When Drew Cooper strolls into the Hotel Congress on a dimly-lit late afternoon, he's got a canvas bag, festooned with a pink block print of an owl, over one arm and a rambunctious, wildly endearing toddler in the other. His iPhone speaks volumes about his preferred aesthetic though, a mix of RealTree camouflage and hunter orange, constantly chirping. Isolated from his accouterments, Cooper cuts an imposing figure. He's built like a refrigerator and moves like a linebacker, with the handshake of someone who uses their hands for more than just strumming a guitar. As the latest-and-greatest country act out of Tucson, Cooper also has the wide smile and look-you-in-the-eye approach that most men in this genre have as well, and it plays in his favor. You can see where his kid gets her charm from.
Born in Illinois and raised in Tucson, Cooper found his way to country music like all children of the late '80s did: through radio, on his way to or from school. Garth Brooks was his gateway drug, an artist whose tape he rarely left home without. When is comes to songwriters he admires, however, his list is far more full of storied rock icons than country artists, and the influence shows in his work. Cooper's writing, while sitting firmly in the modern country vein, has a lot of the grease and grit of '80s Americana rock. There's a hint of Petty here, a dash of Springsteen there, and a Waylon Jennings-shaped stain covering the whole damn thing.
"I don't know if it's the idea of how they played as much as it is the way they did what they did," Cooper muses, leaning back in a tooled red leather booth tucked in a corner of the bar. "When you hear an Alan Jackson song from the early '90s and you hear it now, you know it's an Alan Jackson song. When you hear that guitar that Waylon Jennings plays, you know it's Waylon. I love country and I love the stories and I love the way it's done, but I want to be believable like they are. That's what I try to do."
There's an easy case made for Cooper there as the element of relativity runs strong through his music. He's got material to pull from as well: The end of a nine-year-long marriage has left him a single father, raising his two kids while making a living solely from gigging. He's not shy about this either, nor is he hyperbolic. At one point during our conversation, Cooper says that "there's some weeks I'm eating ramen, but that's my own fault. Maybe that's because I took a weekend off from playing or something." It's humbling moments such as these that should translate well into his songs, recorded or live, contributing to the everyman ideal that permeates country music. Cooper constantly works toward that appeal, rarely forsaking the large picture.
"The way I operate is that I consistently set goals and reevaluate those goals: weekly, monthly, daily, and if it's a bad day, hourly," he says. "It's one of those things that I look at and some things are so easy for some artists. Some things are easy for me and there's certain things I can't do, and you always think your hometown will back you. Tucson has so much talent, but because the local guys are local, you don't get the backing you would if you were from Phoenix and vice versa."
Yet here he is again, gracing a Country Thunder stage that lies in the dead middle between those two markets, the hometown hero (because in truth, any Arizonan country artist is a hometown hero across the state) taking the same place and playing through the same speakers as the Lukes and Erics and Blakes of the world. It's not that this festival isn't a gigantic opportunity, as it is and Cooper knows it, but his approach to live shows often centers around a common goal that's far more modest than the multi-platinum sales of his festival contemporaries.
"Some nights I walk out there and I try to find the person that hates my music, and I think 'I'm going to impress that person. I'm going to make sure that person think I'm the best thing since sliced bread,'" he says. "I go out there and I wouldn't say I play angry, but I play with a purpose. I just try to get up there and try to make it as fun as I can. I get really intense at first, like 'That person hates my music,' but at the end of the night you can get real lucky and they'll come up to you and go 'I love what you do.'"
And maybe soon he'll have more than just one honky-tonk patron a night feeling that way about his work. Maybe it will be whole venues, cities, states, markets pining after his work. With a Nashville-cut EP of six songs nearing completion, given that funding can come through and finish it, and his relentless tour schedule, it feels like Cooper is poised to make that break soon. Instinct says he's on that precipice, a well-timed radio placement away from widespread acclaim. He might have to leave Arizona in the process, as all of our country expats must at one point or another, for the greener pastures of Nashville, but it's Cooper's fundamental will to provide for his own that lies at the heart of it all -- yet another part of his ethos that every country fan can relate to.
"There's a lot of fear and that's the reason I'm still here," he says in another humanistic moment. "I'm afraid to leave my kids, I'm afraid to not move, but I'm afraid to fail more than I'm afraid to stay here. I can give them so much more if I can be successful than if I can be just OK."
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Drew Cooper is scheduled to play Country Thunder on Saturday, April 11 and Sunday, April 12, at Canyon Moon Ranch Grounds in Florence.