Ross Cooper is the rare country musician who has actually lived the life of a cowboy. The former professional rider was still bustin' broncs when his music career began. Though a knee injury sidelined his rodeo career, Cooper drives a band like he's still wearing spurs and holding on for eight. His new album, I Rode The Wild Horses, pushes country music way past traditional territory just for the rush. It's the new Nashville sound: glimmering pedal steel, rollicking & rocking telecaster riffs, soulful keys, and gorgeous harmonies.
Cooper grew up surrounded by music taking piano and guitar lessons. By the age of ten he'd written a gospel song with his mom, and set his mind to playing guitar and a life of music. He's been in Nashville for five years, but Cooper hails from Lubbock, Texas, the hometown of Buddy Holly, and Holly's influence upon Cooper's music is clear. Every country song rocks, and every rock song has an unmistakable twang.
Ross Cooper's career has parallels with Chris Ledoux, the bareback riding world champion and country music star that inspired Garth Brooks' rodeo songs and rambunctious live shows. Like Ledoux, Cooper began making music while still working the rodeo circuit. Cooper's rodeo lifestyle provides great material for his songs, but this isn't just a rodeo record. A fan of both indie-rock and country-folk greats like Guy Clark and John Prine, Cooper draws largely upon small town life and the simplicity it affords. It's this eclectic taste in music and his time in the trenches with other talented songwriters that makes I Rode The Wild Horses special. The sound of the record ranges from country torch bearers to dirty garage rockers, and from the first note you know this is something different.
The album opens on the title track, and Cooper's "Coming out" song establishes him as an anomaly among Nashville musicians, an actual cowboy. His belt buckle is no longer shiny, his body still aches, and he's got stories to tell about it. "I ain't got much to show," he sings, "But I rode the wild horses." The opening track ends in a fuzzed out electric solo and Cooper ad-libs a rodeo announcer's cadence. It's a hypnotic induction to a country-rock record.
"Heart Attack" struts in on a cinematic whistle and a muted electric riff. Cooper describes an object of affection, singing, "Is this who you are, or how you act?" as drums and electric guitar build into a tense orchestra. Cooper sings about self-medication, a pounding pulse, and living on pins and needles. It's just the second song but there's a perfect bridge with a tempo change, a haunting chorus and piano stabs. Cooper sings "What doesn't kill me keeps me comin' back." And you're hooked.
Embedded in the Nashville song writing community, Cooper has made some talented friends, many of whom appear on I Rode The Wild Horses. The album was made at The Casino, Eric Masse's recording studio. Cooper sought Masse out for his recent work with acts like Andrew Combs, Robert Ellis, Rayland Baxter, and Miranda Lambert. Combs even helped Cooper write "Lady Of The Highway," a traveling song with a country-politan polish. Other co-writers include gospel country rocker Paul Cauthen, who helped Cooper finish "Old Crow Whiskey And A Cornbread Moon," a folk song that illuminates his complex inspiration for the album: the emotional intelligence of country folk that allows them to appreciate the simple things, and having the common sense to avoid expensive habits by drinking cheap whiskey. Masse enlisted frequent collaborator Jordan Lehning for production, and the album features an all-star cast of musicians as a backing band with Jeremy Fetzer (Steelism) on guitar, Eli Beard on bass, Tommy Perkinson on drums, Skylar Wilson on keys, and the incomparable Eddy Dunlap on pedal steel.
With so much talent at hand, Cooper took care to put together songs he's written that develop into an album meant to be listened to cover to cover.
"I wanted to give the album a consistent voice." says Cooper. "It has the theme of a road weary cowboy. Where my life away from home taught me to celebrate the simple things."
Songs like "Damn Love" and the autobiographical "Living's Hard Loving's Easy" are classic country heartbreakers, in the hands of a writer talented enough to twist them into love songs. "Another Mile" and "Strangers In A Bar" elucidate the leathery toughness of Cooper's soft voice. Cooper is also acutely aware of the dichotomy between actual cowboys, and the urban cowboys of Nashville as addressed in "Cowboys And Indians".
Cooper maintains a songwriting integrity and honor that he learned in West Texas and in the rodeo circuit. If you want to hear a story, there's nothing like getting it straight from the source, and I Rode The Wild Horses is a refreshing take on cowboy music. It's a showcase of this former bareback rider's talents as a songwriter and musician.