What was the soundtrack of your childhood? For mine, it was a mashup of American folk tunes, jazzy riffs by Louis Armstrong, and pop songs like Daydream Believer, that danced through my transistor radio. For Nashville-based singer/songwriter Peter Cooper, who recently performed at the Folk Alliance International conference with musical partner Eric Brace, it was a children's album written by Country Music Hall of Fame artist Tom T. Hall, entitled Songs of Fox Hollow • songsoffoxhollow.com.
Gentle melodies like I Love left an indelible impression on Cooper growing up. He fell in love — with the music as well as the inventive images each song conjured up: of sneaky snakes and one-legged chickens and mysterious foxes loping into the night. When he learned in 2010 he'd soon become a father himself, he knew he immediately wanted to begin creating a soundtrack for his son.
“While my wife was worrying about how she'd decorate the nursery — or more specifically, how she'd move out my equipment to make room for the nursery — I was focused on the first song Baker would hear.” Adds Eric, “Peter literally brought a boombox into the maternity ward so he could play I Love to his new son.” As a mom, that notion touched me. I sang songs to my baby boy too, melodies I hoped he'd grow up to treasure. When I heard this recording, I knew it was the kind of music I'd have playing in the background of my son's world.
Turns out, the arrival of Peter's son Baker lead this duo on a wonderful musical journey. Cooper approached Tom T. Hall about rerecording his album (first released in 1974), so his children's songs could be embraced by a new generation of families. The songs, which celebrate the animals Tom T. had on his farm, are whimsical, funny, simple, and sweet. Peter says it took all of 20 minutes for them to rough out who among their musician friends would be a fit for the project: folks like singer Patty Griffin, Buddy Miller, guitarist Duane Eddy, Jim Lauderdale, and Tom T. Hall among them. “And we thought it would be wonderful to have our friends come to Tom T.'s house outside of Nashville to record the album,” he says. Thus, I Love Tom T. Hall's Songs of Fox Hollow, was born.
With 10-week-old Baker in tow, the pair found themselves at Fox Hollow farm, recording the album Peter had sung along to as a kid. It was a fitting tribute to the legendary storyteller whose music had long been a soundtrack to Peter's life. “We're musicians but we're fans too,” he observes. “And it's a big deal for us to sing in front of Tom and tell him how much his music has meant to us.” The final recording, a well-crafted reinterpretation of the original songs, earned them a Grammy nomination for Best Children's Album, and provided an unexpected exclamation point to a project that was really a labor of love.
Tom T. Hall is often called the storyteller. How did he earn that title?
Tom T. wrote such hits as Harper Valley PTA, I Care, and and penned songs for Johnny Cash, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn. The Songs of Fox Hollow proved a departure for him, yet this album showcases what he's always been known for, “Like Woody Guthrie, Tom T. told real people's stories,” says Peter. “He really helped to change the language of country music to a more literate style, a type of writing that hadn't been done that much before.”
At 76, I understand he's still actively playing bluegrass today. Did he come by the studio while you were recording?
He usually doesn't hang out when other people are recording, but he sat on the couch and at one point was crying while Patti Griffin sang I Love. Tom and his wife Dixie also wrote a new song especially for this release: I Made a Friend of a Flower Today. I Love was also nominated for Song of the Year by the Americana Music Association. The awards will be presented September 13 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.
What was it about these songs that made them special to you? The fact that they say to kids, 'It's okay to stop and listen to a bird,' to be concerned that birds keep singing. They also teach lessons about how to get along with others, about the importance of kindness and cooperation.
How has becoming a dad impacted you as a singer/songwriter?
Baker teaches me how to keep my antenna up. By his observations and the things he picks up on, he makes me aware of what's around us, he reminds me to live in the moment.
Did you have any idea as you set out on this venture that you'd wind up receiving a Grammy nomination for your efforts?
Not at all. The Grammy nomination was really just icing on the cake. It brought more attention to a project that we both felt very fortunate to be a part of.
You spend many weekends out on the road playing your rootsy brand of acoustic music. Is it getting a little tougher being away from your family now?
Yes, but we stay in touch via phone and Skype. And as soon as my son's old enough to travel, I'll be building our tours around seeing the ball parks of America.