Ry Cooder’s Roots

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Ry COODER

Ry Cooder, Hammersmith Odeon, Circa November 1980 Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty

 

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.

“I know a lot of musicians who like all kinds of music, but very few of them seem able to incorporate these elements into their own stuff and make it come out as a kind of personal music,” says Chris Strachwitz, owner of the California-based Arhoolie Records, a label that specializes in regional and ethnic music. “Ry has what I call a composer’s ear; he’s able to hear things in a way in which they might reach more people. It’s a lot like what some of the classical composers used to do when they’d incorporate elements of folk music into their compositions.”

Even if he didn’t have the most eclectic tastes around, or even if he weren’t able to meld seemingly disparate forms of music into a unified and pleasing whole, Ry Cooder would still be a musician to be reckoned with. For Cooder is a brilliant bottleneck guitarist; his bending and blending of notes can make the instrument sound like it’s talking or crying or laughing (just listen to his instrumental version of Ike and Tina Turner’s “I Think It’s Going to Work Out Fine” on 1979’s Bop Till You Drop). As a rhythm guitarist, Ry may not possess a lot of technique — “People who have technique are like Pat Metheny,” he says. “That, to me, is impossible” — but he is an economical player with an uncanny ability to create unique and interesting sounds.

“I sometimes think he must be playing with four hands,” says drummer Jim Keltner, who has appeared on nine of Cooder’s ten albums. Bassist Tim Drummond agrees. “When we’re in the studio and he’s playing, it’s all I can do to keep playing my bass. I just want to stop and watch him.”

Crimson Sound is a small rehearsal studio hidden away on an alley in Santa Monica just a few blocks from the ocean. Ry Cooder himself lives only a couple of miles from the studio — in a Spanish-style white-stucco house just off the Pacific Coast Highway near Sunset Boulevard — and he’d jogged to Crimson earlier in the morning to work out some material for an upcoming tour in support of his new album, Borderline. When I arrive, he is seated, oddly enough, behind a drum kit.

“You know ‘Trouble You Can’t Fool Me’?” he asks, referring to a track from Bop Till You Drop. “Well, there are certain things that song has to have: these off-time parts, these hits, have to come at a certain time, otherwise the song doesn’t work. Often I’ll tell my poor drummer something, and he won’t understand what the fuck I’m talking about. It’s tough to describe a part, so I gotta find ways to show him.”

It’s typical Cooder. Ry Cooder the perfectionist. Ry Cooder the arranger. Ry Cooder the man obsessed with searching for the perfect sound. Jim Keltner tells how during one of the sessions for Bop, Cooder heard the band make a sound he liked and proceeded to spend the day breaking everything down until he found out what caused it.

Ry fiddles around on the drums for a few more minutes, then moves over to a stool in front of his guitar amplifier. He’s dressed in a baggy violet T-shirt, loose-fitting green slacks and gray running shoes, and his legs — Cooder stands over six feet tall — are spread out in front of him. (“The guy has long legs. And big feet,” Keltner says. “When we’re in the studio and he’s standing behind a baffle, all I can see are his head and those gigantic running shoes sticking out.”)

The forthcoming tour will be Cooder’s first full-fledged set of U.S. dates since his Chicken Skin Music trek in 1976. For those shows, Ry was accompanied by accordionist Flaco Jimenez and, he says, “Everything happened that possibly could.”

Such as? “Well, such as death,” Cooder says, staring down at the floor and talking in a quiet, choppy drawl. “The bass player’s oldest son died suddenly. Then the saxophone player’s father died. And illness. Flaco had problems and had to go home for a week. The guitar player got pneumonia and had to be put in the hospital. And hardship. We had a bus we couldn’t pay for, so we lost it and had to drive cars, which would break down in the snow. I was sick for two years after that. Exhausted. Debilitated. Demoralized. I believed in it, and I thought it was going to happen; it was so great, who could not like it? But it turned out that very few people did like it. Those were dark days.”

~~~  CONTINUE  ~~~

 

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