Tours are no place for parents — even if you aren’t anywhere near Mötley Crüe levels of debauchery — but when you’re a red-dirt musician playing in bars and haven’t hit the legal drinking age, there’s not much of a choice.
“Those were some good ol’ times, having my mom or dad right there with me,” said Johnny Cooper, now 22. “I’ve been gigging since I was 17, if that shows you how many shows I’ve played in bars before I was old enough to be in them. I had to have my mother or father with me, and one of my band members was signed up as my legal guardian if they couldn’t be there. I even had to have an affidavit that said I was there strictly to work. Some venues wouldn’t even let me come out from backstage.”
The Texas native no longer needs legal documentation to take the stage, but he’s still younger than your average country singer. In a genre where the biggest names are well into their 30s and 40s, Cooper is making his mark at a remarkably fresh age. Thanks in part to a childhood flooded with music, he realized quickly what he’d be doing for a living.
“I was either in a dance studio or hanging out with my dad, who was running nightclubs and having live music come through,” he said. “It was one of those things that felt like I was supposed to be in the realm of what my parents were doing. It just felt right.”
So he took up the drums around 15 before a chance encounter with a show promoter led him to pick up the guitar and take a stab at singing to nab his first paid gig. Cooper’s dad encouraged him to try his hand at songwriting; he hasn’t looked back since, playing upward of 180 shows a year. After performing Friday at Wormy Dog Saloon, he’ll record a live disc over the two days following in Wichita Falls, Texas.
Youth has allowed him to avoid the heavy tolls of sustained time on the road, but it’s also come with other advantages, like a willingness and desire to deviate from the norm. His sophomore album, 2009’s “Follow,” brought in funk, R&B and pop influences to the tried-and-true red-dirt sound in which he began.
“I wanted a sound that didn’t sound like anything else around me,” Cooper said. “My whole thing since I’ve started was taking all that I love and finding a way to mend it together.”
He certainly dove into decidedly non-red-dirt fare when seeking inspiration. He went with Sly and the Family Stone, The Roots and John Mayer, finishing with a genre-bending record that might have turned away the purists, but appealed to a wider spectrum.
“That’s understandable, and I can see why, but it seems like most people are still right there with us. For me, it comes back to an old Willie Nelson saying, something like, ‘Bring the hippies and rednecks, and bring them all together,’” he said. “I’d love to be that guy that is 70 years old, still out onstage playing music for people. … I look forward to that more than anything.”