Ry Cooder Shares Lessons From a Lifetime in Music

In Music Stories by Chris Barrettleave a COMMENT

Ry Cooder, multi-instrumentalist and diviner of exotic musical traditions, has rediscovered one style of music that’s actually native to the United States and is the subject of his current touring project: country. He and his drummer/percussionist son, Joachim, are accompanying and apparently inspiring an ensemble of classic country music royalty comprising Ricky Skaggs; Skaggs’ wife, Sharon White; and a rotating roster of Whites that includes sister Cheryl and patriarch-pianist Buck White.

“It’s a chance for me to play this music with the best living people who are playing it,” Cooder says. “I know these songs, and I learned most of these songs when I was a teenager. I said I’m going to do this, so I learned the songs. You had to learn all the gospel songs and all the intros and outros and so forth, right?

“I even played with Bill Monroe and Doc Watson on stage one night. Monroe’s band got stranded because the bus broke down, as they will do. I figured this was my ticket: It will get me out of high school and I’ll just tour with Bill Monroe. My future was clear at that moment. But Bill Monroe turned to me and he said, ‘Son, you just ain’t ready.’ Which was true. So that didn’t happen, and I went and did other things. I finished high school.”

Among the many other things Cooder did instead of being a bluegrass boy was record an ongoing string of fantastic recordings—as band member, band leader, and as sideman—beginning in the mid-1960s. Cooder proved to have a gift for making the esoteric seem familiar (“Jesus on the Mainline,” from 1974’s Paradise and Lunch) and for making the familiar seem brand new (“Hey Porter,” from Into the Purple Valley, from 1972). Those gifts attracted work from patrons ranging from the Rolling Stones to filmmaker Wim Wenders.

Cooder is distinctive among professional makers of music because he doesn’t sound like a market category, or any other player, for that matter. He’s doubly distinctive because he does not appear to wish to make music like anybody else.

“It’s about the best fun I’ve ever had on stage,” Cooder says of his current fascination. “Things can happen. And the energy, the verve of it, is just great. Ricky said, ‘Bring your banjo next time,’ so now I’m playing that. That’s something I haven’t done since I was a teenager. I was a little shaky for a couple nights. I heard the ghost of Bill Monroe say, ‘Son, you still ain’t ready.’ But I’m doing it now.”

Notable among Cooder’s many accomplishments is his involvement, during the mid-1990s, in the resurrection of a small Havana-based swing ensemble that had historic affiliations with the pre-Cuban revolution nightclub scene. The group took on the name of a defunct members-only joint—Buena Vista Social Club—which has since become the generic descriptor for modern Cuban music played in the style of the mid 20th century. Cooder recorded with the group, and toured with them, in a manner not unlike his process of the moment.

“We had a pretty good run there,” he says of his Buena Vista days. “Played a lot of music. It sure sharpened up my chops.”

On Cooder’s early recordings, he covered Woody Guthrie and sundry first-generation bluesmen. Since Buena Vista, his solo recordings have featured original compositions that address current issues in the musical vernacular of those trad forms. His recent songs are frank and critical without necessarily being cynical. “I wrote a song called ‘Guantanamo,’” he says of a relevant example. “I thought maybe Obama would hear it.”

The rumbly, grumbly rocker, from Cooder’s 2012 album, Election Special, is probably not on the president’s recently publicized Spotify deck.

Asked if he believes that his championing of Cuban music affected the process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the U.S., Cooder responds with a qualified affirmative.

“It was a contribution,” says Cooder. “It was very convenient to ignore Cuba, and have people ignore it. That was expeditious as far as corrupt politics is concerned. You want people to fear or disregard the things you’d rather they not know about. Then along comes Buena Vista. People said, ‘I thought we were supposed to hate and fear Cuba? It’s communist.’ And I’d say, ‘Who do you hate and fear? Compay Segundo? A 95-year-old man?’

“What they’ll do with Guantanamo, I don’t know. We’ve never given up a military base in our history, so it’s hard to say. This is a moral issue for the Cubans, but governments are all the goddamn same. There is no such thing as a moral government.”

Ry Cooder performs with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White at the Tennessee Theatre (604 S. Gay St.) on Saturday, Aug. 22, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $44.50-$84.50

Chris Barrett's Shelf Life alerts readers to new arrivals at the Lawson McGhee Library's stellar Sights and Sounds collection, along with recommendations and reminders of staples worthy of revisiting. He is a former Metro Pulse staff writer who’s now a senior assistant at the Knox County Public Library.

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