JOHN SCHNEIDER and TOM WOPAT and a huge impact on pop culture when they exploded onto the scene decades ago as the stars of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” To celebrate the 35th Anniversary of the iconic TV show, along with their amazing friendship, the duo have released an amazing holiday album. ‘Home For Christmas’ captures them at their best and rings in the holiday season with a collection of magical tunes. Although they have performed in concert over the years, this release marks their first full recording together. Mixing immediately recognizable Christmas standards with lesser-known holiday songs, the album combines a bright and brassy big band, lush strings, and rustic country sounds and laces it all together with humorous banter that reflects over three decades of friendship. ‘Home for Christmas’ is produced by David Finck with arrangements by John Oddo, Tedd Firth and Rob Mounsey. The duo will celebrate with an exclusive CD release concert at New York’s Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater on Tuesday, December 2 at 9:30 PM. This concert marks their first time performing together in the city.
Tom Wopat’s engaging presence and warm baritone have taken him from his breakout role as Luke Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard” to the recording studio, the Great White Way, and the silver screen, in addition to concert and nightclub stages around the world. After a series of popular country albums, he released a string of acclaimed pop/jazz albums featuring new arrangements of American Songbook classics, as well as contemporary songs by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor. The Still of the Night from Angel Records – which was praised for its “tender and elegant vocals, touched with jazz feeling” by The New York Times – was followed by Dissertation on the State of Bliss, Consider it Swung and I’ve Got Your Number (all available from LML Music). Other notable TV roles include “Cybill” – for which he shared a SAG Award nomination for Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series – “Smallville” and “Blue Bloods.” As a Broadway leading man, he received Tony Award nominations for starring in Annie Get Your Gun (opposite Bernadette Peters) andA Catered Affair. Other major Broadway credits include Chicago, 42nd Street, Sondheim on Sondheim, Glengarry Glen Ross, Catch Me If You Can and last season’s Tony Award- winning play The Trip To Bountiful with Cicely Tyson. In Hollywood, he appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the upcoming dramatic feature Fair Haven.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Tom Wopat to discuss his career in entertainment, his musical influences, his collaboration with longtime friend and co-star John Schneider for this amazing holiday album and the challenges of bringing it to life.
Music plays a huge role in your life. What are some of your earliest musical memories?
I sang a duet of “Daisy, Daisy” in second grade with a girl sitting on my knee. I sang five verses of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that same year. Those were my first times singing in public and singing in front of friends and family.
When you were in your formative years and discovering your voice musically, who were some of your biggest influences?
I had plenty of mentors along the way. I had music teachers from the time I was a little kid. A really important one came along when I was around 11 or 12 years old. He was a public school teacher at Lodi Junior High and High School in Lodi, Wisconsin. He took me under his wing and started teaching me stuff. For example, when I was in high school, I learned a bunch of opera and art songs, Schubert and Moeller. By the time I got to the University of Wisconsin, I kind of knew all of the curriculum and all of the things they were supposed to teach me. I had people looking out for me the whole way. I had a great teacher in college as well. Dale Gilbert was his name. Of course, I also listened to the radio a lot. Back in those days, you would hear everything from Hank Williams to Andy Williams to Frank Sinatra to The Beatles, all on the same station. I had a pretty wide education.
They say a career in music or acting is not for the faint of heart. What made you take the plunge and pursue your passions instead of going a different route?
I kind of followed the work. I worked on musical comedy and studied voice at the university. I also had a mentor there that was a lighting designer who said, “If you wanted to, you could probably make a living at this in New York.” He hooked me up. He gave me some names and introduced me to some people. Sure enough, when I got to New York, I was pretty much working right away. I was on Broadway in 1978 in a show called “I Love My Wife” and in the fall of that year I read for “The Dukes of Hazzard.” All of a sudden that came along and landed in my lap. It was one thing after another! I have always enjoyed singing and the stage work. While I was doing “Dukes” I started recording and have been fortunate enough to do all of these things at a really high level.
Speaking of following the work, you teamed up with John Schneider to bring us a very unique Christmas album called “Home For Christmas.” What made now the time to do a collaboration of this sort?
We have been talking about doing it for a while. Actually, we have done some concerts together over the last 20 years. They were always slapped together at the last minute but it was always an awful lot of fun. People kept asking why we didn’t record together. I have been making my own records now for about 10 years, I would say. The first one was the Harold Arlen record. I have a great producer, the bass player named Dave Finck, who has access to really fine arrangers and great musicians in New York City. He is also heavily involved with the musicians union, so everybody is interested in giving me a break and helping me make something sound great. When I came to talk to John about doing a Christmas record, it all came together kind of quick. We cut a couple of things in December of last year. At the same time, coincidentally, the Auto Trader people came along and asked us if we wanted to do some high profile TV ads. When that came about, I said, “Well, we have to get this out! We have to get it done!” We finished it this summer and it just came out!
There is definitely a lot of great music on this record.
Yeah, ya know, we are fortunate. David Finck has a wide vocabulary musically and has been exposed to a lot of great stuff. He is one of the best bass players in town and he has played with everybody over the years from Tony Bennett to George Michael. He has really spanned a wide range of jazz and pop. Between that, and my experience in country, we put together an interesting set of tunes, some that people will recognize and some that they won’t but all of them have something to say. That is how I like to make a record!
Did you have any expectations or goals for the album when you started the process?
The one thing I wanted to do was show people that John and I perform together at a high level. I think this is proof of that. We aren’t just a couple of TV guys who do this as a hobby. Both of us sing fairly seriously. I am not saying serious without comic overtones, but we both take it seriously and work hard at it. This album is a quality one. The other thing was that you don’t hear two guys singing together anymore. You don’t hear the kind of thing like Frank [Sinatra] and Dean [Martin] used to do or when Bing [Crosby] used to sing with different guys. You just aren’t hearing that much anymore. It is not necessarily that I am trying to sell a million of these, and I doubt that is going to happen, but it is nice to put something out there that is unique in its own way. We are the best of friends, John and I, so why not?!
You guys have been working together for so many years, do you remember when you discovered you both had a musical side?
The first day we met! Before we did the screen test, we both knew we had a mutual affinity for music!
What was the biggest challenge of bringing “Home For Christmas” to life?
It was really finding the time to get it done. I basically did all the scratch vocals when we recorded the basic tracks and then had to get John into town to get it done. He has a tight schedule, I am busy and David’s busy, so it is hard to get everybody together. That is the sum of it. Once you do, it’s a gas! It’s a lot of fun!
You and John are headed out on the road for a few select dates in support of this album. What can fans expect from the shows?
Obviously, we are going to cover the Christmas material because that is what those dates are all about but we also do some awkward stuff that you would never expect. We do The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” which is a gas. We do “Trouble” from “The Music Man,” where we both play the part of Harold Hill. We both know the whole rap, so we trade the lines and sing the harmonies in it. That is really unusual and odd but it’s a lot of fun. We also cover a couple of John’s big country hits. It’s definitely unscripted and I never know what the heck he is going to do! He’s totally unfiltered! [laughs] Unfortunately, I am the adult of the group! [laughs]
Do you see yourself collaborating again with John Schneider in the near future on another album?
I have a couple more ideas that I don’t want to spoil them by divulging too much. I will say that we have both done a lot of musical comedy. I think there are a few two-guy songs out there that haven’t been cut for a long time that would be a lot of fun to do. Also, I was thinking of TV theme songs or songs from movies. [laughs] You come down to the fact that we are two baritones singing together, which you don’t really hear. Who knows, we will see!
As you mentioned, you are no stranger to making records. When it comes to creating your own music, what can you tell us about your songwriting process?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen all that often. I’m not as dedicated a songsmith as a lot of guys are. A lot of people say you should write every day. Unfortunately for me, that is impossible. Especially if I am doing a musical because that music is in my head. You have to find a place where you have a clean slate where you can really let some kind of idea germinate. If you are singing a certain number of songs every day, it is really hard to find that empty space in your head. It is for me anyway, other guys may be different. For me, it is usually finding a lyrical phrase that gets me going or a groove on the guitar when I am just sitting around with the guitar. That is the best way, to find a groove and a certain phrase that I like and have the song grow from there.
When do you see yourself headed back into the studio and where might you see yourself headed?
I once read an interview with Bruce Hornsby, who is a friend of mine, and he said, “You know, I really want to leave a body of work.” When you are talking about a body of work, you look at guys like Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart, they did everything. They would write the pop music of their day, operas, symphonies and that sort of thing. In my situation, I have done some country stuff and I have written some country songs. I have done some jazz and that is a lot of fun. I have never written a jazz song but some of the songs I have written kind of fit that genre a little bit. What we have done in the past couple of records is been a little bit big band. That is especially true with my most recent solo record, “I’ve Got Your Number.” It has eight horns and 13 strings on it. When you count the basic musicians, you are talking about almost a 30-piece orchestra. That’s a big bunch! I think the next thing I am going to do is going to be small. Maybe it will be a little quartet. I want to focus on singer/songwriters. I have a few songs that I have written that I haven’t cut yet and I also want to go to friends of mine like Jimmy Webb and Bruce Hornsby to see what they might have in their back pocket that they may not have cut that I might have an interesting read on. So again, the next record is going to be a small one but it should be extremely interesting.
Looking back on your career, how have you evolved as an artist through the years?
I think what you do is develop an understanding of your strengths and what you are good at. For me, it’s interpretation, I think. It isn’t so much about creating something as much as it is about interpreting. For example, there is a song I cut a few albums ago, a Joni Mitchell tune called “Two Gray Rooms.” To be honest with you, I like my version better than hers! [laughs] That is what you hope to get to in some cases but you don’t always! My deal is that I really like to develop the material and deliver it in a way that resonates with whoever you are delivering it to. Another good example comes from the stage. Leading men in musicals, when you get down to it, they are a lot alike a lot of times. Curly from “Oklahoma,” Billy Bigelow from “Carousel” or Sid Sorokin from “The Pajama Game,” those guys all have a swagger and a certain point of view that is fairly consistent. When my agent asked me to do a small part, basically a schlepper, in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” I was like, “That isn’t what I really want to do.” She said, “Yeah, but you can do it. If you do it, you might find yourself doing a lot more interesting things instead of playing basically the same guy either urban or rural.” That is basically what it comes down to with these musical comedy guys. So, I played this guy in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” I had a friend who came to the show and said, “Were you in the first act?” [laughs] I said, “Yeah, I was. You just didn’t recognize me because I wasn’t playing my usual guy!” That to me opened a lot of doors and opened my mind to the idea of really concentrating on delivering what the character is and not worrying about my own persona involved in the character. Look at a guy like John Wayne. John Wayne was pretty much always John Wayne no matter who he was playing. The same thing goes for Cary Grant but it is interesting to see them if they step outside of that and do something that is a little outside their comfort zone. To me that is interesting! If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, how will you grow? You think that would be obvious but it’s not. [laughs]
What do you have going on when it comes to charity that we can help spread the word on?
I just did a thing for Pathfinders in Baltimore, Maryland. They are a group that helps in the research of Autism. That is a big one. The Children’s Miracle Network is also a big one and I try to help there when I can. I am doing a benefit in Wisconsin in the next couple of weeks for a high school who has a manual arts program where they teach kids manufacturing skills. I think that is important and a part of higher education that we have kind of let go away. I don’t have a lot of things I am intrinsically involved with but there are a few.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you if there were any rumblings of a “Dukes of Hazzard” reunion of any sort, as you guys celebrated your 35th anniversary this year.
As far as doing more film stuff with all of us, it is hard to imagine what that would be. I mean, I have had a couple of ideas over the years. Auto Trader came to us with that idea of doing the commercial. It is one thing when someone comes to you and says, “Here is a big chunk of change and we are going to pay for the whole production. All you have to do is be your characters.” That is probably not going to happen with a film effort that would involve all of us. I can’t imagine that happening. At the same time, if you come and see John and I, you get a pretty healthy taste of it! [laughs]
Absolutely! Thanks for taking time out to chat with us today, Tom. The album is a lot of fun and a great way to ring in the holiday season!
Thanks so much, Jason! Ciao!
To get the latest new and dates for Tom Wopat, visit his official website at www.tomwopat.com.
Tom Wopat and John Schneider will celebrate with an exclusive CD release concert at New York’s Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater on Tuesday, December 2 at 9:30 PM. This concert marks their first time performing together in the city.