Perspective | The man who turned outlaw country into a way of life

On Wednesday night, two days before Jeremy Tepper died, he went to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland to celebrate the psychobilly prankster Mojo Nixon.

It was bittersweet. Twenty years ago, Tepper rescued Nixon from novelty-hit obscurity — a handful of ’80s cult tunes such as “Don Henley Must Die” and “Elvis Is Everywhere” — by hiring him as a host on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country, a station dedicated to a wilder, swampier strain of country music than the formulaic party anthems about short shorts and pickup trucks that had taken over mainstream radio. As the channel’s popularity grew, the two became closer friends, as well as larger-than-life stalwarts on the perpetually sold-out Outlaw Country Cruise.

But during this year’s voyage in February, Nixon died of a heart attack at age 66, just hours after delivering a typically blistering late-night performance.

“Besides Mojo’s wife and sons, it was harder on Jeremy than anybody else,” said Steve Earle, the alt-country icon who talked to Tepper at least four times a week. “The only time I ever saw Jeremy perform, as a singer, was a Mojo song the week that Mojo died. We were still at sea, and Mojo was still on the boat, and Jeremy got on stage and killed it.”

Tepper’s enlisting of Nixon spoke to his understanding that outlaw country, as a musical subgenre, was dead if he focused on only the pioneers — Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver — who emerged in the 1970s as an antidote to Nashville’s slicker factory format.

That’s why recent cruises included the likes of the Waco Brothers, led by Welsh-born and sailor-capped Jon Langford, who bashed through energetic sets on the deck (including an unlikely collabo with reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry). In 2022, the year I went, there were surprises at every corner, from Linda Gail Lewis, the younger sister of Jerry Lee, to Shinyribs, a funky soul band from Austin.

And so for Tepper, it was a particularly important journey to the Rock Hall to see a new installation dedicated to Nixon last week. And then two days later, in New York, Tepper himself succumbed to a heart attack. He was 60.

Stunned colleagues, friends and fans — who had watched Tepper help turn a largely stagnant genre into a thriving brand and lifestyle — wonder what will happen now.

“When Mojo died, our little but mighty community knew the party would never be as good,” said Nixon’s longtime manager Scott Ambrose Reilly, a.k.a. “Bullethead.” “But with Jeremy’s death, everyone is worried the party will end.”

An unpretentious kingmaker who shied away from interviews, Tepper got into the business fronting a 1980s roots rock band (World Famous Blue Jays), dabbled in journalism (for Vending Times and Tower Records’s late magazine Pulse!) but found his true calling at Sirius XM.

Tepper was way more than a radio station program director. He was the great musical connector as he reinvented a format, a music lover who never missed a chance to sneak into a sold-out gig or fist-bump an aspiring artist who caught his ear. Now, in death, colleagues and other musicians see a hole as big as an 18-wheeler in the community he created.

“It’s not just that he was important,” says country-music historian and podcaster Tyler Mahan Coe. “I cannot see how so many of the things he started will be able to continue in the same way. He wasn’t even just integral to those things, they were actually an extension of him as a person. None of that s— would make sense to anyone else as a thing that can be done until you saw Jeremy do it.”

Over the weekend, Tepper’s reach was amplified by the tributes that circulated once his wife, singer Laura Cantrell, announced that he was gone. Commentators included Earle, Stevie Van Zandt, Elvis Costello and Tanya Tucker.

Some of the fondest tributes, though, came from lesser-known figures such as Reilly and Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, a journeyman guitarist and producer, who were both with Tepper in Cleveland last week.

“His tent was giant and his tent was inclusive of anybody who would be a good performer or a good audience member,” Reilly said. “It was a very curated circus but it was giant and packed with thousands of people.”

In another lifetime, Ambel — who broke into music playing guitar for Joan Jett — might have been another Tom Petty. Regarded as a genius by a small and discerning community of musicians, he never did get his commercial breakthrough. But that didn’t matter to Tepper, who elevated him to something like star status on the Outlaw Country Cruise — and treated Ambel better than he had ever been treated in a 40-year career.

“There’s no real distinction between the absolute top-tier,” Ambel told me on the cruise two years ago. “This artist pass gets you in anywhere you want to go. As a professional musician, even if you’re on a big festival, you never get to see this.”

Now, there is both intense sadness over Tepper’s loss and fear of what happens to all he created, from the radio station to its cruise to the loose community of talents that orbited him.

Nobody saw more concerts than Tepper, said Earle, who just went to a Neil Young show with him this summer, and who praised his friend’s intense dedication to his radio programming.

“He was responsible for every note of music that came out from Monday to Friday, and I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Earle. “I just know no one can replace Jeremy.”

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