To hear Preston Cooper singing on the streets of Asheville, as he does most days, is to hear the ghost of the young Bob Dylan.
Drawing on his repertoire of early Dylan tunes—he knows about 75 so far—Cooper seems to channel the influential minstrel’s very voice and manner, circa the early 1960s. Uncanny at first listen, the performances are eerily on target. No one could blame you for thinking you were hearing the genuine article, or perhaps walking through a scene in the 2007 film I’m Not There, in which six very different actors play out alternative versions of different portions of Dylanesque life through his songs.
Asheville’s full of buskers who play a mix of originals and cover tunes, but Cooper stands apart in his obsession: With very rare exceptions, he is all Dylan, all the time. And the crowds that gather around him seem satisfied—if sometimes mystified—by the faithfulness of his renditions.
A 21-year-old from Rutherfordton who came to Asheville for college in 2005 but now devotes his energies to playing music, Cooper is catching ears and turning heads. He’s also got people asking: How does he do it? Why does he do it? And does he have any other tricks up his sleeve?
Those are questions that many a reporter put to the young and famously elliptical Bob Dylan. Xpress put them to Preston Cooper.
Mountain Xpress: How long have you been a Bob Dylan fan?
Preston Cooper: Since I was 17.
Is that when you first heard him?
Yeah, I first heard him in a friend’s car: “Like a Rolling Stone.”
What was it that caught your ear?
It was an honest sound. Bruce Springsteen, I like what he says about it—that the snare shot kicked open the door of your mind. Dylan’s voice was almost battered, but I identified with him because it was an urgent message, what he was saying. I mean, he was actually saying something.
How long have you been playing his songs?
I’ve played guitar since I was, like, 10 years old. The first [Dylan] album I got was Highway 61 Revisited—the one with “Like a Rolling Stone.” But I didn’t start learning his songs and start covering his entire early period until maybe about year ago, and I guess the reason I didn’t until then was because I felt like it was off limits.
Just that I felt there wasn’t any way that I could render the songs like he does. I’ve almost felt like—I don’t know, I came to idolize him. I’m not sure.
Your renderings seem spot-on. What’s your method for making it so true to the original?
What I learned from him is his vocalizations—the way he vocalizes his words, he shapes the words. I try to hold the action in my mind of the sentence that I’m saying … to really indicate the image more precisely. I guess it’s unavoidable that I’ll imitate his own vocalizations of things, but I try to even reach past that and pay attention to what the words say.
But you don’t think of it as a strict mimicry of what he does?
No. I may have done that at one time, and even when I speak right now, I think his voice is coming through a little bit. It is, in part, mimicry—especially if I’m not paying attention to what I’m doing, if I’m not really inside the song. But if I can focus not on whether or not somebody’s dropping a dollar in my guitar case, and try to shape the words, then it’s like I transcend mimicry into almost like a rhapsody.
What span of Dylan’s career are you focused on?
Basically, from the Freewheelin’ album through The Basement Tapes. And I know a good bit of tracks from Blood on the Tracks and John Wesley Harding.
Do you think you’ll continue to learn his stuff in eras beyond that, or are you going stay focused on the early period?
I think I’ll keep looking into him. But really I think I need to branch out a little bit.
Is it getting monotonous for you?
Well, it’s surprising that I’m still able to do it. I mean, there are certain songs that I have to take a break from playing for several days. Yeah, I’m getting sick of it [he laughs].
Do you write any original material?
Yeah. One guy called it a love child of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. I’ve written two songs that I like enough to play for people, and they are very much like that.
When you play in public, is it only Dylan songs?
I do some Carter Family songs. Mostly it is Bob Dylan. But I’ll do some Lou Reed and Velvet Underground too.
Do you get any negative reactions to your performances?
The only negative reaction comes indirectly, comes through policemen from people who are calling from upper floors complaining about someone down the street who’s playing too loud.
Nobody’s said, “You’re a copy cat”?
No; not to say that I sometimes don’t feel that way.
You know that Dylan started playing as almost a carbon copy of Woody Guthrie. Do you feel like you have a similar bearing toward Dylan as he did toward Guthrie?
Yeah, I definitely do. He pervades my thoughts. … His process of writing was to take a traditional melody and put his own words to it, just like Woody Guthrie would. When people emphasize originality, that’s kind of egotistical.
What do you mean by that?
Just when people enforce restrictions, when they insist that you be original. The creation of art … there’s a commonality to it. It seems like people want to lay claim to a particular breed of thinking. That’s all it’s about.
If someone were to walk up to you on the street and say, “This is sheer imitation: You’re not being original,” what would be your response?
I would say: “No, this is like I’m reciting epic poetry that still has a value for me.” … I would say, “Well, I’m enjoying it, anyway.”
What’s your favorite Dylan song?
“Chimes of Freedom.”
What do you like about it?
I just like to sing it a lot.
[Contact Preston Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.]