Music is a young person's art, so I'm always fascinated by musicians who keep commanding attention with fresh material after several decades in the business. Singer-songwriter Dana Cooper, who'll be featured at the Kerrytown District Association Nash Bash at the Farmers' Market on Thursday, August 21, is one of these. Born in Kansas City in the early 1950s, he recorded a folk-rock album for Elektra in 1973 and has lived in Los Angeles, Houston, and now Nashville. His gentle tenor, light but rhythmic acoustic guitar playing, and existential outlook were the stuff of a thousand folk-rockers in those days. So what's the attraction three decades later? He can pull off a subtle lyric, for one thing. Cooper gets tagged with the label "songwriter's songwriter" sometimes, and among his large output are some songs that keep the listener pondering. "Death Is a Door," from Cooper's recent Made of Mud album, alternates verses describing a seductive female figure with this chorus:

Death is the end, death is a beginning.
Death is again, death is nevermore.
Death is your friend, forever forgiving.
Death is a winter, death is a door.

A Cooper love song is an unconventional thing as well. One refrain goes, "I'm putting you out of my misery/Ready or not, I'm gonna make you happy."

But I think what keeps Cooper's modest-sized but devoted body of fans coming back to his music is not its complexity but its growing simplicity. He seems to be stripping his stories down to lines of a few syllables, saying a lot in a small space. Made of Mud has a few songs that depart from common patterns, such as "Comic Tragedy," in which a sharp portrayal of the jitters of contemporary life is matched to an unsettling 5/4 meter. But most of the music is almost neutral, plain folk-pop, which brings Cooper's well-honed words to the fore.

Several songs on Made of Mud have a political tinge, including the first cover in Cooper's long career, Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd." Others, like "Four Laps around the World," are the kind of idealistic, Whitmanesque songs of experience that not many people are singing these days. Put all this together with his fifty-something voice — which sounds like that of a youthful coffeehouse strummer — and you have something that sounds suspiciously like wisdom, a rare enough commodity these days. The intimate block-party atmosphere of Nash Bash should be a good place to partake.

[Review published August 2008]