In over a year since the pandemic started, there’s been a deluge of artists dubbed “rising,” “emerging” or “buzzworthy” in press releases who have cut lockdown albums. So many, in fact, that one really has to dig for the real diamonds, like Wisconsin’s Trapper Schoepp, whose charming chime-fest “May Day” is easily one of the best albums of the year.
Schoepp has never sought fame in Nashville, New York or Los Angeles. Throughout his quiet 14-year career, the biggest relocation he made was from his tiny hometown of Red Wing, Minn. to a relatively bustling Milwaukee. He even wrote an album about it, 2009’s “Lived and Moved.”
With his bassist brother Tanner backing him, first as Trapper Schoepp and the Shades, and now under his own name, he’s done whatever he wanted, creatively. On his six-song 2017 EP “Bay Beach Amusement Park,” each track is titled after a different ride at the Green Bay location. “May Day” has an equally quirky backstory.
“I think there’s this forward-thinking mentality with all Midwesterners, where you’re constantly thinking about the next season,” says Schoepp, 31, whose birthday is May 1.
“I think that’s a really crucial element to my new album — springtime, renewal, rebirth. That’s what the May Day holiday is all about. It’s an old pagan holiday that’s often tied to singing, dancing, and these agricultural rituals, in hopes of a good harvest.”
But when he wrote it, he adds with a laugh, he was picturing director Robin Hardy’s creepy 1973 horror flick “The Wicker Man.” “I think that it’s a brilliant depiction of May Day,” he says.
Left undisturbed in his own bailiwick, Schoepp has — like Tulsa, Okla. pop kingpin Dwight Twilley and Zion, Ill. jangle-meister Jeff Murphy and his group Shoes — not only developed his own charismatic sound, but the confidence to pull it off on national tours alongside songwriting peers like Soul Asylum, Social Distortion, the Old 97’s and Jakob Dylan’s Wallflowers.
“May Day” opens on the title cut, with his Lloyd-Cole-whispery voice wafting above a clever melody that earworms its way into your head in the first 30 seconds. The other numbers, from a piano ballad “Solo Quarantine” to the anthem “Little Drop of Medicine,” follow suit. It’s the kind of album they used to describe as “all killer, no filler.”
Schoepp – the surname is German — has family folklore tales dating back to his great, great, great grandfather Olof Johnson, an immigrant who headed west in a covered wagon from Chicago, hoping to stake out a parcel of land under the Homestead Act.
“But he completely botched the timing,” he says. “He came in the fall, and a terrible blizzard set in, and he had to dig a hole in the South Dakota earth and move the wagon over the dugout shelter, where his family lived for months — it’s a really gnarly Midwestern origin story.”
He wrote a song about it, “The Ballad of Olof Johnson,” on his 2017 EP “Olof, Ogallalla & Other Oddities.”
When he was in his early teens, Schoepp was a rising star in the competitive BMX world, doing gravity-defying stunts on the relatively dinky bikes until a serious accident ended his chances at going pro. While recuperating, he heard Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” and was so inspired, he got his first guitar and changed trajectory, forming his first band with his sibling in high school, and maintaining it while getting his college degree in journalism.
Dylan came back into his life in 2018, when he heard of a discovery, and auction, of several unrecorded lyrics by the legend. Feeling an understandable affinity for a 1961 one dubbed “On Wisconsin,” he set it to music, then sent it via his manager to Dylan’s people.
Dylan liked it, giving Schoepp a co-writing credit with his boyhood hero, on the swaying waltz “On Wisconsin” featured on his 2019 album “Primetime Illusion.”
“I had to take a stab at it, because that’s the whole nature of folk music — picking up where one generation left off,” he says: “That’s what Bob Dylan did with guys like Woody Guthrie and The Clancy Brothers.”