A few weeks after Christmas, Ry Cooder hopped a plane for the Cajun country of southwestern Louisiana. Director Walter Hill had enlisted him to head down there to record part of the soundtrack to his latest film, Southern Comfort, and it was the sort of excursion Cooder loves to make. Even though it lasted only a couple of days, the guitarist was able to play with some of the region’s finest musicians and immerse himself in the centuries-old French-American traditions that still prevail there.
“Ry was something else, not only as a musician, but as a human being,” Dewey Balfa says of Cooder’s visit. A fifty-four-year-old fiddle player, Balfa may well be the world’s best-known Cajun musician. “To tell you the truth, I lost my brothers Will and Rodney in an auto accident a few years ago. I thought I never again would make a recording session and be in the same mood as when Rodney played rhythm guitar for me. But Ry made me feel like I was back in those days. As much as I like other music — country, bluegrass, some rock & roll — I can’t get into the grooves because I’m too deeply rooted in my own music. But Ry can break away from his regular music. He just fell right in with us and lifted the group. I played like I hadn’t played since my brother died.”
With those few sentences, Dewey Balfa manages to sum up much of what makes Ry Cooder special. Though the very mention of words like curator, musicologist or archivistmakes Cooder’s skin crawl, he has done more than any other contemporary musician to bring the various strains of regional music into the pop mainstream. And, as Balfa’s testimony illustrates, Cooder hasn’t accomplished that feat just by duplicating the sound of other people’s records. He’s ventured out — to slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui in Hawaii, to bluesman Sleepy John Estes in Tennessee, to Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez in South Texas — learning the music firsthand. And the records that have resulted from those encounters haven’t come off as studied re-creations of little-known art forms; rather, they’ve been accessible, contemporary and personal.