Ry Cooder

Where do I even start to talk about my all-time favorite guitar player? Where do you start to discuss an artist that has done it all? Well, let’s start with the fact that he released his 17th solo album last week… well, that’s a bit misleading. He has also been invloved to varying degrees with over a dozen movie soundtracks, and some of them are entirely his compositions. He’s also collaborated with such prominent international artists as Ali Farka Toure, V.M. Bhatt, and The Buena Vista Social Club. When he was just 17, he was in a band with Taj Mahal. He collaborated with the Rolling Stones, and Keith Richards may or may not have stolen certain riffs from him that became hits. But now I’ve put everything out of order, so let’s just start in properly.

Ry Cooder:

In 1965/66 a group of young unknowns recorded about an album’s worth of material. The young men, known as The Rising Sons, were all remarkably talented, but, all being very young, they hadn’t developed the leadership or musical direction to continue. They all went on to have long careers in music, but the most prominent names in the group were Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder. At the time of performing and recording with The Rising Sons, Ry was still a teenager. Ry was then involved early on with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, and played lead guitar on Safe As Milk. Beefheart (Don Van Vliet) was notoriously difficult to work with, and Ry was not even the first to leave the group noting various outbursts and erratic behavior.

The Rolling Stones albums Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers included contributions from Ry as a session player. Ry is heard on mandolin on Love in Vain and on slide guitar on Sister Morphine. Those are the official credits… It is often claimed that Keith Richards snagged some Ry Cooder riffs for Honky Tonk Women. During the Let it Bleed sessions, some of the Stones members recorded a series of jam sessions with Ry and Nicky Hopkins. Those sessions were later released as Jamming With Edward! 

1970 marked the start of Cooder’s solo career. Interestingly, at a time when original songs were driving the industry, Ry opted to mainly feature re-arranged and modernized folk, blues and gospel tunes written by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and Alfred Reed. Among his first several records, there are only a few original songs, but he did develop a distinct sound. The music is diverse, and he displayed a real talent for arranging blues, gospel, country, calypso, tex-mex, and Hawaiian music. He re-enlivened and electrified the songs of American folk artists of all styles. During this period, he would continue to be credited as a studio musician for many other artist such as Van Morrison, Arlo Guthrie and Gordon Lightfoot. Ry released 8 records by the end of 70’s.

In the 80’s, Ry turned his attention to film soundtracks. So, in addition adding 3 new solo records during this period, he also worked on the soundtracks for 10 films. The most prominent of these are Southern Comfort (1981), Paris, Texas (1985), Music from Alamo Bay (1985), and Crossroads (1986). Throughout the 80’s, Ry toured with an all-star group of musicians that he had collected during his now long career. The Moula Banda Rhythm Aces featured Flaco Jimenez on Accordian and vocal quartet: Terry Evans, Willie Greene Jr, Arnold McCuller, and Bobby King.

The next decade brought change again. While his contributions to movie soundtracks continued at a solid pace, Ry’s solo career quieted. He turned his energy to collaborative efforts that broadened far beyond anything he’d done before. He began to work on world music crossover projects. The first of these, Meeting by the River (1993), was with V.M. Bhatt. The Hindustani classical musician is a virtuoso of the Mohan veena. They blended beautifully together, and also was the first time that Ry’s son, Joachim, would collaborate with his father on percussion. Meeting by the River won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1993.

Talking Timbuktu (1994) was a collaboration between Ry and Ali Farka Toure. Toure is one of Africa’s most renowned artists. He is largely considered to be the father of modern music in Mali, and he is the inspiration  for such artists as Songhoy Blues and Bombino. Ali Farka Toure would have a lasting effect on Cooder, and he would later relate in interviews how much he learned from Toure during their work together. Talking Timbuktu won a Grammy for Best World Music Album in 1994.

In 1996, Ry traveled to met up with British producer, Nick Gold, in Cuba (via Mexico due to the US trade and travel embargo). The two gathered and organized a large group of performers to record an album of Cuban son music. The album, Buena Vista Social Club, was met with high praise from critics, and became a landmark around the world that spurred interest in Cuban music. It charted in over a dozen European countries, topped the latin charts in the US, and launched the international careers of several Cuban performers. Buena Vista Social Club won a Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Performance in 1997. Ry had to pay a $25,000 dollar fine for violating the US embargo with Cuba.

Manuel Galban was another connection that Ry made during his time in Cuba, and the pair had discussed the possibility of a Cuban electric guitar band bringing to life the 1950’s atmosphere. The result was Mambo Sinuendo. It’s a beautiful, atmospheric, electric guitar, mostly instrumental record. Mambo Sinuendo won Best Pop Instrumental Album.

In 2005, Ry returned to his solo career with what is sometimes called his California Trilogy. Chavez Ravine was his first solo release since 1987, and it was clear that his diverse experience since had changed his musical identity. It’s a concept album and a historical album based around a Mexican-American community that was demolished to build public housing. Eventually, what was actually build there was the Dodgers stadium as part of their move from Brooklyn. The record incorporates chicano-rock, and latin-jazz into Ry’s sound, and it dives into more modern sounds as well. Chavez Ravine was nominated for Best Contemporary Folk Album Grammy-award, but did not win.

My Name is Buddy is perhaps the wildest idea for a concept album, and yet it is drawn into focus on relatable and accessible themes. The songs relate stories from the viewpoints of characters Buddy Redcat, Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad, but on American history to tell of labor strikes, farm failures, hobos and trains. It was a sharp turn from Chavez Ravine, and centers around bluegrass, tonkytonk, americana-folk, and country. My Name is Buddy is the first album in which Ry either wrote or co-wrote every song. The album earned him another grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album, but again did not take the award.

Stylistically, I, Flathead lands somewhere in between the previous two records, and rounds out the California Trilogy of concept records. The story is of salt-flat racer and country musician named Kash Buk. The tex-mex, country rock, and roots rock follow a story, but also have the feel like a romance for American car culture. With these 3 records, Ry had shown how much he had grown as a songwriter and arranger since his solo career in the 70’s and 80’s. He was writing much more of the music, and he was incorporating and exploring more styles than before.

Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down was a straightforward americana-folk album with socio-political themes you might expect from a modern Woody Guthrie. The album kicks off immediately with “No Banker Left Behind”, which sets a strong tone in a culture that has hit recession, market-crash, and big business bailouts. The protest element is present in the record, with songs about the dragging war and the difficulties for the working-class. Following up Pull Up Some Dust…, Ry came out with Election Special. It was full of themes that swirled around the 2012 presidential election. The rugged blues-rock and folk record included some scathing political cuts on tracks like “The Wall Street Part of Town”, “Guantanamo”, and “Take Your Hands Off It”, but still from his usual Woody guthrie-esque, working-man perspective.

And so finally, here we are up to the present day. Earlier this month, Ry’s latest record, The Prodigal Son, was released. For the first time since returning to his solo career, Ry is again drawing on the American folk and blues canon for most of the songs, and there are few original songs. That said, they all sound original. Ry’s encyclopdic knowledge of music allows him to draw from so many sources. He reinterprets the songs and draws them into a collection that helps you see them in new light. The new record has more of a gospel sound than perhaps anything he’s done before. Songs by Blind Alfred Reed, The Pilgrim Travelers, and Blind Willie Johnson are brought in along side a few originals to make a cohesive whole. While in interviews, Ry has said that this is less political and more a “just play your guitar” record, it still is an album that is focused and purposeful. The gospel messages in these tunes could be read as a damning indictment of our present culture. Ry has managed somehow to draw on all his experience and release what may be one of his best records ever.

I think Ry is a vastly underappreciated musician. You won’t find many people who have challenged themselves with diverse styles this way. You won’t find many musicians who have changed with every new record to this degree. And there are precious few who could come through a career so long without ever forgetting their working-class roots. Ry has a huge tour this summer and fall. His son, Joachim, has a new record (Fuschia Machu Pichu) this year as well, and will be opening as well as accompanying his father on drums.

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The Fortnightly Playlist, May 20th, 2018

There is so much in this list that I want to write about. The second single has been released from Angelique Kidjo’s reimagining of the Talking Heads classic album, Remain in Light, and you couldn’t ask for a better artist to present this album in a new way. I’m also including Childish Gambino’s single that took the world by storm two weeks ago. I actually didn’t see the video until the last edition was ready to go. There are fantastic new albums out from Wussy, Middle Kids, Bombino, Black Stax, and Ry Cooder, and there are some exciting singles from Neko Case and Balmorhea.

I usually listen to the radio throughout my workday, and glean all kinds of new discoveries from KEXP Seattle. Sometimes, I need to change things up, and recently I’ve finally checked out a podcast that I’ve been meaning to try for awhile. Romesh Ranganathan has a podcast called Hip Hop Saved My Life, and it has given me a few discoveries so far as I’ve caught up on some of the catalog of 50-some episodes. The best so far, though, has been Ocean Wisdom. Now, I’ve only been into Hip Hop for the past 4-5 yrs, so I’m no expert. That said, Ocean Wisdom can absolutely spit fire. His new double-LP, Wizville, was released back in February, and features guest appearances from Method Man, Rodney P, Dizzee Rascal, and Jehst.

I wrote a bit about Ry Cooder recently, and last week his new album, Prodigal Son, was released. Ry is an artist that never quits learning, trying new things, and putting out the absolute best music that he can. On this new record, we are treated to a master of blues, folk and gospel giving us masterful blues, folk, and gospel. Ry may have delved deep into soundtrack composition and won grammys for his ambitious world music projects, but there is nothing quite like hearing a blues master just play his guitar. That’s what this record is, and it is beautiful. Standout tracks here are “Straight Street”, “Harbor of Love” and the title track. He’s played with such legends as Taj Mahal, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Ali Farka Toure and V.M. Bhatt, and he takes all the knowledge he’s amassed to this point and puts it into this record. Here’s more from Ry on The Prodigal Son.

Also, this week… Bombino released his new record, Deran, and in my eyes this is your reigning guitar-hook king. On the local side of things, Black Stax released a fantastic album of Hip-hop and R&B that just smashes it out of the park, and Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) has a great new rocker of a record called Heaven/Hell. And finally, I’ve got to mention Middle Kids because the chorus on that tune, “Mistake” is so perfect. Enjoy!

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Childish Gambino – This is America
Angelique Kidjo – Once in a Lifetime
Aterciopelados, Ana Tijoux – Play
Black Stax – Loyalty is Royalty
Ocean Wisdom – Eye Contact
Nocando – True Autumn
Jeff Ament – The Door
Balmorhea – Shone
Ry Cooder – Harbor of Love
Sera Cahoone – Worry All Your Life
Traveller – Hummingbird
Half Man, Half Biscuit – Man of Constant Sorrow (With a Garage in Constant Use)
Courtney Barnett – Help Your Self
Goat Girl – Throw Me a Bone
Wussy – One Per Customer
Neko Case – Curse of the I-5 Corridor
Middle Kids – Mistake
James – Better Than That
Black Stax – Fiyahstorm
Ry Cooder – Nobody’s Fault But Mine
Bombino – Tenesse
Sidi Toure – Djirbi Mardjie
Nickodemus – Inmortales (Body Move)
Ocean Wisdom – Ting Dun (feat. Method Man)

The Fortnightly Playlist, May 6th, 2018

It’s an interesting mix this edition on the Fortnightly Playlist. It’s more hip-hop heavy than it has been in a long time, there’s some Blues and Americana, and a few unexpected turns in between. Local music in this edition includes Damien Jurado, Band of Horses, Thunderpussy, and Rell Be Free. There are new singles from Q-tip (A Tribe Called Quest), Ry Cooder, Wussy, Anderson.Paak, and Mazzy Star. This time around there are fewer artists from outside North America, but I have included Finnish singer-songwriter, Mikko Joensuu, and a few artists from the UK.

Thievery Corporation’s album from last year, The Temple of I & I, was among my favorites of 2017. They’ve now released a solid collection of B-sides and remixes from those sessions called Treasures from the Temple. There are some very worthwhile songs in it, and overall it all holds together very well. That said, I think they made good decisions in what made the original album. Some of these are slower tunes, some of them ramble, and some lack the hooks and the energy to make the cut. It was still a good listen. San San Rock, History, Voyage Libre, and Joy Ride are the best here in my opinion.

Seattle singer-songwriter, Damien Jurado, has released his new album, The Horizon Just Laughed, this week, but it the full album will not be available on streaming sites for another 2 months. He has released a 3rd single for streaming though, so that is included here. I got to hear the entire record on the radio the morning of its release. Included was an interview with Damien, and some of the songs were performed live on air. It’s a beautiful album that he’s made. It is intimate and purposeful. I definitely recommend this one.

I cannot recommend anything more than Mikko Joensuu. The Finnish multi-instrumentalist closes out the playlist this edition. He released 3 records over the course of 2016-17: Amen 1, Amen 2, and Amen 3. Stylistically, they cover a lot of ground. There are elements of rock, ambient, electronica, and various folk traditions. Start to finish, they are impressive and beautiful works.

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Tracklist:
Ry Cooder – Straight Street
Anderson.Paak – ‘Til It’s Over
Q-tip – Don’t Go Breaking My Heart
Rell Be Free – Under My Skin
Sean Price – Fight Club
Lethal Bizzle – London (remix)
Janelle Monae – Crazy, Classic, Life
Beach House – Dive
Epic Beard Men – Fresh to Death (feat. Dope Knife)
Rell Be Free – Unchained
Slum Village – Hold Tight (Remix)
Thievery Corporation – Joy Ride
Mazzy Star – Quiet, the Winter Harbor
Trampled by Turtles – Thank You, John Steinbeck
Damien Jurado – Percy Faith
Wussy – Getting Better
Courtney Barnett – City Looks Pretty
Death by Unga Bunga – Cynical
Band of Horses – Nadie Te Va A Amar Como Yo
El Dusty – La Cumbia
Frank Turner – 21st Century Survival Blues
Thurston Moore – MX Liberty
Thunderpussy – Badlands
Chvrches – Miracle
GEMS – Crippled Inside
Mikko Joensuu – The Worst In Me