FLORENCE—Having lived in Tucson for most of his life and having played nearly every bar, club festival and bar mitzvah within 50 miles of the city, Drew Cooper is the embodiment of the Old Pueblo.
In fact, given his no frills tour bus, his willingness to play nearly anytime, anywhere, and his passion for what he does, he might well take the name of Eegee’s most popular sub: The Grinder.
Cooper opened Country Thunder in Florence this year and then played the Dierks Bentley Whiskey Row stage immediately following the end of event headliner Blake Shelton’s Sunday night show as part of the closeout to the four-day festival.
It was the fifth year in a row you could find Cooper in Florence in early April, and he said he hadn't tired of it in the least.
“I got lucky enough to do the main stage a couple years back (in 2015),” he said. “This year, the idea of playing that first set was pretty daunting—you set the tone.”
Cooper said he was pleasantly surprised by the crowd size for the first sow of the event as many folks often skip out on the early performers on Day 1.
He’s been playing music essentially full time for the past seven years—a former University of Arizona cheerleader, Cooper loves his hometown and says one of the things he appreciates the most is it honesty.
“The best part about Tucson is how hard they are on live music,” he said. “Down there, I don’t think we’ve recovered fully from the Recession, at least not as well as other places, so people are careful with the dollar they spend.
“They’re loyal, though. When they decide they like you, they back you the whole time.”
With two young kids, Cooper said its nice to have the comfort of being able to play a good portion of his gigs in Tucson or in other cities nearby. There’s a downside, however.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” he said. “The comfort can make you not want to go out on the road and push your music to new audiences. The convenience of playing in Tucson … and the comfort it is for my soul is the knife to my career.”
So he doesn’t sit still. Using connections he’s garnered over the years—Cooper tells a story of doing late-night Denny’s with Eric Church after a show of Church’s flopped at the Cactus Moon—to put together a tour of sorts this summer that will sprawl out across the midwest, taking him away from the Grand Canyon State for more than a month.
Being on the road, too, helps get his creative juices flowing.
“I find it easier to write about other people’s lives than my own,” he said. “I can write what’s needed rather than trying to stuff 1,000 words about me into a 200-word song.”
He’s opened for tons of big names in the industry—Blake Shelton, Jon Pardi, Toby Keith and more—though he said perhaps his biggest thrill to date was getting to open for his country music idols, the Randy Rogers Band, and trying not to fangirl the entire time.
Cooper’s real about his music, his influences and just life in general—he was killing his bandmates on a recent road trip by playing the uber-catchy country-pop track “Dibs” by Kelsey Ballerini about every third song off his playlist. When it comes to his own music, though he appreciates Randy Rogers, Chris Stapleton and others who don’t conform to whatever country music deems as “in” at the moment, he knows that means he too must be unique.
“I don’t have a conventional sound,” he said. “If you set out to make music that sounds like somebody else, you’re not going to make great music.
“But if you do make some decent music and you’ve got people that sort of fall into it, then you’ve got a chance.”