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.
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.