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While he doesn’t usually make the short list of well-known musicians who’ve called the Jersey Shore their home, Little Silver native Greg Trooper has an uncanny knack for being on the scene wherever music happens — or is just about to happen.
The 56-year-old singer and songwriter was present and accounted for when the NYC folk clubs summoned forth a bold new crop of performers in the 1970s and ’80s. He was at large in Austin when that Texas town was tearing up the country music rulebook — and in Nashville when a next-generation Music City began to attract veteran Shorecats like John Eddie and Garry Tallent.
On Saturday, Trooper returns to Red Bank — the setting of many an after-school hangout back in the day — for a major benefit concert presented under the name Goin’ Country for Kids. A fundraiser for the Strong Kids Program at The Community YMCA, the 8 pm show at the Count Basie Theatre finds Trooper appearing in support of country superstar Clint Black — himself a momentary son of the greater Red Bank green (and if you don’t believe us, check the NJ Wall of Fame at Murphy’s on Broad Street).
The solo acoustic set is expected to draw from his 25-year catalog of recorded work — a discography that includes 2011’s Upside Down Town, in which the darker vocal tones of the mature Trooper make a gritty but satisfying fit with a lyrical style that was always world-weary and wise beyond the composer’s years. The acclaimed songwriter’s songwriter would see his vivid vignettes interpreted by performers from Steve Earle (“Little Sister”) and Vince Gill (“We Won’t Dance”) to Lucy Kaplansky (“The Heart”) and Billy Bragg (“Everywhere”).
Working with such sought-after producers as Buddy Miller, Dan Penn and Tallent, Trooper has employed sensibly spare arrangements (spotlighting fiddles, pedal steel, accordion and some quietly intense guitar) in a way that presaged what we now call Americana — even as it avoided the potential embarrassments of Opryland fad and fashion.
upperWETside has some Q’s and A’s with Trooper, on the other side of the tape.
I’d like to work down there on the Shore more often. Asbury Park and that area is so incredible with the music scene. I have a lot of friends and fans there, and my parents are still there. They’re coming to the show!
I’m doing it because the YMCA requested me — Richard Ayres, who’s the director or president of the Y [actually, interim president and CEO], is an old friend of mine.
You first started getting major attention back in the late 1970s, early ’80s as part of that explosion of the whole singer-songwriter scene in New York — guys like Willie Nile, who’s coming back to Red Bank soon. Did you ever really make yourself at home in the scene here in Monmouth County — or did you feel like something of an outsider as a lover of country music down in Bossland?
It wasn’t against the law to listen to Merle Haggard in New Jersey! Little Silver was the suburb of Red Bank — I left around when I was 17 and ran around the country. I went to college at the University of Kansas, and I was in Austin in 1976 because I was deep into that early ’70s Austin scene. Guys like Townes Van Zant, Guy Clark — it was a mind-blowing experience.I saw Randy Newman at Armadillo World Headquarters. You could see Willie Nelson playing in a small intimate club.
I lived in New York between 1980 and 1995, then I spent 13 years in Nashville. In 2008 I moved back to New York, to Rockaway Beach.
So what are we going to see on Saturday night — a full band set or just you and guitar?
I’m just touring as a solo act these days, and that includes my set at the Count Basie. I like doing gigs, I like the whole interaction with the audience, and keeping things simple allows me to go where anybody wants me to play. It’s an expense to travel with a band, but beyond that, when you get to a certain age it just gets harder to do things the way you did it when you were starting out — nobody wants to share rooms anymore.
We’re aware that you’ve been busy on a new record, and we’re wondering if any of the new songs are going to make an appearance on Saturday’s set list?
It’s hard taking brand new songs and putting them out there in front of people — you take ‘em on the road, they grow, they change. The new songs are still evolving, so in longer sets I’ll incorporate some new stuff, see how it works in front of an audience. With a short set, like I’m doing at the Basie, I’ll be sticking to the older stuff.
Going back and revisiting your back catalog, we’re struck by how consistent you’ve been over the years — you always kept things relatively simple, in a way that really pointed the way toward what we eventually started calling Americana.
I’m working on a new record that’s more stripped-down acoustic than anything I’ve ever done. But I’m not innocent of trying different things just because I could — not because I should. You’ve gotta dial it back a bit, not make it too much about the latest tech, because tech in general moves so fast, and you come back to the studio six months later and everything’s different.
So you still favor the recording studio environment over the Do It Yourself, home based approach?
I’m old school, I like being in the studio — but I’m not a complete Luddite. I have a computer that I work on at home. I start ‘em there, and I bring the files to the studio. I like working with a producer, with professional musicians — their uniqueness puts the identity into a song. And if music isn’t a collaborative process, what fun is it?
Alright, lightning round: favorite hangout during your high school days in the Red Bank area?
Well… after high school, the Open Stage nights at Gulliver’s Pub!
Choice of pizza in those days?
I’d order from Red Bank Pizza.
Your first car, versus your dream car… they’re rarely the same thing.
My first car was a ’66 VW Bug; a hand-me-down from my brother. My dream car would have really been a pickup truck!
First record album, or 45 or 8-track, that really made an impression on you?
My parents got me a Louie Armstrong album, which I was really into. I wanted to play trumpet at the time.
And who was the band or the musician — for example a lot of people used to say the Beatles on Ed Sullivan — who really set off that spark in you?
For me it really was the Beatles… I saw them at Shea the second time they played there. My father, who worked for WOR TV at the time, brought me. And I remember that we had dinner at Max’s Kansas City!
My father David and my mother Rita still live in the area — Dad’s 88, and Mom’s 82. Dad was a graphic designer for a whole lot of TV stations and magazines. He designed the old logo for Channel 5 in New York, he worked for Reader’s Digest, and he got to meet people like Murray the K. Can you believe it, my father knew Murray the K!
Produced by MusicWorks Entertainment, The Y’s Goin’ Country for Kidsevent kicks off with a 5 pm cocktail reception at Buona Sera, during which a fellow favorite son of Little Silver — musician Rick Dill — will perform. A Distinguished Citizen Award will be presented to Timothy J. Hogan, president of Riverview Medical Center prior to Clint Black’s set, and tickets (priced from $35 to $90) are available from the Basie box office right here.