Tom Cooler is a prominent songwriter, performer, and producer, who has been an important voice in Savannah’s music scene for years. He runs the popular Savannah Songwriters Series, performs in multiple venues, takes photos around town, and also produces a weekly radio show, among many other things.
Here, he talks about attending college in London, his musical influences, and much more.
I started playing guitar because I thought Jimmy Buffett created the lifestyle I wanted to live
What was it like going to college in London?
Living in London was my first experience outside the USA as a “resident”, not a tourist. A tourist comes and goes, but a resident has to find a spot in the community to fill. I remember finding my regular Pub, my regular afternoon Tea house, learning the names of the people I stood next to every day on the train. There were about a dozen of us Americans in that particular exchange program, studying Political Protocol.
I served 4 days each week as Parliamentary Paige to Sir Fergus Montgomery. Twice served tea to Margaret Thatcher (1-sugar, no cream). She referred to me as her “Dear Colonial”, she liked that I was from Savannah. My transportation was always the “Tube” subway system, I lived at Gloucester Station. My favorite Pubs were “Cat & Fiddle” and “Brass Swan”, because they had a Tube Stop right at them. The size of the city was enormous, each district so different, really enjoyed living there.
Did you get into the music scene when you were over there?
Oh yes! I was big into 3-pc Blues back then, which was easy to find in London. Dickie Caruthers fronted a band, and I got to hang out with them a good bit. I remember he was friends with Phil Collen (Def Leppard) and he dropped by to play occasionally. Great time there. Same musician issues that we experience still today, haha.
Who are some of your musical influences?
I started playing guitar because I thought Jimmy Buffett created the lifestyle I wanted to live. I was a 5-year student of Marching Band Brass section Horns, so the idea of singing the music I was playing was very appealing to me, lol! I still believe the songwriting duo of Buffett-(Mac)McAnally is very good. I also read/watch hours of Eric Clapton, his style and lyrics. During the 90’s everyone in South Florida wanted to be the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, I was no different, picking-up a Pawn-Shop Stratocaster and started working with a 4-pc band. Since I’ve been back in Savannah, I’m following Jason Isbell a lot..and yet, I’m still loving those old Otis Redding songs, chord progressions.
Original Material music struggles to find an audience here in Savannah
Have you been a member of any local bands?
I enjoy working in a Band format, your musicality is so much greater when you add bass, drums, keys & horn to your Sound, and the addition of a second or third Voice really lights up an audience. Duos are my current favorite, because they are easy to book and easy to manage. I booked as a band “Tom Cooler & The Big Chill” about a dozen times last year, but my solo/duo shows are obviously the majority of my work.
Why did you start the Songwriters Series?
I received control of the Savannah Songwriter Series in 2017. Prior to that time I had been a volunteer in what was then an “Organization”, starting in 2012 as a rodie, eventually running Sound for the shows. The Series was created in 2010 by Jefferson Ross & Stan Ray, changing hands in 2012 to Thomas Oliver & Roy Swindelle. The primary focus of the Series has always been to give aspiring Songwriters an audience to perform for. Original Material music struggles to find an audience here in Savannah. It has also been an important part of the Series to occasionally book (Radio)charted Songwriters in the Show, providing a few ‘special’ moments on the Stage for the other performers and the Audience.
Can you recall any particularly memorable or amazing performances from the series?
I remember at the January 2015 show (Johnny Harris Ballroom), I had Rick Williamson on stage and I’m hearing Kenny Chesney’s hit “When She Calls Me Baby” coming out of his microphone, and I’m thing to myself “Doesn’t he know this is an Original Material Show?”, hahaa… The audience applauded wildly as Rick explained how it was his wife’s favorite song, because it paid for their home in Nashville. (Rick has written several charted songs) Then in January 2018, Tom Gray was playing our show at the Sentient Bean, and he sings the Cyndi Lauper hit “Money Changes Everything”. The audience took a moment to figure it out, but by the end of the last chorus, they were singing along with and applauding…it was a great time. Tim Malchak (1987 “Colorado Moon”) has performed several times for our Show. The series is increasingly enjoying recognition from Charted Songwriters.
Every song is like a vignette of my life on any particular day
Do you write songs yourself? If so, how often do you perform on the series?
Oh yes! I write lots of songs, more than 100 I suppose. A few are even pretty good, hahaa! I wrote “Back to Nashville” in 1992, and “Nebraska Boy” in 2001, and they both still get great audience response. Just last winter I wrote “Sometimes”, and in a Country house, it works great. Every song is like a vignette of my life on any particular day. But Songwriting is a Craft, like Carpentry. You have to do it regularly, or you begin slipping. Use it or Lose it! And you need to seek out education, just like any trade. I hold myself to the same Show limit I place on any other Performer of 1 show per year.
What are some of your favorite Savannah and regional venues?
Besides the monthly Savannah Songwriters Series, I produce about 10 Shows each year, at a variety of Venues. My Shows have an Audience target of 100-300 people, so that is the context of my comments here. The Tybee Post Theatre is my current favorite venue to book ; I am familiar with the market, the technical aspects of the venue, and it’s Management. At 200 seats, it is a good size for me to gamble the money on. Coaches Corner, on Victory Drive, has recently up-graded their facility, and I like the opportunities it now offers. The most recent addition to the Savannah market is Victory North, in the Starland District, and I hope to place a show there in 2020.
I am annoyed that for all the glamour of the Savannah Music Festival, there are rarely any Savannah artists allowed to perform
What are your thoughts on the current state of the Savannah music scene?
I believe that Savannah has a healthy, albeit “tiered” Music scene. There are about 20 good-quality Club gigs, 30 good Restaurant gigs, and 3 Open Mic events available every weekend night. A very specific group of performers occupy each of these separate Gig opportunities. There are also a couple good “Jam” events around towne each week that allow beginners & Pro’s to meet & mingle, and those are also important to our Music environment. I am annoyed that for all the glamour of the Savannah Music Festival, there are rarely any Savannah residents allowed to perform, but that situation is endemic to many City Festivals, no matter where they are held.
Do you have any upcoming projects, interests, or events you’d like to mention?
I am looking forward to the New Year 2020, glad to get this one behind me. I will record the little 7-trak EP I’ve been writing, and I’m really excited that Andrew Sovine has signed-on to produce it for me. I should be able to have my collection of “Savannah Songwriters Series” recordings of live shows properly assembled into a syndicated on-line audio “Show”, and then there is my new Solo gig “show” format ; it will put me more miles on-the-road, verses local gigs, but I want to offer a product that differentiates me from “the guy that played last week”. The “Music Business”, you know… a little bit of Music, a whole lot of Business, but I love it. Live Music is the Best.