Greg Trooper - Trooper by name and by nature
Greg Trooper considers himself lucky to have grown up in the 1960s and 1970s. Aside from catching one of the biggest gigs of the time – Bob Dylan’s return to live performance at the George Harrison-organised all-star concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in 1971 – and before that, being a nine year old whose dad, a radio station employee, was able to get him in to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965, Trooper was able to learn his craft from the people he considers the architects.
“Back then music was all around,” says the New Jersey-born troubadour who makes his Celtic Connections debut on January 20. “We didn’t have to go looking for it. Even sitting in the back of our parents’ car, we could have them tune into FM radio and hear soul music from the South, blues being played by the British invasion bands who had learned directly from Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The airways were full of that stuff and looking back, it was inspiring. Being a nine-year-old kid watching the Beatles among all these screaming kids – and yes, I screamed too - was quite an experience. But I started going into New York to see gigs with my pals when I was fifteen or sixteen and that was a great era.”
Trooper’s fortune in recent years hasn’t been so good. During the storm that hit New York in 2013, his house was badly damaged, forcing him and his wife to move and say goodbye to many of their belongings. Then, last summer, a persistent stomach ache Trooper had been suffering from was diagnosed as pancreatic cancer.
The past few months consequently have been “a roller coaster” for the songwriter whose songs have been recorded by Steve Earle, Vince Gill and Billy Bragg, among many others, and whose lyrics, without dwelling on the autobiographical for fear of boring people, as he tells it, are rooted in reality.
“The first thing I had to do was cancel four months’ worth of gigs,” says this man for whom going out and connecting with an audience is the equivalent of oxygen. “So much of what I was facing was uncertain to begin with but once I got into the routine of treatment and once the doctors saw how I was responding, I thought, I can work on the weeks when I’m not having treatment, start a new routine. That made me feel normal again to some degree. Then I wrote a couple of songs and that helped me to feel normal as well. There’s an enormous amount of comfort in being able to play music because when things go upside down like that you think they’re never going to go the right way up again.”
Now the prognosis is good. The tumour is shrinking. The doctors are hopeful that they’ll be able to operate to remove it and Trooper is looking forward to coming back over to Europe, where his songs have found sympathetic listeners and where he has found songwriting inspiration on more than one occasion.
At a gig twenty-five miles from Amsterdam Trooper got chatting to a fan who pointed out the window to the nearby canal and told Trooper that in the winter he used to skate all the way to the Dutch capital on the canal system. Cue All the Way to Amsterdam, which is actually about a girl who lives in Texas but whose genesis was the gold dust of a phrase than can set a writer like Trooper’s creative juices flowing.
“As a writer – and I’m sure every other writer’s the same – I’m always looking for the next idea,” says Trooper, for whom Bob Dylan, Otis Redding and Hank Williams form the holy trinity of songwriters. “In the case of All the Way to Amsterdam the story I told bears no relation to the story the guy in that club told me but the image came from our conversation. I thought: I can use that and I did.”
Trooper has moved around since leaving Little Silver, the small town in New Jersey where he grew up (he was born in the even smaller Neptune Township not far away). He spent a short time in Austin, Texas then lived in Nashville for fourteen years before relocating to New York. Everywhere he’s lived he’s found a different energy and different imagery that have affected his songwriting.
“The other day an image came to me about walking to the corner store,” he says. “Just a simple idea but in Nashville I didn’t have such a thing whereas in Brooklyn there’s always a bodega or a newsstand. So where you are can influence what you write and for me, if I’m going to connect with a roomful of strangers, whether through humour or something more serious, the songs have to have a substance or a context that’s believable. That’s why I call my songs reality-based fiction. They’re stories that don’t happen to me, or at least not often, but I hope they sound like they happened to someone.”
Greg Trooper plays the National Piping Centre, Glasgow on January 20.
From The Herald, January 8, 2016