American popular music has its roots in dozens of diverse traditions, and most of them have been investigated by Ry Cooder as he played a wide selection of stringed instruments. A highly skilled guitar picker, his wise and amusing selection of songs on a long series of albums have broadened many horizons, and pricked many a conscience. Ry did not restrict his work to the USA, as he explored the music of Cuba and the Caribbean, Africa, Europe and even India and the Far East. His film scores have enhanced many great cinema releases, in some cases the music achieving more attention than the movie.
Ryland Peter Cooder was born in 1947 to parents whose interest in folklore obviously rubbed off on their son. As a teenager Ry was in Jackie DeShannon’s touring band before forming The Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and future Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy. Ry went off to college in Portland briefly but came home to find work as a guitarist, playing on Captain Beefheart’s ‘Safe as Milk’, Randy Newman’s ’12 Songs’ and albums by Van Dyke Parks and Little Feat. He also worked as a session player for The Rolling Stones, contributing slide-guitar to ‘Sister Morphine’ and mandolin to ‘Love in Vain’, as well as recording the ‘Jamming with Edward’ album with Jagger, Wyman and Watts, although that is probably not why Keef swung a guitar at Ry’s head in a London studio!
Ry on British TV in the early 70s;
Ry signed for Warner Bros. in 1970 and proceeded to release a long series of excellent albums that explored the roots of American music, and the scope of his investigations is vast. His self-titled first album was heavily into the Blues, with covers of Lead Belly, Blind Blake and Sleepy John Estes songs. ‘Into the Purple Valley’ contained more ‘dust-bowl’ folk influences and ‘Boomer’s Story’ added some soul to the mix. ‘Paradise and Lunch’ includes gospel, calypso and ragtime elements, but it’s best track ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’ shows Ry to be a Piedmont fingerpicker of real talent. ‘Chicken Skin Music’ and ‘Showtime’ blend Tex-Mex and R&B musicians into a vehicle for songs by Lead Belly, Pink Anderson and other classic tunes. ‘Jazz’ explores ragtime and vaudeville songs, showing how closely related they are to Piedmont Blues, and both ‘Bop ’til You Drop’ and ‘Borderline’ cover rock’n’roll, soul and R&B tracks from the 50s. ‘Slide Area’ gives up some danceable funky tracks and that theme was taken to extremes with ‘Got Rhythm’ in 1987. Far from being a studio musician over these years, Ry was always on the road.
Ry pays tribute to Pops Staples;
Sprinkled throughout his Grand Tour of modern American music there was always a few of Ry’s own songs and his compositional skills came to the fore with the film soundtrack to ‘The Long Riders’ in 1980. Four years later, ‘Paris Texas’ with its blood-curdling slide-guitar themes based on Blind Willie Johnson‘s ‘Cold was the Ground’, was the most famous of the 15 film scores Ry worked on in the 80s and 90s. He was also a welcome guest on many other albums including Eric Clapton, John Hiatt and the Zydeco Party Band among many others. In 1994, Ry recorded a groundbreaking ‘Talking Timbuktu’ album with Ali Farka Toure which pre-figured Corey Harris‘s work in tracing the Blues back to Africa. Extending his investigations, Ry dug up a Cuban root when he was a prime mover in bringing The Buena Vista Social Club to prominence, not least with his collaboration on the album that took them to world fame. ‘Hollow Bamboo’, ‘Mambo Sinuedo’ and ‘San Patrico’ brought Eastern, Latin and Irish music into the picture.