stroke, he recalled his close encounter with the coal miner’s daughter: “You from England?” Lynn asked him. “When I went to England with Ernest Tubb, I kept meeting all these men named Peter. I told Ernest, ‘Ever since I got to England, I ain’t never seen so many Peters in all my life.’ He laughed and laughed. What do you think all that was about?” And when Cooper recalled his friendship with the great Tom T. Hall, he switched from telling stories to pull out a poem the singer had personally given him.
A few years ago, Cooper joined Eric Brace to record an album C & O Canal based on music inspired by the local D.C. acts they’d regularly see, including the Maryland band Seldom Scene which played regularly on Thursday nights at the Birchmere a few miles away. Brace spent ten years writing about music for the Washington Post and injected some local story lines into the show. He recalled how Emmylou Harris, who went to high school a county away, met Gram Parsons. It was her struggle with his death that inspired the song “Boulder To Birmingham.” It led to a powerful rendition in which, like in Herb Pedersen’s “Wait a Minute,” the three singer’s harmonies soared and completely enveloped the small space.
When he prefaced the Seldom Scene’s “Blue Ridge” recorded with Jonathan Edwards, Cooper detailed legend Jimmy Martin’s barrage of questions about what killed bluegrass. His re-enactment of Martin’s fast sputtering talk was worthy of an Audible book edition and drew lots of laughs. (The answer to Martin’s question is a three-letter word but no spoiler alerts here–you’ll have to buy the book.)
With lineage to Peter Paul and Mary, the Kingston Trio and other folk pedigree, the duo of Cooper and Brace held their own but were at their best when accompanied by Jutz’ harmonies. The soft spoken Jutz is part of the fraternity whose price of membership is the constant ribbing of the others at any given time. Cooper described Jutz as the only ex-German bluegrass star to arise out of the Black Forest.
But when Jutz took lead vocal for “I Sang The Song,” the title song he and Cooper wrote about bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman’s life, he made everyone forget John Prine’s timeworn version that closes the album of the same name. His eloquent guitar accents were so poignant there was utter silence. It felt like you could have heard a pin drop. Jutz told the story behind the song “Cumberland River.” Co-written with John Handley, it brings to life how John Hartford liked to watch boats pass from high up in a tower he erected. The word got out about Hartford’s Mend and captains would reverently blow their horn. With the trio’s glistening harmonies, it was the soundtrack for a picturesque backdrop of southern river culture.
The friends traded barbs and tall tales in song throughout the night. Cooper took the lion’s share of ribbing for all of the recent social media generated by his book. Ironically their second set was cut short by a late night comedy show setting up in the club. The trio’s banter forced them to cut a few songs short and fast forward to the last song, Guy Clark’s “L.A.Freeway.” Cooper took us back to when he was 22 and got asked to review his very first show. That night Guy Clark made grown men cry. Tonight Cooper and Brace forgot a few lines at one point but managed to get all of the emotion right. Cooper still has a brick from the torn-down house where Clark wrote the song on the same avenue in Nashville where Brace currently lives.
At show’s end, Cooper was still signing books, sending people home to immerse themselves in the legends of Cowboy Jack Clement, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash, the man who looked for Cooper’s bi-line when he picked up the Tennessean on his driveway each morning.
Brace promised to be back in a few months. He said they’d come back later in the year to play songs from their new trio album called Profiles In Courage, Frailty and Discomfort. It promised to be like we heard them tonight, just their voices and guitars.
Well, Brace quickly corrected himself, maybe the album wouldn’t be brand new by then.
But then again, the music these three play is timeless.