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Acoustic guitarist Michael Koppy kept his playing, with its rich, burnished tone and strong melodic backbone, under wraps for a quarter-century. “I’ve got friends I’ve known for decades who didn’t even know I owned a guitar until I started playing out a few years ago,” Koppy says by phone from his L.A. area home.
That’s all changed with the recent release of Koppy’s debut Red River Redux on his own Good Track label. The disc is winning him a following on both coasts, where his sound resonates with roots-savvy audiences. And it’s an excellent showcase of his maverick instincts.
The disc’s 16 songs display his distinctive approach to Travis picking—a style of simultaneous rhythm and melody playing developed by country music guitar legend Merle Travis. Koppy doesn’t worry so much about the constant thumb-plucked bass pulse traditional Travis pickers employ. “That can be a crutch sometimes,” he opines.
Instead he goes for overall feel, darting away from the beat to craft explosions of melody for the breaks of vocal tunes like “Loose Talk” and simply pouring on the gasoline for instrumentals like “Alabama Jubilee” and a full-tilt version of Skip James’s “I’m So Glad,” once a staple of Cream’s repertoire.
Although Koppy came of age during the psychedelic era, he wields his ’61 Gibson Hummingbird and Collings D2H more like Doc Watson or Tampa Red than Clapton or Hendrix. He also tunes his guitar down a whole step to D-G-C-F-A-D. (“Standard tuning feels stiff,” Koppy says. “I like to bend strings and not be encumbered.”) And until recently—when he and his producer Garrett Soden decided to tackle a version of L.A. hippie-era group Love’s “Alone Again Or”—he’s stuck to songs from the great American folk songbook.
But with a twist. Koppy’s mission is to mine the past of folk, jazz, country, blues and any other styles in his path, searching for attractive old songs that he can make new. He does so by crafting wholesale rearrangements—a gambit that transforms Stephen Foster’s “Oh, Susanna” into something closer to a rag—and by writing his own lyrics to replace or elaborate on what’s already there.
That’s what Koppy does on most of his Red River Redux tunes, which range from famed country songwriter Jack Clement’s ballad “Leavin’ on Her Mind” to Belgian pop star Lara Fabian’s lost love story “Je T’appartiens” to the traditional cattle drive anthem “Whoopie Ti-Yi-Yo.”
Photo Credit: Charles Gary