Jeff Hopson: Troubadour For the Troubadours

Readers here at Outlaw Magazine are likely accustomed to seeing Jeff Hopson’s name in print.  He’s been with us for a couple of years now and has turned in some genuinely stellar work – both CD reviews and feature articles.  Hop is a connoisseur of great music, the real stuff that lives in a writer’s marrow and springs from a soul the way Clyde Barrow sprang the Angola farm.  Some things just won’t be denied, and those are the things that have always drawn Jeff’s spirit.   But he’s far more than an eloquent observer practicing the arts of prose.  Far, far more.  Hopson is in fact one of the purest, most intelligent lyricists and impassioned songwriters alive today.   Unless you’ve had the chance to hear him live, you mostly have to take my word for that right now.  But not for long.  Jeff’s first album is now officially in the works.  That’s a story in its own right and we could talk it through for hours but let’s boil it down instead.  Here’s the deal.  Hopson has made a name for himself around north Texas hosting open mics and helping promote other artists.  As selfless a man as any of us in the region have ever known.  He’s shared gigs, found work for others, and often been penniless and dependent on the largesse of friends – sometimes for meals.  Yet you’d never know any of that if you talk with him.  What Hop brings is wisdom and friendship and insight and bullshit in equal measure.  The good kind of bullshit, by the way; the stuff Hondo Crouch was legendary for.  If you’re of a certain karmic bent, in fact, you might be forgiven for believing that Hopson is really just Hondo in a different light.  Sage and wise beyond the norm, kind and giving but borne of substance and baptized by life’s fire.  Better for having gone through the trials, and always ready with a helping hand or a word of advice and support.   And a songwriter for the ages.  Tie all of that together, and you wind up with a guy other artists want to listen to.  For years they’ve asked Jeff where they can get his music, and the answer’s always been some variant of “Well, I’m working on that and hope to be able to do something soon.”  In February of 2014, that all changed.  Those artists who were asking?  They figured it out.  Hop didn’t have the money for studio time, and wouldn’t have it anytime soon, either.    So one of them, a man named Chuck Ligon with a healthy track record of his own, decided to put a benefit together.  He got a venue to agree to donate a percentage of sales to Jeff, and then put out the word to other artists and the north Texas music community.   People showed up in droves on a Sunday.  Hundreds of people.  Artists from all across the area took turns on stage, playing their songs and sharing their talents.  Specifically to help raise funds for Hopson to be able to record.  Think about that for a minute.  Music is a cutthroat business.  Getting airplay is hard and getting harder.  Getting paid for distribution is even worse in this new digital age where music is available anywhere but financial remuneration for its creators seems a long gone afterthought.  Yet these men and women who scrap for their pennies and dimes took an off day they could have spent at home with their families and came together to help fund a competitor.  That should tell you two things.  One is that the music scene in Texas is unique and wonderful in ways beyond words.  The other is that Jeff Hopson, the man and the songwriter, is an exceptional being who inspires the very best in everyone he interacts with.

So who is this guy?  Where’d he come from, and what paths helped form the man he is today, revered and loved in a brutal business?

Glad you asked.

Hop was born in Davy Crockett’s back yard.  Johnson City, Tennessee, a place where deep ties to history and cultural roots abide in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains.  Perhaps not Appalachia as we commonly think of it today, not quite anymore at least, but the region where so many of those legends first took form.  It was in this area that Jimmy Rodgers first came in to record; where A.P. Carter and his Family did the same.  The earliest captured moments of what we now term country music happened here.   From that cradle came Jeff Hopson.  His parents moved the family to Florida while Hop was still a young boy, but the stamp had already made its imprint.  In 1964, somewhere near Orlando, the family piled into the car and went to a drive-in movie one evening.  The show?  “Your Cheating Heart.”  Hank Williams.  Jeff recalls that night clearly, saying of it that “The course was charted from that moment on. I have the (now out-of-print) cd of that movie soundtrack even now. Hank Williams impacted me more than anything ever would. Got a kid cowboy hat and a little plastic kid guitar for Christmas that year.”

Davy Crockett.  The Carter Family.  Hank.  Not a bad start for someone with the soul and the desire to understand.  By the time Jeff was in fourth grade, the Hopson clan had returned to eastern Tennessee.  The boy fed his avid love of history on the rich traditions and past of the region, simultaneously nurturing his burgeoning love for country music and everything it had meant and could still mean to honest hardworking folks.  High school introduced new loves – Sabbath, Deep Purple, Elton John, Grand Funk, Aerosmith and the like – but country remained Hop’s best girl.  In a period of our nation’s history where people often defined themselves by a given musical style, Jeff dabbled in whatever he liked and kept moving.  Be sure you’re right, and then go ahead; wasn’t that what Crockett said?

Life’s turns and twists kept snaking by like the roads winding through the mountains Hopson loved.  Always a new vista, always an opportunity to stop and reflect, and always a dropoff somewhere nearby awaiting the careless.  Between 1978 and 1979 a couple of profound changes made their way into the forefront of Hop’s worldview.  One was marriage.  The other was a rekindling of an old love affair with Jesus Christ.  The paths of spirituality and religion seemed one and the same at the time, and Jeff found himself by the early ‘80s enrolled in an extremely conservative Pentecostal Bible college in Greenville, South Carolina.  He was on a path to the ministry; whether or not snake handling would be in the mix makes for interesting conversation over a longneck these days but at the time the point was that the anointing of the Holy Spirit was everything.  Well, almost everything.  There was still that burning, nagging love for country music, and a growing thirst for playing it.  By ’84 some things had changed.  The guitar had always been there for Jeff, ever since that first kid one in the winter of ’64.  In the ensuing two decades the Holy Spirit and the ghost of Hank Williams had waged something of a war within Hopson’s breast.   And Hank was winning.

Maybe it wasn’t quite that simple, in hindsight.  Two years of Bible college teach a man a lot of things.  Hopson is an exceedingly intelligent man, and the rare intellectual who thrives as much on food for the soul as he does food for the mind.  The seemingly divergent yet often unified nature of things is not lost on the man, ever.  He observes, he learns, and then he critiques and analyzes and tests for himself the measure of a thing.  In 1984 the tests on religion were coming back scarred.  Something about the rigor, the dogma, wasn’t sitting well.  Ideas about faith and the nature of a personal relationship with the God who’d created those Great Smoky Mountains didn’t seem to fit with the mantras of the ideologues teaching the classes at the college.  But Hank was still out there in the mists, and Jeff decided it was time to follow him for a while on the Lost Highway.

He began to pick up gigs with local bands, honing on wooden stages under bright lights parts of his soul which previously had been polished only in classrooms.  The change was profound, on multiple levels.  His marriage began to come apart at the seams.  By 1986, the gypsy spirit was sounding its siren’s call once again and Hop moved his life back to Tennessee.  Nashville this time; there was a looming resurgence of traditional country music on the horizon and the man who wanted to play thought, as rural pickers have for decades, that Music City was the place to connect with the real stuff.  So he went, got himself an industrial job, and kept plugging away at music on the side.  The day job paid the bills, but the gigs were sparse and scarce.  There was a summer-long booking once at the Opryland Hotel, but that was pretty much the high water mark.  And then, in 1989, it all changed again.  Another ghost, Crockett’s this time, moved a piece on the chessboard of Hopson’s life.  Jeff had always been a student of history, and knew well the depth of the ties between his birth state and the land below the Red River.  He’d always felt a certain kinship with Texas, and a friend who had moved to Dallas made a compelling case for Hopson to come along.  Hopson stepped off a plane at DFW Airport in September of 1989, and found work doing side gigs immediately.  Within two years he was a full-time musician, earning his keep and paying his way doing what he loved.  It seemed that Hank and Davy had finally gotten him where he needed to be.

But there were kids.  Kids who needed both a father and a daddy.  Tough for a man to be either effectively when he’s always on the road.  And Hop was familiar with the road.  Back in the mid ‘80s, after the Bible college stint, and when that marriage was crumbling, he’d been the lead guitar player for a guy named Aaron Tippin.  Maybe you’ve heard of him.  This was before Tippin hit it really big, before the bodybuilding and the chart hits.  But that guy, on his way to the big time.  That’s where Hop played lead.  And nearing a decade later, based now out of Texas, Jeff was opening up everywhere from Albuquerque, NM to Alexandria, LA for national acts.  Travis Tritt.  Shenandoah.  Steve Wariner.  Little Texas.  Marty Stuart.  Opening for those acts at clubs all over NM, TX, and LA.  But there were kids.  Kids who needed both a father and a daddy.  And just like that, the Lost Highway turned into suburbia.  A day job in CD and later DVD manufacturing paid the bills for about 19 years while keeping Hopson close to the music his soul needed.  While he raised his girls and thrived on doing so, the job also kept him abreast of what was happening in the music world.  We all remember when the New Traditional country movement died under the weight of Garth’s garish shirts and overwrought showmanship; we all remember the dark slide from McGraw to Chesney to whatever it is they play on mainstream radio these days.  But in the midst of all of that, artists like Buddy Miller made a name under the radar.  Many of them happened to have their CDs made at the plant where Jeff worked.  And it became clear to him that the thing he had always loved was not only alive, but exceedingly vibrant and well.  As his kids came of age, Hopson began to pick back up his guitar.  Open mics around the DFW area.  Got back into the groove, started making friends.  Found out in no uncertain terms that he was surrounded by kindred spirits.   Jeff will tell you that he’s always looked at music in a certain light; that he’s viewed it as a way to communicate on visceral levels.  Hank taught him that way back in ’64.   And now, as Hop says, he has “always seen little difference in Cormac McCarthy and Steve Earle, Hemingway and Kristofferson, Steinbeck and Don Henley. Literate story-telling. Songs that create films on the head.”

Texas artists have long held similar philosophical perspectives, though not many have voiced it quite that way.  But it’s true.  Music in the Lone Star state has always been about truth at its core.  And the men and women who make the music have had something to say.  Something formed and shaped within their own back trails, the paths they took through life’s winding roads – the Great Smoky Mountains of the soul, if you will.  From Blaze Foley to Waylon Jennings, it’s been the same.  Something to say, and a very personal and specific idea about just how exactly it needs to be said.  That spirit’s still rampant in the Texas music community.  Jeff Hopson has inserted himself into that world seamlessly, both as a man working behind the scenes to help other artists and as a songwriter whose work exhibits a passion rarely seen.  He has no set musical style, no genre per se; rather, he lets the music fit the story of each song.  Original to a fault, intellectual and profound yet accessible and easy to hum along to.  The lessons and observations of the years and the mistakes and the losses and the triumphs and the truest loves come ringing through in everything Hop writes.

This is the man other artists came together to support, the one they did their own real life Kickstarter for.  They weren’t focused on the competition, on the irony of handing money to a man whose music might knock theirs off the radio.  Rather, they were focused on getting that very man’s music available to them in their trucks and vans and cars.  The road warriors, the ones chewing concrete in the dark of the night on their way to the next gig, they wanted Jeff Hopson’s music available to them for those moments when inspiration and exhaustion fight for control of the steering wheel.  They wanted the Hopson soundtrack for their own journeys on the Lost Highway.

Soon it will be available to them, and to you, and to the world.  The fundraiser worked, generated enough money in one day to get Hopson and a producer and some of the finest musicians in Texas sitting down to map out a song list and start talking about arrangements.  You can pre-order a copy from Jeff via PayPal.  He’s also purveyor of one of the coolest T-shirts any musician has ever set on a merch table.  It stemmed from a photo taken by Melissa Arnold with Texas Red Productions.  Just Hop and his guitar, lost together in the eternal dance of a song.  The image, given Jeff’s long hair and beard, struck a vital chord.  It’s referred to now as the Shroud of Hopson.  Take a look at the picture, you’ll see why.  That’s Hop’s essence in a photo.  The Red Dirt Moses.  Purveyor of truth, of wisdom, of faith (not religion – but faith), insight, and some of the best songs you’ll ever hear.  Whether or not you ever get out of this world alive.

Hop’s PayPal link is HERE. Click it.  Order you a record and a shirt.  You can find a few rough recordings of his songs on ReverbNation to tide you over for a bit.And soon, if you play your cards right, you’ll be able to hear his best work in the way it’s been meant to be heard ever since Davy and Hank first laid their timeless grasp on his soul.

~ Dave Pilot

 

 

 

Dave Pilot lives in north Texas with his first good wife (don’t ask about the other one), seven horses, and five dogs.  When his wife’s not looking, he tries to figure out ways to feed the 987 or so cats to the coyotes out behind the fenceline.  When he’s not trying to raise his kids to turn out better than he did, he’s hitting historical sites on his way to honky-tonks from Denton to Port Aransas. Visit Dave Pilot on Facebook.

 

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