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How a Wisconsin Singer Got a Bob Dylan Co-Writing Credit for New Song ‘On, Wisconsin’

Trapper Schoepp added some lyrics and a melody to Dylan’s unrecorded 1961 song before getting approval from the man himself

Bob Dylan At The Bitter End, 1961

Bob Dylan's unrecorded 1961 song "On, Wisconsin" finally gets a Dylan-approved recording by Wisconsin singer Trapper Schoepp.

Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Wisconsin singer/songwriter Trapper Schoepp was scrolling through articles on Rolling Stone‘s website in March 2017 when he came across a piece about a long-lost Bob Dylan lyric manuscript about the state of Wisconsin that was about to hit the auction block. The article concluded with a complete transcription of the lyrics. “I just got this sinking feeling in my gut,” says Schoepp. “I knew that I needed to finish what was started.”

To Schoepp’s shock, Dylan himself signed off on the song once Schoepp added a melody to it and filled in some lyrical gaps. It’s the final track on his upcoming album Primetime Illusion, due out January 25th, 2019, but “On, Wisconsin” is available to hear below.

None of this would have been imaginable to Schoepp when he first stumbled across the lyrics to “On, Wisconsin.” He’d released a trio of albums at that point to wide acclaim (if minimal sales), but was going through a difficult patch in his life. “I was at a personal rock bottom,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I had re-herniated a disk in my back that I had surgery on a few years prior. My longtime partner and I had just split and my creative well was just running dry.”

But once he read the tribute to his home state by a young Dylan, he found himself excited again about songwriting. He went into his kitchen, brewed a pot of coffee and quickly worked out a melody for Dylan’s lyrics, adding in his own chorus. “I was inspired by our state fight song ‘On, Wisconsin,’ which is the title of the song,” he says. “In the chorus I imagined this drifter sort of being rocked to sleep in a train car to this 3/4 waltz rhythm and he’s hearing this song in his head, ‘On, Wisconsin,’ that is calling him back home.”

Schoepp didn’t think at first that anything would happen with the song, but his manger reached out to the Dylan office to see if a deal could be worked out that would allow them to release it. “They got back to him and said, ‘I gotta check back with the boss,'” Schoepp says, “because he wrote this when he was so young.”

Then one night Schoepp was in bed watching an episode of Bates Motel on Netflix when he got an e-mail from his manager saying simply, “Dylan has it now.” “It was surreal,” he says. “The number of circumstances that had to come together when it did is really astounding.” Not long afterwards, he was wandering through a grocery store when he got an e-mail saying that Dylan had approved the song. “I walked around and picked up everything I ever wanted in a grocery store,” he says. “I think I spent $300.”

He decided to place the track at the end of his new album Primetime Illusion, produced by Wilco’s Pat Sansone. “A lot of the songs on the album paint these portraits of people and their struggles and their hopes and their dreams that I feel are uniquely American,” Schoepp says. “To have it all land back with ‘On, Wisconsin’ with the context being the co-write with Dylan is almost stranger than fiction.”

The songwriter says he’ll share the publishing of the song with Dylan, much like Old Crow Medicine did when they took a rough 1973 studio outtake from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions and turned it into their breakthrough hit “Wagon Wheel.”

Schoepp was first exposed to Dylan when he heard “Hurricane” in the 1999 Denzel Washington movie of the same name. “That first A minor chord got my blood pumping,” he says. “Hearing the conviction in his voice as he told the story of an innocent man wrongly accused was life-changing.” He didn’t see Dylan in concert until August 27th, 2004 when he came to Madison, Wisconsin’s Warner Park on a double will with Willie Nelson. He was just 14, but the memory is still vivid. “Time stood still for that hour and a half while Dylan played that night,” he says. “It was surreal.”

But nothing is more surreal that looking at a copy of his new album and seeing a credit that reads “Dylan/Schoepp.” “Imagine telling that to a 14-year-old kid standing in the baseball field that one day you’re going to have a co-writing credit with Bob Dylan about your home state,” he says. “You just can’t make that shit up.”

In This Article: Bob Dylan

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