By Mattson Rainer
[Editor’s Note: Mattson Rainer is the program director of the Americana station KNBT 92.1 FM in New Braunfels, Texas.]
In 1996, as I was just starting out in my Americana radio programming career, some really cool things were happening. Robert Earl Keen’s No. 2 Live Dinner had just cemented the Texas Songwriter flag, anchoring it 50 feet in the ground. “Wrapped” was being written in Bruce Robison’s head. Chris Knight was formulating his first release. Nobody could figure out why Kelly Willis wasn’t an international country star. Jack Ingram was Livin’ or Dyin’ with Steve Earle in the studio, making that killer record. Charlie was almost the life of the party. He and Bruce were still working on that record. Ray Wylie Hubbard taught me you could be a legend and a cool, real human being and write a song called “The Messenger.” Well, he didn’t teach me how to write a song called “The Messenger”; he taught me cool people can write … oh you get it. Slaid Cleaves, a Maines transplant living in Austin, hadn’t yet broken through with “Broke Down,” but he was well on his way on his path to becoming an internationally known singer-songwriter. Pat Green and Lloyd Maines were getting to know each other, a hookup that in many ways was the Big Bang of the resurgent Texas Music revolution. Meanwhile, a young band of brothers dropped a little record called Millican …
Wish I could write about the Stillwater scene, too, but I didn’t really know about it in 1996. I knew the Leon Russell Tulsa sound, but I hadn’t heard of Bob Childers or Tom Skinner yet. Jimmy Lafave was just getting on my radar. I think the Great Divide was still getting ready to “Pour Us a Vacation.” Sorry Mac. But Stoney, Boland and Cody Canada were all already young students of songwriting at the time, studying every move made by Childers, Skinner and the Red Dirt Rangers. Actually, they still are and still do.
Anyway, around this time, an Americana chart was formed. National rootsy acoustic songwriters had a home. Been awhile. Once the Triple A radio format embraced Nirvana, John Prine went back to just being a genius you’d have to get lucky to find. iTunes? No: I drive, I walk in, I purchase, I rip it open and throw it in my CD player, I jam …
1996. When you said you were Americana radio, an amazing thing happened. You opened yourself up to the great songwriters roaming our land. Mostly in vans. Here’s a cool one: 1996 — my first Americana radio interview in-studio jam session was Fred Eaglesmith with Willie P Bennet and Ralph Schipper singing through one mike. Touring behind the record Drive In Movie. They pulled up in that legendary Blue Bus. Look ’em up, then you’ll say, “Mattson, if you’d only known …”
I can’t find that interview. My second interview was with Willie. Then Jerry Jeff came by. And Ray Wylie, holding Lucas, who was asleep, in his right arm and guitar in other hand.
1996. If you were an Americana radio station, the songwriters of the world called. One day, Greg Trooper called. We had just begun spinning Noises in the Hallway. Great record. “Light in the Window” and “We Won’t Dance” — those were our cuts. Vince Gill cut “We Won’t Dance,” which was also the name of Greg’s debut record in 1986. He called to thank me for playing his music on the radio. A very nice and appreciated gesture. I remember thinking, “This is so cool. I’m talking to a great songwriter from Jersey.” But he kept thanking me. And he set the bar, in my mind, for coolness. Troop was chill. Really great sense of humor. And he was a Yankee who absolutely loved Texas. LOVED it. He lived in Austin for a while in the early part of his career. And because I’d spent many years up in the Northeast, I always enjoyed listening to his Jersey accent. We talked about the Mets. Troop loved the Mets.
So, he says, “I’ll come see you next time I’m at Gruene Hall.”
And he did. We would talk and he’d play songs. He was always an interview I looked forward to. Yes, I look forward to all you guys … but Troop was just so easy going. We would talk about songwriting, food, traveling. Then he’d play whatever I asked him to. And we’d hang out on the air for an hour or so. No rush. Basically, he was becoming a friend. Greg Trooper cranked out almost a record a year from the late ’90s to 2010. All great stuff. Popular Demons is fantastic. And the song “Ireland.” This list could go on forever. Greg doesn’t have a bad record. Few can say that, but he can.
He always traveled through Houston, probably an Austin stop, and, ultimately, a Sunday at Gruene Hall. And he always came by the studio. He was on Roots and Branches of Americana with Ray Wylie. More than once, I think. One of our best jam sessions in studio was when Troop brought Chip Dolan with him. Greg on acoustic, Chip on accordion. They played music and we all laughed and joked and enjoyed life for that moment. Music and friendship. Greg excelled at that. Chip, I play those live performances to this day. That day is a dear memory.
I probably only saw Greg in person for about an hour every year or so. Didn’t matter. There was always love and respect. It was mutual. He made it mutual, not I. I’d have loved him anyway.
All the great songwriters love Greg Trooper. Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Roseanne Cash, Gretchen Peters, Radney Foster, Ray Wylie Hubbard. Greg and Steve Earle do a great version of the Bob Dylan song “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” They all love him and for good reason. Behind that cool demeanor and Pork Pie hat was a ferocious songwriter who could pinpoint and write about a specific human emotion. Something not easy to do but something very important for us as music fans. A songwriter who knows what you are feeling. “Biologically Blue” — check that one out. Greg always had an audience because he sang about them. He wrote about real people doing real life things. He observed, he felt, and he wrote. Maybe that’s my new definition for a songwriter: observe, feel, write. Greg was one of the best, and many songwriters would be wise to study his music.
We probably won’t see his name at the Grammy tribute, although a badass Grammy producer could have a moment of enlightenment and surprise us. Regardless, nobody who knew Greg Trooper or his music will ever forget him. Greg was a kind and caring soul. Everyone who met him fell in love with his bright personality. He cherished family and friends. He had a wonderful smile and sense of humor. He was loyal, hardworking and honest. He’d look you in the eye, and with a firm handshake, tell you the truth. And he put all of that into his music.
I miss him already just thinking about it.