BY JOSHUA M. MILLER | PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI
On Nov. 11, 1961, a 20-year-old musician named Bob Dylan penciled down a handful of verses in his notebook describing his brief time living in Wisconsin. It was the same day he entered the studio to record his Columbia Records debut album.
The lyrics were left untouched and in the archives for years, until they made a recent appearance on the auction block. Upon seeing the notebook page on the auction company’s site, 28-year-old Milwaukee singer-songwriter Trapper Schoepp knew he needed to finish what Dylan had started. He added a chorus and music to go along with Dylan’s verses about traveling to different parts of the state. The result is “On, Wisconsin.”
“It didn’t take any convincing to make it a song,” says Schoepp. “As a folk singer, that’s second nature, to always extend the line. Taking what one generation has started and finishing it.”
Schoepp connected with the song’s narrative of a drifter in a train car, late at night, with the moonlight shining on him as he heads back home to Wisconsin. The waltz-like tempo evokes the train moving along the tracks; the traveler hears this rhythm in his head, which brings his thoughts back to Wauwatosa, Milwaukee, and abundant milk and cream.
Schoepp and his band, which includes older brother, Tanner, recorded the song at Wauwatosa studio Wire & Vice. The song made its debut in 2017 during Milwaukee Day and will appear on Schoepp’s new album, “Primetime Illusion.” He shares songwriting credits with Dylan, who signed off on the modified song.
“Imagine telling a 14-year-old standing in a baseball field seeing Bob Dylan perform for the first time in Madison, Wis., that one day he would have a co-write with Bob Dylan,” Schoepp marvels. “It’s just very surreal. It means a lot to me. It should mean a lot to the state, as well, that a Nobel Prize winner has officially left his mark on our great state. So, it’s bigger than me and it’s bigger than the song.”
Things quickly snowballed following the song’s recording — which earned notice in Rolling Stone magazine — including Pat Sansone of Chicago’s venerable alt-country band Wilco agreeing to produce “Primetime Illusion.” “We shacked up at Wire & Vice for 10 days, and I had the most fun I’ve ever had making a record,” Schoepp says.
Schoepp has been based in Milwaukee ever since he moved here in 2008 to go to college at UW-Milwaukee, where he earned a certificate in rock and roll studies. On his 2016 album “Rangers & Valentines,” he sings about the creator of that program, the late professor Dr. Martin Jack Rosenblum, known for his stage name “The Holy Ranger.”
“He taught us both about the art of songwriting and the literary aspects of songwriting,” Schoepp says.
That education and inspiration motivated Schoepp to try his hand at being a professional musician. The local music scene quickly rallied behind him, and he started playing bigger and bigger shows in town and, eventually, around the globe. “I think they see a person that is putting everything on the line for their craft,” Schoepp says of his enthusiastic audiences.
Despite all of his successes, Schoepp says he feels no need to live anywhere else but Milwaukee.
“It’s the middle of America, so it’s made it easy for me to jump from one coast to the next. And it’s very affordable to live here, making it a nice place for a young artist to call home,” Schoepp explains. “There’s a vibrant arts and music scene happening that makes me want to stick around. I sing Milwaukee’s praises wherever I go.”
Schoepp has a simple method for balancing his music and daily life. “It’s all rolled into one,” he says. “You have to be all in. There is no line between the two.”
Whatever happens next — “This is just inning number one,” Schoepp grins, “so, we’ve got eight more left to go.” — he hopes his new songs leave an impression on Wisconsinites and music fans everywhere. Some tackle the political and personal disillusionment he currently sees in America. For example, “What You Do to Her” examines what Schoepp calls the sexual assault “epidemic” in the country.
“What’s most important is the song,” he muses. “And if the songs speak to people, that’s what’s key. It doesn’t matter what sort of things are being written about me or what kind of press an album is getting if the music isn’t moving people. ... I plan to keep extending that line and keep the songs and stories alive. That’s all I can hope for.”
Trapper Schoepp will celebrate the release of his new album, “Primetime Illusion,” with a Feb. 2 show at the Backroom at Colectivo, 2211 N. Prospect Ave. MKE