Berry and Cooley: Roots Music to Keep Louisville Warm

By Keith Wicker

There's a chill in the air these days that reminds us of the snow and ice almost certainly in our future, yet within the city a couple of musicians are doing all they can to keep its citizens warm. One wears a crooked, straw cowboy hat pulled low over a nest of curls; the other goes brazenly without head cover even though his hair deserted him a long time ago. The first is always smiling, the soul patch on his chin bobbing as he sings hundreds of songs, new and old, without ever fluffing a line. The second almost never smiles, but peers over his glasses at his partner, the crowd and occasionally his fretboards as if he's a serious academic observing a society far removed from civilization. They are John Berry and Steve Cooley, respectively, and they play bluegrass and honky-tonk, American roots music of the kind that has made the O' Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack a best seller.

From my observations, Louisville seems to favor rock musicians. Perhaps its status as the largest city in Kentucky creates a desire to steer clear of all things that smack of "hick" or rural music. Nevertheless, within a couple of groups working the fringes, the off-nights at the rock clubs and the weekend nights of smaller clubs, Louisville lovers of American roots music have discovered this duo. It's as if Gram Parsons and Clarence White arose from their ashes and entered the souls of two local guys. Cooley plays the banjo with a bluegrass ensemble that Berry fronts; Cooley plays a Telecaster with a honky-top group that Berry fronts. No matter what or where they play, Johnny B. is in control. With his melodious baritone voice, he thanks the crowd for coming, then launches into classic songs, such as "Springtime in Alaska" or "I Know You`re Married." Supported by Cooley's stellar fretwork, Johnny B. is hands down the best "rural" sound in town.

A new CD is in the works. They'll start recording after the first of the year. Berry says he plans to keep it simple, and "all but one or two" of the songs have already been chosen. The soft-spoken singer honed his chops at Opryland in a show that found him imitating other singers, such as Lefty Frizzell.

Cooley can be found during the day behind the desk at the Guitar Emporium. Somewhat of a legend around town for his work with the Dillards and Doc Watson, he is unassuming and tireless, quick with anecdotes about guys willing to pay $80 for a certain kind of fingerpick.

January and February are certainly not months that most of us look forward to: the cold, the bleak, the depressed all around us. But two musicians offer the warming rays of time-tested Americana; the sparkling riffs of Steve Cooley and the soulful baritone of Johnny Berry offer as much hope of survival as a down-filled coat or a flask-toting Saint Bernard.