The truth to you I’ll tell/It’s milk & cheese & cream/I’ve known ’em all my days.
Other Wisconsinites might have deemed the milky lyrics for Bob Dylan’s unfinished “On, Wisconsin” a tad, um, cheesy. Those lines, however, are part of what helped Trapper Schoepp fall in love with the song, making him an unlikely collaborator with Dylan 57 years after the tune was penned.
“The town I grew up in literally reeked of cheese because of the big co-op creamery there,” said Schoepp, who’s from Ellsworth in western Wisconsin, the Cheese Curd Capital of the World. “Those lyrics certainly rang true to me.”
Now based in Milwaukee and a frequent visitor to the Twin Cities, Schoepp first heard about “On, Wisconsin” when the hand-scrawled lyrics went up for auction in 2017. Dylan never actually recorded or performed the song, so — in the vein of Wilco and Billy Bragg’s “Mermaid Avenue” albums of new music for old Woody Guthrie lyrics — Schoepp set about coming up with his own version.
Of course, unlike Guthrie, Dylan is still alive, and he’s not exactly known as a frequent songwriting collaborator. But that’s how he’s credited on Schoepp’s new album, “Primetime Illusion,” produced by Wilco’s Pat Sansone and featuring “On, Wisconsin” as its closing track.
Calling from Milwaukee ahead of his 7th St. Entry gig Saturday (the day after his new record’s release date), Schoepp excitedly recounted “all the serendipitous circumstances” that led to him finishing “On, Wisconsin” and getting approval from Dylan to put it out in the world.
“My manager Glen Phillips just happened to run into his manager Jeff Rosen at an event, and it snowballed from there,” Schoepp said. “That was one of the many ways the stars just seemed to align on this.”
Perhaps it was written in the stars when Schoepp, now 27, first saw Dylan in concert at age 14 at Warner Park in Madison, Wis., and Mayo Field in Rochester, Minn., during the rock legend’s 2004 ballpark tour with Willie Nelson.
“It was as if there was a fire burning on the stage, and I did everything I could to get closer to it,” Schoepp recalled. “That really was the moment when I decided I wanted to be a musician. How amazing is it, 14 years later, that kid standing in the field in Madison watching Bob Dylan now gets to do this with one of his songs?”
‘Sets my heart aglow’
Dylan himself spent time in Madison back in 1961, right before he permanently left the Midwest for New York. A fresh dropout from the University of Minnesota, the 19-year-old Robert Zimmerman purportedly headed to the UW-Madison campus area to mingle with folk musicians, just as he had around Dinkytown in Minneapolis. He even saw his first Pete Seeger performance during his Madison stay, believed to have lasted a couple of months.
“I think the song truly shows his affection for the state,” said Schoepp, noting Dylan also took summertime trips as a kid to Herzl Camp in Webster, Wis. “It’s a song about a drifter, and Wisconsin seems to be sort of a safe homeland.”
Other lines in the song include: “I’m a heading out Wisconsin ways/2,000 miles to go/Madison, Milwaukee sets my heart aglow.”
Schoepp added a few lines of his own that he thought “filled in some gaps.” He also corrected the spelling of Wauwatosa, a Wisconsin town that Dylan humorously mimicked on paper as “Wow Wow Toaster.”
Musically, Schoepp said he tried to give the song a waltz feel “to kind of pay homage to all the polka music rooted in Wisconsin.”
A serendipitous find
The long-hidden song came to Schoepp’s attention during an especially down period in his personal life, while he was laid up with a dire back injury and enduring the breakup of a long relationship. He said the timing is another serendipitous part of the story “because it really pulled me out of the dumps and made me want to make music again.”
With his three prior albums, the melodic and lyrical but also high-energy rocker earned critical raves but only modest commercial success, mostly coming to Americana music fans’ attention via tours opening for the Old 97’s and Minneapolis’ Jayhawks. In fact, it was auxiliary Jayhawks member Kraig Johnson who turned Schoepp and Sansone on to another standout track recorded for the new album, “Freight Train,” a Sister Double Happiness song that’s been a live staple for Johnson and his long-term band Run Westy Run.
“It’s cool, because that’s a song we’ve all picked up and put our own spin on, sort of in the folk-music tradition that Dylan grew out of,” Schoepp noted.
Traditional folk songs were mostly what Dylan recorded for his debut album for Columbia Records, but apparently he also considered “On, Wisconsin” for those sessions. The date that Dylan himself wrote on the song’s lyric sheet, Nov. 20, 1961, is the day the sessions began.
“He may have written it that morning before heading into the studio,” Schoepp theorized.
Of course, the young songwriter can only speculate, since he has yet to meet Dylan or hear anything more from him about the song. But getting the old legend to sign off on his interpretation was good enough for Schoepp.
“I know the song probably doesn’t mean that much to him, but that doesn’t make it any less significant to me,” he said.
“These are words the great Nobel Prize of literature winner wrote specifically on Wisconsin. So at least within the state I think it’s a historic piece of work.”
With: Faith Boblett
When: 9 p.m. Sat.
Where: 7th St. Entry, 701 1st Av. N., Mpls.
Tickets: $12-$15, first-avenue.com.