It’s been more than a decade since OnMilwaukee spoke to Tom Wopat, best known as Luke Duke from the hugely popular ‘80s series, "Dukes of Hazzard," but his career is still going strong. Wopat, of course, is from Lodi, just outside Madison, and in his career he’s done a lot more than the Dukes.
A Tony-nominated Broadway actor, he’s also released a number of successful albums in different genres. Now, Wopat is coming home (or close to home, anyway) to open the Oconomowoc Arts Center’s Main Stage Series on Saturday. He’ll be performing jazz-inspired renditions of contemporary classics from his album, "I’ve Got Your Number."
We caught up with Wopat by phone this week in advance of his Saturday show.
OnMilwaukee: I think a lot of people would be surprised about how diverse your career has been. People know you for different things but now you're doing a show that’s pretty different very different. How did you pick this genre?
Tom Wopat: My first job with this type of material when I was doing "Annie Get Your Gun," and we recorded the cast album, and they asked me if I wanted to do a Sinatra-ish record. So I did, with a guy named Russ Titelman, who's a two-time Grammy award winner. Since then, I've been doing this type of material where we kind of mix the American Songbook stuff with some more contemporary material, more pop material, we have a jazz treatment, and then we mix in a couple of original tunes as well. I write a little bit, too.
OnMilwaukee: Still, this is a pretty big departure from acting on TV or your first country album. Do you like this more?
Wopat: You can make space for all of it. That Broadway stuff definitely translates into the American songbook a lot. I mean, up until the '60s or so, a lot of the top 10 music was Broadway solos. So it was a fairly easy transition there. We have some awesome stuff that's got a country feel to it, but it's pretty individual, it's highly musical. I bring a trio from New York with me, so we've got the best musicians in the world. The song order is probably fairly set, but the in between, there's plenty of smart talk that goes on, as well.
OnMilwaukee: You've played some fairly big venues over the years, and now you're playing a pretty intimate place in Oconomowoc. How do they compare?
Wopat: I've sang at bars over my life, and a lot of times with a country band, you end up playing bars county fairs. John Schneider and I just did a concert at that Indiana State Fair. I prefer actually having a small crowd that's close. I played big crowds, we played music festivals that kind of thing in the past. They're lot of fun too because that's a whole different ballgame.
OnMilwaukee: What is it like playing with John Schneider again after all these years?
Wopat: We are old compadres.
OnMilwaukee: I'm sure you are probably tired of talking about "Dukes of Hazzard" but that's where a lot of people will know you from. Now the show is back in the news again with the Confederate flag removal and the pulling of the reruns. How did you feel about that?
Wopat: I think the term I used was collateral damage. I don't really have much to say about it. I understand that there's a lot of passion on both sides of the thing, but I think that our show had nothing to do with the Confederacy, or the Confederate flag or any sort of racism or any of that. Our show is totally the opposite of that. People have the right to do what they want to do. But as far as taking the show off the air, et cetera. I'm sure will be back.
OnMilwaukee: More locally, people might know you for the Wisconsin Tommy Awards. How did that come to be in and what is the status of that right now?
Wopat: The Overture Center in Madison called me and asked me if they could use my name and ... I mean, kind of local boy makes good there. I always come back and play with the university band that produce spring concerts and stuff like that. My presence is always felt around Madison, and it was just something that's natural, and it definitely is a compliment. So, I'm really happy that they've chose to keep on with it and I keep running into kids here in New York that say they were award winners back in Wisconsin.
OnMilwaukee: Do you still have family here? Do you ever get back to visit?
Wopat: Yeah, I still actually own the family farm up in Lodi. So, I get back there quite often.
OnMilwaukee: This last one isn't really a question. It's more of an admission to wrap things up. My 7th birthday party as a kid was a Dukes of Hazzard birthday party. But at the 1981 Milwaukee Auto Show you were on the circuit and I met you and I nervously said to you, "You've always been my favorite Duke boy." But, at that time I was probably leaning more toward Bo. I just wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that now, I can finally come clean about that. In retrospect, I now like you both, equally.
Tom Wopat: Well good, I figured you for a Daisy fan, myself.
Wopat: That's funny!
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.