On Working with his Son Joachim Cooder, the Origins of the American Popular Song, Awful Gentrification of American Cities, Ralph Peer, Jesus & Woody Guthrie, and more.
In advance of our new podcast, The Power of Song, which premieres in March and features a conversation with Ry Cooder, we’re bringing you this today. It’s the full interview conducted with the maestro on his 71st birthday, March 15, 2018, from which we published portions in our print edition.
First thing, Ry spoke of reverence. Reverence. He realized it was the perfect word for how he felt about music, and so much else.
It’s because the word denotes respect, but more: It’s also about awe. And that fusion of real respect with genuine awe is exactly the dynamic at the heart of all of his music over the years, whether solo or in the service of others: Reverence for real music, for great songs and the art and craft of songwriting, for traditional music, for great singing, artistry and musicianship. And reverence, certainly, for the guitar.
Reverence is also the ideal word for how multitudes of musicians, guitarists and fans over the decades and through generations, including this writer, have felt about Ry. Whether as a sideman or on his own projects, the man never made a false move. The purity of his music has shone over the years, and from the start, as a sideman on the albums of others, made a lasting impact.
As he explains in the following conversation about the visceral beauty of his guitar solos, it’s all about connecting with that part of you beyond conscious thought so you can make a “statement of pure intuition.” That devotional purity to feeling over thought has been woven into his music through these decades with fierce and unflagging fidelity. A musician’s musician in the truest sense of the term, in that he’s one all the others almost universally revere, his name is synonymous with exquisitely seasoned artistry at the highest level. In every performance, every guitar solo, every album, there is the connection with the essential authentic soul of music.
We spoke on his 71st birthday, March 15, 2018, where he humbly and humorously expounded on all the aspects of being Ry Cooder. Always it was about the purity, not the show. Way more important than a flashy guitar solo or any pyrotechnics is simply getting that one note right. That one rich, real, fat, perfect note. It isn’t about virtuosity as much as it’s about heart and soul. The real thing.
As he said, too many players he hears these days have developed no artistry, no style or grace, only urgency. “Can’t they hear that they’re flat?” he asked with disbelief. “If you don’t feel it,” he said, “Fine. Do something else. Go get a sandwich.”
He then offered his advice on how better to master the art of playing slide guitar. It’s all about that purity of intention, of stripping it down to essentials, as he has his whole career, not about how many notes you play but by how deeply one note can make you feel.
“If I was to teach somebody,” Ry said, “I’d say, ‘Take all the strings off except the high E. Then just play me one note, and I’ll see you in a year. But get that note. Make it a good rich note. Otherwise you sound like the emergency door at the veterinarian hospital.”
Even before his own extraordinary chain of solo albums, he distinguished himself as a guitarist (electric and acoustic, and also sometimes mandolin and even banjo) bringing his signature soul to a remarkably diverse array of records and artists, including Paul Revere & The Raiders, Neil Young, Arlo Guthrie, The Monkees, Phil Ochs, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Taj Mahal, Lowell George, Ali Farka Toure, The Buena Vista Social Club, Captain Beefheart, Van Morrison, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Duane Eddy, Nancy Sinatra, John Hiatt, Marianne Faithfull, Syd Straw, Gabby Pahinui, Pops & Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, The Chieftains, Aaron Neville, Flaco Jimenez, Peter Case, Doobie Brothers and still others.
Ry even played with the Rolling Stones, one of the only American guitarists ever to make a significant contribution to their records. Brought in by his friend, the producer Jack Nitzche, to fill out the tracks when Brian Jones began fading, Ry was present during much of the recording of both Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed. That’s his mandolin on “Love In Vain” and slide-guitar on “Sister Morphine.”
Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger said that it was from Ry that Keith picked-up his famous five-string open-G tuning, which he continues to use to this day. But not only did Keith appropriate Ry’s open tuning, he also absorbed Ry’s unique guitar approach, which used an electric guitar as a bluesman would an acoustic, and richly merged Americana roots with blues, country, folk and gospel all into a dynamic gumbo ideal for rock and roll.
Keith also appropriated Ry’s signature riffs, including one which became, uncredited to Ry, the iconic guitar hook of “Honky Tonk Women.”
“The Rolling Stones brought me to England under totally false pretenses,” said Ry to Rolling Stone in 1970. “They weren’t playing well and were just messing around in the studio. There were a lot of very weird people hanging around the place, but the music wasn’t going anywhere. When there’d be a lull in the so-called rehearsals, I’d start to play my guitar. Keith Richard would leave the room immediately and never return. I thought he didn’t like me! But, as I found out later, the tapes would keep rolling. I’d ask when we were going to do some tracks. Mick would say: ‘It’s all right, Ry, we’re not ready yet.’ “In the four or five weeks I was there, I must have played everything I know. They got it all down on these tapes. Everything… they’re bloodsuckers, man.”
During the long hours when Keith would be absent, Ry and the remaining Stones (Charlie Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass, Mick singing and playing blues harp) along with Nicky Hopkins on keys, would jam. Due to the presence of Ry, who brought fierce, fat, incendiary soul to every note he played, those jams caught fire and soared, recorded and ultimately released as the 1972 album Jamming With Edward. Anchored by those deliciously visceral electric lines, it’s Ry and the Rolling Stones, and as with everything Ry touched, it’s pure and real. There’s not a false note played. Although many knew Ry was the ideal choice to replace Jones upon his death, it’s been said that Keith felt threatened by him, not wanting to be overshadowed. Instead, Mick Taylor got the job and Ry went home to California.
He made his first eponymously titled solo album in 1970, and continued crafting richly compelling, unexpected, classic albums through the decades. Each sparkled with Ry’s inimitable musicianship and reverence for the craft of songwriting. A brilliant songwriter himself, he was always more interested in the great songs of others. Whether a Woody Guthrie gem, an early rock and roll song, a Cuban ballad, or a classic gospel tune, Ry always invested the fullness of his spirit into each. His albums soared with exquisite musicianship and songwriting, but were also genuinely fun and entertaining. Ry never delivered simply a collection of individual, unrelated songs. Instead he created an entire world, and invited the listener to enter it. Never was it a wasted journey. It was a world of authentic musical joy. The jubilation of Ry’s musical soul was injected into every track. Even on the sad songs.
The names of his solo albums go by now like chapters of our lives, as so many distinct memories remain attached to them over the decades. Even today, these titles still evoke happy memories and real reverence: Into The Purple Valley. Boomer’s Story. Paradise and Lunch, Bop Til You Drop, Get Rhythm, Chavez Ravine. The new album, Prodigal Son, is album seventeen. “I don’t know if anyone will buy it,” he said about the new one. Still, he wanted to make it great.
Ry also brought his often sorrowful, sometimes joyful, always human sound to the soundtracks of many movies, both as a player and a composer. He’s scored 24 films himself, working closely with directors Walter Hill, Wim Wenders and others. Those films include Paris, Texas, Primary Colors, Brewster’s Millions, The End of Violence, Alamo Bay, Streets of Fire and The Long Riders. As a player, he’s lent his distinctive guitar lines to many soundtracks scored by others, including Dead Man Walking, Steel Magnolias, Nashville and Goin’ South.
His graceful purity of intuition, of not lighting the guitar on fire but making it sing, shines through his newest album, Prodigal Son. It’s his first new album in many years, and one which, as he explained with much evident paternal love, was created in loving collaboration with his son Joachim Cooder. Not only does Joachim provide deeply soulful, creative drumming throughout, he also created many of the sonic landscapes – “tone centers,” as Ry put it – on which these tracks were built.
Father and son have also assembled a new touring band, and are hitting the road in a couple days to tour around America. Both this tour and the album and tour, Ry explained, would not have happened if not for the love and creative energy of his son. When asked if Joachim would be the drummer in his touring band, Ry spoke in that hushed voice of reverence and said, “I wouldn’t do it if [Joachim] wouldn’t do it. He’s got a new baby. Four days old. And my little granddaughter’s 2 ½. And we have to leave them behind. Gonna go out and make some money. Put some beans in the pot.”
The collaboration evolved gradually, as Ry tried to figure out the best way to make a record about both of them. Joachim’s a musician of the modern age, composing his music with loops and found sounds and other digital tools to create haunting, mysterious, dimensional sonic soundscapes. But how does that connect with this old-school slide-guitarist?
The revelation came when Ry realized that he could solve two problems at once. Wanting to make an album about now, this moment in our history some 18 years into the 21st century, with so much madness, hatred and sorrow streaming through America, he was drawn to the redemptive, hopeful glory found in the timeless gospel songs he loved. He felt an album of his favorite spirituals, mixed in with some fresh originals, could be right for now. Yet he knew a traditional approach to classic gospel songs would not conjure the magic he wanted. And that’s when he tried singing the old Pilgrim Travelers’ beautiful “Straight Street” over one of Joachim’s tracks. The result was unexpected, and beautiful. And the journey of Prodigal Son had begun.
It’s been a while since an album so rich in sonic beauty has come along. But the rich, fertile fusion of Joachim’s grooves and sound collages with Ry’s exquisitely poignant guitar work on these new and old spirituals is stunning. Add to that deeply resonant and soulful sound of Ry’s gentle voice wrapped in the harmonies of gospel legends and longtime Ry collaborators Terry Evans (who died this past January soon after recording completed), Arnold McCuller and Bobby King, and you get proof that records this sonically rich, real and warm can be made even in the digital era.
The Prodigal Son stands as a beautiful fusion of modern and timeless – analog and digital – represented by a father and son’s reverent and loving desire to bridge radically different approaches. Joachim’s compositions are all digitally created and calculated, built on foundations of repeated loops. Ry’s way is the complete opposite, never calculating any solo or vocal, but losing himself instead in the soul of the music until something authentic emerges.
When I asked Ry, for example, about Joachim’s use of loops and if he ever looped his guitar. He laughed immediately and said, “No, no, I never do that! I just play.” The very idea, it was evident, was ludicrous. Yet so much about the generosity of his musical soul is revealed in his embrace of Joachim’s creations, and his love of combining the best of both of them.
The rich and real depth of Ry’s music was delightfully present also in conversation. His reverence for music came across with great candor, knowledge, humility and humor, as eloquent and devoid of anything false as one of his guitar solos. He generously shared in deep details his own personal journey through the arc of something he identifies as unique and unparalleled – the American Popular Song – with a great historic overview of its evolution, and where it’s led.
He also spoke, with sorrow, rage and resignation, of America itself, and how its most fundamental ideals are being distorted, forgotten or “thrown away like trash.” It’s an obsession bordering on admitted madness, he admitted, and is crystallized locally for him in the way his native L.A. has been transformed. His song “Gentrification,” from the new album, is all about what he sees as the horrific development of the downtown of L.A., and the unfortunate tendency to destroy all that was odd, unique and charming about this sprawling, modern city, such as the Googies coffee shops.
Googies refers to a style of architecture which flourished here from 1949 on into the ’60s, named after the design of the original Googies Coffee Shop in Hollywood. Created with what was the new dynamism of the atomic era as expressed in our vast, modern metropolis, they were shining, winged, rocket-like structures made of neon, steel and glass – designed to boldly capture attention in the frenzy of this fast-moving automobile town.
Ry grew up in that town, where he hungered for authentic American music, and was ultimately changed forever when left to his own devices with a tenor guitar and some Woody Guthrie LPs. What emerged was Ry Cooder, dedicated forever fiercely to the pursuit of authenticity.
Today, at 71, he doesn’t hide the pain he feels about the exploitation and destruction of the authentic things he loved, whether it’s Los Angeles, the popular song, or the spirit of America itself. That sorrow comes across in the choice of spirituals for this album, in all his aching guitar playing, and most powerfully in a new song he wrote for this album, “Jesus and Woody.” In that song, Woody Guthrie and Jesus talk of God, man and musical history. Woody, like John Lennon, was a dreamer, a man who saw war and dreamed of peace. Now dreamers, here in 2018 America, is the word for the children of those Woody wrote about years ago in “Deportees.” They are the sons and daughters brought here by those who came to this land knowing it was a land for everybody.
Your song “Jesus and Woody” is such a poignant comment on our current times.
It occurred to me that Woody Guthrie was a dreamer. “This land is your land.” But “fascists bound to lose.” Are you kidding me? They won. But Woody was optimistic in his day. It was wartime and we all believed the fascists had been put down, and that democracy and freedom would triumph. How could he have known the country would grow more fascistic?
This land isn’t your land anymore, it’s been stolen away by the 1%. But Woody didn’t see that coming, or if he did, he didn’t want to say so. So I thought, therefore, it would be interesting if Jesus were to say to him, “You and I were both dreamers. We had hope.” Sitting up in heaven, he says, “Let’s sing one. Because it didn’t work out that way.”
Jesus is kind of sad and tired. He said, “I’ve been the savior now so long that I’m a tired kind of savior.” So I thought that puts a nice spin on the Woody concept. And it just popped into my head one day. These ideas come out of nowhere. Except that, as you say, considering the circumstances we find ourselves in now, it’s inevitable that the next time I hear “This Land Is Your Land,” I’m gonna stand up and say, “Hold it.”
Is it true you had no melody for it, and improvised that in the studio?
Yes. I had figured out the words. And, of course, the timing of it, the cadence. But I didn’t have a musical setting for it at all, until I got to the engineer’s house. If I go out there, I find, to his garage and just sing over these tracks sometimes, it leads somewhere good.
So I said, “You know, Martin, the way I’m feeling today, I might come up with something. A little guitar phrase came into my mind. So I’ll go off that.”
So I put the earphones on and said, “Let me try it.” It was one take and I didn’t try to fix it. I found that it was in an awkward key. But then I kind of liked it that way, sort of mumbling. I thought, well, that’s good enough. Let that stand. I don’t want to have to go through that again.
Regarding its awkward key, it seems to be that crack between A and B-flat.
Well, perhaps. I pick the guitar out of the case, and it’s in an open tuning. And if I like the sound of it, the timbre or the resonance of it, I say, “Let’s leave it. I don’t wanna match it up. I don’t want to overdub on it, so I don’t have to worry about matching keyboards.
So I have always done it that way. If I like the sound, I won’t change it.
When you mentioned how these songs sometimes come out of nowhere, after all these years have you any idea where they come from, or how best to connect with them?
From experience I would say it’s probably some kind of an improvisational concept of recording. Most people would write songs and get the melody straight, get the phrasing and the parts, if there’s a chorus and how many times do you do it, if there’s gonna be an instrumental break. What are you gonna do? So you map it out. So that’s what songwriters do, At least I think that’s what they do.
And then in the studio, people have to have a map of some kind or that can’t follow it. But if I am sitting alone with the engineer – and I’ve done this so many times – if I feel a certain way, I’m just going capo to a certain key, and choose a key that sounds good. And then I’ll come up with something without planning it.
Because I know what happens to me. As soon as I start thinking too hard about it, what happens is, that mysterious, unknown quality is gone pretty quickly. We don’t want that. We want a statement of pure intuition. If you can do it. You can’t always do it. Sometimes I don’t do it so well. Other times I do it okay. “Jesus and Woody” is good that way.
“Harbor of Love” was completely unrehearsed. I didn’t know where I was going, except I knew it was a song in 3/4 that had to be translated into 4/4 . But I wasn’t sure how the lyrics were gonna come out. Where do you end up?
But sometimes I’ll just sit down with Joachim and say, “It goes something like this,” without playing the whole song, just to get the rhythm and the key. And he plays, because he can just play along with me. He doesn’t think about it, he’ll feel it. He’ll just know. When I’m heading to the chorus and we haven’t gotten there yet, he knows it’s coming. It’s just instinct with him.
So it’s possible to make records that way when we don’t plan things and rehearse them, because then the fun’s gone.
Walter Hill, the movie director I used to work for all the time, used to say, “Don’t think, just play.” He said, “I don’t like it when you start thinking.” It’s a funny thing for him to say. But it’s true, you know. You rely on your own instinct. I’ve done this long enough that I can trust myself to do it. To try it, anyway.
You mentioned finding the right key. Do you do that instinctually or do you choose them for the guitar, or for the voice, or some other reason?
Guitars are good in D. F is sometimes good. See the electric’s mostly in open tuning, so if you start capoing up too high, if you get above the third fret, you start to lose string excursion and it doesn’t resonate so good. Depending on the instrument, of course. So I end up in D, I end up in E sometimes. I want to vary the keys.
But on the other hand, when you sit down to record, you say, well, what’s gonna sound good today? It’s probably going to be D. [Laughs] Or near abouts. I’ve tried C occasionally, and it’s very difficult key to make it sound good. C is okay for bluegrass, but that’s a different music.
Do you feel each key has a unique tone and color?
Oh, each is entirely unique. The classical guys all knew that. How they put those symphonies in one key. It’s some numerical thing, some frequency. But guitars are unique. Acoustic, in particular, because acoustic guitars are really primitive instruments. I mean, just nothing but a box with some strings. So depending on the size that the box is, where will the natural best frequency be? It’s B, B-flat, D. I can’t play in flat keys, but D is always nice. If I tune them open, as I do, G tuning is good on electric because it’s really snappy sounding. D tuning is really good on acoustic, because it’s really low like the Hawaiians. And it’s good for blues.
When you sing and play guitar, what you want is a full sound to support your singing. The trouble with guitar, really, is that it’s so quiet. It’s not like a piano. Piano will take care of anything. It’s a huge thing. It’s a big piece of real estate. But guitars, especially acoustic, they’re just so limited. So we like electrics, because electrics open the door for a lot of other stuff which I really like.
It’s just a matter of getting a fat sound. It’s a full tone. I tell you, I spent all of my adult life messing with equipment – with amps, and cords, and preamps, and compressors. And guitars, I’ve got so many of them – looking for this rich sound, you see. That’s the study of a lifetime, that is.
And that study has impacted guitarists for decades. So many of us have learned so much from listening to your playing. It’s always such a human sound. Is part of achieving that because you use don’t use picks?
I don’t like to use a pick on the electric. Though when I went on tour with Ricky Skaggs, I had to use a flatpick. I had to do it every night onstage for country tunes we were doing, so I got better at it. It was always an awkward feeling. I’m better at it now. I practice a lot.
But the majority of your music that we know which has your distinctive electric guitar playing, that does sound that way because you don’t use a pick?
Do you always use open tunings?
Not always. As a matter of fact, the Ricky Skaggs tour got me back into standard tuning. And I found I didn’t feel bad about it like I used to. I used to find that it was so difficult to get the strings to hang in there. They kept dying out on me.
You know, standard tuning is a flamenco tuning, is what it is. That means it’s North African, which is a minor feeling. But I like the major triad. I like that rich triad in there. That’s why the open tunings are good. You can just lay your fingers down anyway you want.and just play. It’s kind of what the Hawaiians do. I’ve learned a lot of that from them.
You do play mostly in major keys. This album has only one song in a minor key.
Joachim is always trying to get me to do that. He said, “Minor is good. It’s the mystery key.”
I said, “Yeah, I know. But there’s no gospel songs in minor!”
See, they didn’t know that. And the Mexican stuff that I love so much, they don’t have minor intervals at all ! Not really until way later on, when they were influenced, perhaps, by American pop. But they’re a triad harmony, that’s all. That’s kind of why I like it. And why I like the old gospel songs. They’re strictly just thirds. Those intervals. Real basic. It really grabs you that way.
Yes. On these songs, they are major key melodies, yet such beautiful, poignant melodies. “You Must Unload,” for example, is such a beautiful melody.
Yeah. Alfred Reed was a real unique individual. He has a gang of songs like nobody else. Very interesting character.
It’s in F major, but when it goes to the VI chord – D minor- and the melody ascends there, which is so beautiful.
Yeah, it’s a good one. We did that on the Skaggs tour and people went crazy. They stood up during the song! Whoa! Joachim said, “You’d better record that one. People like it.”
Seems no matter what, people still always respond to a strong melody. Do you have any idea why that is, and what makes a melody strong?
Yes, Well, that’s the question of the age. Well, I can’t say. And I’m not smart enough to know the study of that. But when you hear a good one, you know. Take Jimmy Van Heusen. Or one of those guys. Listen to some of these Johnny Hartman records, I mean, it’s incredible.
Or one of the greatest of all time, of course, “Over The Rainbow.” [Sings first four bars of melody] You’re there. You’re instantly taken or transported to wherever that song is going to take you.
We have a fantastic thing, of course. The American song is unique in the world. And it’s incredible. Due partly to the English language, and partly because of the invention of verse-chorus, which came from here.
Did it? The song chorus as we know it started in America?
I think so. I don’t think you find chorus, as we know it in pop music, [sings] “I want to hold your hand..” That did not exist until it was codified here. Take a look at the writing from Stephen Foster on up. They had refrains, such as in Stephen Foster songs such as “Old Kentucky Home.” [Sings: “In my old Kentucky home, far away…”] That’s not really a chorus. That’s a refrain. But when you get that hook chorus, when did that happen? Did it happen with the three-minute record? I think so.
It seems to me the recording studio is the laboratory of songwriting. Because people would say, “Your whole statement’s got to happen in three minutes, guy.” You know? Prior to that, dance music could go on indefinitely. A song could last fifteen minutes.
But what did Ralph Peer say to Jimmy Rodgers? Jimmy Rodgers walks through the door. Ralph Peer is sitting there in Bristol, Tennessee or wherever and says, “So Mister, what’s your name? Rodgers? What have you got?”
[Sings melody]. Well, he got right to it. He got right to the hook. And he had choruses.
“Well,” says Ralph Peer, “I like when you go to the chorus.” Peer was smart. He knew what to say to these guys. He helped them.
A.P. Carter didn’t know how to write a fucking song until Ralph Peer told him how to write a song. He said, “Now go out and do it,” he said. “A.P. said okay. And he goes marching through the hills of Appalachia writing down the poems off tombstones. Can you imagine? “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone” is supposed to have come off of a tombstone. That’s songwriting.
And he comes back, and says, “Okay I got this here.”
Peer says, “But you don’t have a chorus. And you have to get to the chorus soon. Don’t delay. In other words, get to the hook as fast as you can.”
It’s very fascinating, don’t you think? It’s all because of records. If it hadn’t been for Ralph Peer and his recording machine, and other guys who did that too, then none of this would have happened, I don’t think. It wouldn’t have happened to the extent that it did, the fine art of it. You might have taken another hundred years or so.
But I always have thought that if you can grow yourself a Jimmy Van Heusen or a Yip Harburg, you have a society. Then you can say that it is a real society now. This is a real group of people who have evolved in this talented way.
Now, of course, now it’s all being thrown out like trash. Because of hip-hop and everything. Which I can’t even contemplate. But, man, by 1960? It had all been said. Incredible!. I mean, look at all the Nat King Cole records and the beautiful songs. Johnny Hartman. I mean, those tunes. “My Funny Valentine”? Unbelievable!
It’s striking to me that it’s the songs of that era you point to. You’ve worked with so many of the great modern songwriters, who came after those guys. But you think the songs from that era were best?
Well, when you talk about reverence, I absolutely revere that. But also, on the other side of the scale, Lester Flatts & Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley and Carter Stanley, and people like that. And Harland Howard is a favorite of mine. Buddy the Red Cat says, [in fast, funny, Southern drawl] “Harlan Howard, personal friend of mine.”
And then we have to say Willie Nelson. Took a ride in a car in Houston, it’s said, and by the end of the night he’d written, “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” and my personal favorite, “Funny, How Time Slips Away.” There’s nothing that can compare with that. And then he went on and did other things. [Laughs] That’s one night in a car! Or so the story goes. I hope it’s true. I hope it’s true.
What can you say? I mean, how about that guy Leon Paine? Do you know his writing? He was a blind country writer and singer. He wrote “No One Will Ever Know.” Check that out. “No One Will Ever Know.” That is country music, an awesome, deep song. We did it on the tour with Skaggs. His wife Sharon would sing it. And I mean, I would go into a trance when she would sing that song. It was enough to make me go so far down into the tune that it was like going into some kind of meditation where you suspend your breathing. And I would have to get back [laughs] at the end of the song. You know? You have to go and do another one.
It’s said that Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs wrote “Reunion In Heaven.” Which has to be my favorite American song of all time. From the vernacular music. I don’t mean the Jimmy Van Heusen stuff. I mean non-professional. The music of people. As recorded by them, not by others. They achieved something. We did that on the Skaggs tour. Couldn’t quite get the harmony right for some reason.It’s one of those tunes. It was an encore song. People would come by the merch table in tears. Folks were so taken by this. It was very gripping. And nobody was immune. All different types came to those shows, and they’d all step over to the merch table just to say, “That tune did it for me.” Young and old alike.
I thought it was poignant and also very fitting that you used the word ‘reverence’ as a way of explaining how this album came to be. And in your work you have always shown reverence. Reverence for song, for songwriters, for music, for the guitar itself.
Yes, that is certainly true. We love beautiful things. And if you have to put a word to it, I think that word is perfect. Luckily the granddaughter’s teacher put that in my head. My wife and I took her to school one day, and you sait there in the room. And that teacher, she has certain ideas she likes to put out there. She is Islamic. She said, “We’re not here to teach religion. We’re would like to instill reverence.”
And I thought, man, I’m gonna keep that idea in mind. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. The word itself. It’s a really nice word. And I think it’s right. We love beautiful things. But what does that really mean? I think if you could put a word to it, that word is perfect. It’s very apt.
That reverence comes across so much in the new album. In the playing and songs, of course, as well as the production, which is rich and beautiful. You did it all with your son, Joachim?
Yes. Very much just the two of us. The way we would do it is that sometimes Joachim has some tracks of these tone centers that he comes up with. It’s what got me started. We were talking one day about a year ago, and he said, “I think it’s time you made a record. It’s time to do it.” I said, “Oy, gosh, what of?” [Laughs]
He said, “Just play guitar and do it like you used to do.”
I said, “Yeah, But what’s the material?”
He said, “Don’t do this political stuff so much anymore. You’ve done that. Cash Buck, the voice of that character? Leave that out. It’s fun, but people might not care so much to hear this.”
I said, “Okay, so then I have to think of some kind of focus. Some kind of an idea.” But then I thought it’s not so much about funny songs now, or jokes. Much as I like funny songs. But then one day he was messing with a track of his, and I said, “You know, I know what fits over top of that. ‘Straight Street,’ the old Pilgrim Traveler’s tune. But repurposed. To have a new version of it. And it’s something I think I’ve always known. If you start messing around with gospel music, as Ricky Skaggs would say, you really have to nail it. And I can’t sing that stuff. I cannot sing Black quartet music. I just can’t do it. I mean, I used to sneak one in here and there.”Jesus On The Mainline” or something.
But Joachim said, “Yeah, `Straight Street’ is a great song. Do that.”
I said, “No, I can’t. I cannot sit there and pretend I’m Kilo Turner of the Pilgrim Travelers. It’s just not sensible. So what do I do?” Then I heard this track of his, and I said, “Okay. I’ll do that like I would sing any other song. It’s going to be a reinterpretation of it. It makes it so much easier. So much more sensible.
And it was as though it was already presentable. I just basically put the earphones on, sang over his track, then put on some guitars and he put drums. So then I thought, “Aha! That’s the way. So that’s the way to approach something that he’s got. So I said to him, “What else have you got?”
So then he played something he said he wanted to keep for himself, so I told him put that aside.
Then he played the funny little whistling thing that became “Gentrification,” and I knew I had some lyrics about gentrification which could go right on top of that, and it would be so funny. And I just sang and played, without too much thinking, without too much hard thought, just an experiment to find out if it sounds good. And we went on from there.
Then there were other tunes that were live in the studio, he and I. Then I started going through the gospel repertoire, white and black, to see what I hadn’t done, and what I would have liked to have done. Maybe I could see into these things if I could make them all loosely fall together. So that was part of the challenge. You have to have songs that fit. And there’s thousands of these gospel songs. Thousands!
It was not immediate. I had to look and see what would be okay. There are many I love that I would not do.
I like the traditional ones because they’re simple. And you get the feeling that a lot of these were written by people who were not classified as what you might call professional songwriters. People who were singing that way and got recorded somehow. It’s amazing how many people got recorded. You know, it’s all because of that. The fact that the old-timers were recorded. It’s amazing. Otherwise we wouldn’t have a clue
But when I heard his track, I knew I could use it
You’ve been great at introducing us to so many great songs over the years, but always with your distinct take on it. Many times I knew your versions before I knew the more famous ones, such as “Little Sister.”
[Laughs] Yeah. Well, sometimes I did alright. Sometimes I overreached. That’s how you learn. You have to try things. I always felt if you’re going to go into the record studio, you should try it. Try something you’re not sure about. Try it. Give it a shot. Why not? If you don’t like it, don’t put it out. It’s only going to take four minutes. Then go do something else.
You did a great version of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” long ago. Which I loved, and heard before I ever heard Woody or Dylan or anyone else do it. You’ve had reverence for Woody for a long time.
Yeah. When I was a little kid, my parents were friends with these folks. The man was a blacklisted violinist in McCarthy time. He couldn’t play professional anymore because he’d been blacklisted. So he became [laughs] a camp counselor. But they were progressive people politically, and they laid all this stuff on me.
I was maybe four, five years old. And this man gave me the first guitar that I had. He brought it to the house one day because he knew I liked music and I had a good ear, maybe.
So I said, “What’s that ? What is it?” I didn’t know what it was. I was only four.
He said, “It’s a guitar. You know, you can learn to play it.”
So he gave me that, and they had the Woody Guthrie Folkways 10-inch LPs and the Leadbelly 10-inch LPs. Cisco Houston, and all that stuff. So I would borrow those things. I was 5, 6 years old. And memorize them. In the house.
And the third thing they had, these people [laughs] were the Pogo cartoon books. Full length books of these things. And that was a revelation to me, because the animals, the way they talked to each other and their jokes. And the lifestyles of these animals. And incredible drawings. The language was so colorful that I used to read these and memorize them. I still have them, those books.
So the combination of Folkways, those books and the guitar, I think that did it.
So did you start playing the guitar then?
Yeah, because my dad could chord on the thing. He could play C, G and D.
And he tuned it for you?
Yeah. Regular tuning. Cause he grew up in the Thirties and the knew how to play that basic guitar style. I asked him how to play it. It was a four-string guitar. He said, “Well,you put your hand here and you have G. Put two fingers down you got C, three fingers down you got D.”
I thought, well, I could do that. So then I would chord along with the Woody Guthrie record. Needle down, play along with it. So that must have been how I got started.
You must have had a good ear to figure out the key so you could play along.
I guess so. Yeah. I could remember everything. I had a good memory. Not so much now but in those days, I could remember anything anybody ever said to me. Or any tune I heard. First time I heard “Hey Porter” by Johnny Cash I was in third grade, at home listening to the radio. And it came on. So I remembered the lyric. One time through and I had all the lyrics. “Get this straight and don’t forget it.”
I know many other great songwriters, like Dylan and Tom Petty, had that kind of amazing recall of songs from a very young age.
I think that’s how your brain begins to function. I used to think it was like mowing a lawn with a lawnmower.You go down one way, you make a stripe in the grass, right?. Go down the other way, make another one. So that’s kind of like the music is doing. It’s cutting these furrows into the neurological pathways that stays there like a pathway that people walk on. You have to work at it, too. It won’t come automatically. You have to put some effort into it.
So that was a little tenor guitar you had?
It was a tenor, but it was a good sized guitar. It was about the size of a single-O Martin. But it only had four strings. Then, after they saw that got me a six-stringer. A Martin 00-18.
So you started on a good guitar.
It was okay. It was very disappointing to me that it didn’t ring out like the records did. I didn’t know why. I couldn’t understand it. I could hear those guitars ring out. I didn’t know they were bigger guitars. Or perhaps better guitars. Older guitars. The lure of all the mythology of instruments, that came to me later on. I had to learn that from people.
Did you write songs when you were a kid?
Oh God, no! Never occurred to me to write them. I thought I should learn the old style, learn the language. You have to learn the language to be authentic, or realistic. You can put the wrong vocabulary in there. Up to a point the vocabulary felt realistic, like people talking to each other. And that’s how they wrote songs. But then when the vocabulary becomes too sophisticated, and too many innuendoes and things, and what people call post-modern, or whatever you call it. Then I don’t like it so well.
So the trick was to feel you could use the language as it had been used. When I say authentic, I mean it should feel right. And if you’re a white kid from Santa Monica, for Chrissakes, how are you supposed to that? I didn’t have hillbilly uncles who talked that way. Nobody in Santa Monica talked that way. Hardly anybody. Maybe some of the aircraft workers out near where we lived.
It was radio. The main thing I was trying to learn about was bluegrass, gospel music and blues. The way those hillbillies talked and sang on all those great bluegrass records. When bluegrass appeared on LP, that’s when we in the west could hear them. We weren’t going to bluegrass shows like they had in the South. Didn’t have them out here, until later.
But the LPs came. And then you could hear Flatt & Scruggs, and you could hear Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin and all that. And that was a whole education. Oh my gosh! And the quartet singing on those records, and the harmonies. I was obsessed! I got a Master Tone banjo, I said to myself, I’m going to be a banjo player. I’m gonna learn bluegrass banjo and that’s what I’m gonna do. It didn’t happen. But I thought that it might.
But you did learn how to play banjo?
Yeah, I could play alright. Now I can’t. What happened was, in the course of things, I saw there was no future in that, because I was too far from the source. So I had to stick with the electric. And high school is when I started working. Because of folk-rock down here, you had the ability and chance to record, and the opportunity to be involved in recording as a sideman. And you found you could make money. Jesus, you mean people would pay you to do this? Unbelievable! And that’s when I saw the future. And it was not as a banjo player, no way.
On guitar were you mostly self-taught?
I had people show me things. I had the luck to be able to encounter people who might help me understand. And I spent a lot of time playing to the records. Of course.
But no teacher ever?
Oh no, no. People tried to teach me to read the page and understand theory. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be taught. I think there was something about me that resisted being taught anything.I didn’t like school, I didn’t like the teachers, I didn’t like the whole set-up. I wanted to do it myself. So I found that I could. The only thing is – it takes longer. If you’re going to go on your own, it’s going to take you awhile.
Did someone lead you to open tuning, or did you discover that on your own?
As a matter of fact, it was John Fahey that showed me. Because I said, “I don’t understand what this thing is that slides around. What is that?”
[With British accent] “It’s a bottleneck,” he says.
I said, “Well how do you do it?”
“You’ve got to get a bottleneck. Then you tune your guitar to a chord.”
“Well, how do you do that?”
So he showed me. Then Tom Paley showed me some more of that sort of stuff. And I liked it. It’s a big sound. Twice as big.
When you play slide guitar, that sound is so distinctive to you. It’s like a voice singing.
That’s the thing you’re shooting for, I think. That’s why people like it. They like that vibrato and the bowing of it. It’s like a violin being bowed. It’s sort of similar. You slide the thing around the note. But you have to hit a good note, too. You can’t just slide. I don’t have to understand these people who are always flat, it’s awful. [Laughs]
If I was to teach somebody I’d say, “Take all the strings off except the high E. Then just play me one note, and I’ll see you in a year. You know what I mean? But get that note. But make it a good rich note. Otherwise you sound like the emergency door at the veterinarian hospital.
That’s great advice. And coming from Ry Cooder, worth listening to.
That’s how I would show somebody. That’s not how I learned. But I think it would be helpful. It would be so much better than to get so distracted. But people are in a hurry now. I don’t think they spend the time. So if you’re gonna be in a hurry, you’re not gonna get there as well.
They don’t listen. You have to listen to what the hell you’re doing.If you’re flat, you’re flat. Don’t you hear that? I want to tell that to some people sometime. Can’t you tell that it’s so flat? No. [Laughs]
I don’t think they can.
No, I guess not. It’s sad.
Some of your solos, such as the one on “Harbor of Love,” are so beautiful.
Oh thanks. That was a good one, actually.
Do you ever work out a solo in advance?
Oh, no, no. Never. You just play until you like it. But it takes a certain mindset. I have to do something to my brain to calm myself down to do it. If I don’t, I can’t. Then I’ll overplay and play the wrong things, and it won’t be that. But that tune, “Harbor of Love,” it’s always been a trance tune for me. It puts you in a mood. Then you can play and sing. You know what I mean? You follow the mood of the piece, I think, just to be simple about it. .
How do you get to that place?
I don’t know. You’ve got to let it happen to yourself, if you can. Don’t be distracted. In other words, get into it, for Chrissakes. That’s what they always used to say. Get into it. You’re playing your instrument, so do it already. Or singing. Feel it. If you don’t feel it, don’t do it. Go do something else. Run around the block or get a sandwich. But I mean, if you feel it, then you will do that thing. It will be your expression.
Of course, if you don’t have the inner resources, it won’t matter so much. [Laughs] But for heaven’s sake, listen to gospel music. Those people are not faking it. Especially that music – not now – but it used to be that that music was not about performance. It is now. I blame Disney and everything. But in those days, those people were really on it. Like Reverend Jeter and the Swan Silvertones. Listen to that guy. That’s real. The country music people, too. They’re living those songs, they don’t just learn them to perform them, for Chrissakes, it’s about the kind of life they had. You know what I mean. And that’s really where it’s at.
When we were traveling with Ricky, and the sisters, Sharon and Cheryl (White), would sing, you know, it was a true statement. They don’t just style these tunes, for Chrissakes.
Yes. And speaking of the beauty of voices, the sound of your voices with these great gospel singers on the new album is so rich and beautiful. Terry Evans, Arnold McCuller, Bobby King.
You know, we’ve done this a long time. Terry Evans was 86. You know what? He died. About three months ago. We hardly finished the record when he died. That’s the end of that for me. I’ve been with him forty years.
Oh listen, It’s a new day. I don’t have these people to tour with me now. I have to go out and find replacements. You talk about a difficult problem. That music has changed a lot.
I know. But you captured it on this album. That combination of their soulful voices in harmony with your voices, plus your guitar playing, and Joachim’s textures, adds up to such a rich album sonically. Especially when there are so many albums we hear that are not sonically pleasing at all, this sounds especially great. Soon as I put it on, it felt so good to hear it.
Well, that’s the other thing. We go to great lengths to make sure it’s gonna sound good sonically. The recording, and what the equipment is, it’s all important. And you get the best out of it you can.
Yes. And seems like your son shares that with you.
Yeah. Well, listen, he’s born in it. He heard so much music in the womb, I think he was born knowing. I’m convinced of it.
“Gentrification” was based on one of Joachim’s tracks. Does he create these using a lot of looping?
Yes. Yes, that’s what he does. He’ll lay a little pattern down, and loop that, then lay another one on top of that, and he keeps going.
Did you loop any guitar parts?
No, no, I never do that. [Laughter]
I didn’t think so! Which is part of the beauty of this album. The track for that song, for example, with all his layers, and all your guitar parts intertwined. It is remarkable.
I started with an electric mandocello thing. Then I put down two tracks of the open-tuned electric guitar capoed up real high, sort of chimey sounding. And just went ahead with it, as I say, without too much thought. And finally, I got it where I can do this – it’s only taken a lifetime so I can get that done to where I like it, to where I know it’s good. Rather than, oh Christ, there’s problems and I have to fix them. Now you’ve got to edit, now you’ve got to change this. So I really don’t have those worries anymore. I’m better at it now. You know? [Laughter]
Well, you were already pretty good. It does seem like you have a great collaborator in Joachim. And to have that lyric of “Gentrification” with that track is great. And as someone who has lived here in L.A. for so many years, I love that you wrote it.
Well, it’s such a hateful subject. I’ve worn myself out over the years hating that whole idea of what’s happened to Los Angeles, and to Santa Monica where we live, and finally, you know what happens. You just get worn out. In fact, Joachim said, “Don’t be bitter anymore. Don’t do that.” It’s funny. It’s stimulating in a way, because you come up with stuff that’s amusing out of being bitter. But, he said, “You’ve done that now. Try a different tact. [Laughs] Try a different way.”
So I thought since the track was funny, with the whistling, it’s amusing. So I figured the guy is a guy – there are so many in L.A. – who can’t pay the rent anymore. And here come the Googles, or somebody, and they’re gonna turn some old building into luxury lofts and kale martini bars. So I tried to get that down. And thought it might be a funny song and might work out pretty good.
I love the lyric. About all the new development among the junkies and the ho’s.
Well, it’s true. They fill these lofts in L.A., luxury lofts for the post-industrial look, and you do have to crawl over the junkies and the ho’s outside on the sidewalk. And they even sell this as “Be part of the gritty urban scene!” In other words, don’t ignore it, capitalize on it. Almost like they’re extras from central casting.
Oh my god, they’ve ruined it. They’ve destroyed it. It took them many decades to do it, but they’ve destroyed the texture of Los Angeles once and for all. And it’s horrible, it’s pathetic. There I go!
I, too, mourn for all that was demolished. So many unique, remarkable places gone.
Yes. Having torn down all the Googie coffee shops L.A. was famous for, and which everybody loved and which tourists would love, they’re gone. So what are they gonna do now? They make them over in virtual realities like Universal Citywalk and all that. It’s unbelievable. It’s pitiful.
I mean, didn’t you see this coming? Do you have any answer at all? The answer is no.
There are those who remember – and have reverence – for what matters. Like you always have. Even this album reflects that spirit. And in this day and age, not a lot of people are still making great albums.
Well, you make these things. But if anybody gonna buy them? You don’t make them just to exercise yourself. You make them for the public or you wouldn’t bother. Alright, so then you say, okay, I want to get the word out if I can, I want to get the record out of I can. But is anybody listening? Does anybody care? I mean, other than some people, like maybe yourself or something.
We’re going to tour. We’re going out in June. I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I mean, if people want records or they don’t want records. I just don’t know.
Seems like people are hungering for the real thing. To see you play live with a band, that is special. I think people are dying to see you play live.
Well great. Then we’ll do okay. [Laughs] That’s encouraging. We’re gonna do it. We’re going to go out there and try to handle it for the people. I know we can play well, it’s just a matter of having to do it. Anyone who’s trying to put a tour together at age 71 might be a little crazy.
People don’t know that it’s hard work touring.
Yeah. And I don’t have a machine that’s ready to start up. I had to get it all done from scratch. Just me and Joachim and add on to it.
So Joachim’s on drums on the tour?
Oh, of course. Nobody else. I wouldn’t do it if he wouldn’t do it. He’s got a new baby. Four days old. And my little granddaughter’s 2 ½.
Thank you. And we have to leave them behind. Gonna go out and make some money. Put some beans in the pot, as Terry used to say.
Joachim’s drumming is great. He has this great free-form, great groove. There’s not a typical backbeat on anything.
Oh no, he would never do that. [Laughs] We just go. And what he feels, he plays. And he swings like mad. He’s got this nice easy touch. It’s what it has to be. It’s what it should be. If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t do it. I really wouldn’t bother. I’d just sit home. Sit in my chair and play guitar. But when we get going, it’s pretty cool. It’s really good.
Even with all the modern distractions, the new technology and the way people hear music these days, it seems that the song still matters. You’re someone who has always had so much reverence for songs. Do youthink songs will always matter, and is always going to be part of being a human?
Well, yes I do. If that’s true biologically, perhaps so. Maybe it’s part of being human.
But I’ve got to tell you. We won’t name names, but there are these modern songwriters. And the trend is to minimize the idea of what a song is. To knock it down to two notes. [Laughs] This kind of weird banality. It’s like you say, “Well, today I do the following…” And you call that a song? Or just this reduction kind of thing, where there’s nothing in the pot anymore. Well, you just boiled it all out. What is this then?
Is it just me cause I’m grumpy? Joachim says he feels the same way. He’s 40 years old. So what the hell’s going on here? Where’s the tune? Where’s the melody? Where’s the poetry? Why is that so not in evidence? You can’t blame hip-hop for everything.
Is it the fault of the digital world? I think, maybe, because everything happens too fast, that you don’t build a craft, you don’t build artistry in yourself. And you don’t listen. If you don’t listen to music, all music, I don’t see how you know. It’s like a child learning to talk without having heard people speaking. What are you gonna do, start talking in abbreviations, like texting? And that’s exactly what’s happening.
It would be like never reading a book. If you don’t read books and you don’t understand experience, how the hell can you write about it and sing about it? Or you’re just going to end up writing about yourself. Then it’s like everybody’s in a closet with themselves, and it’s very limited and it’s very unappealing and I don’t like it.
So you say what’s happening with songs. Music is fundamental and it is human. That’s exactly what it is.
So the question is will there come a time when the Beethoven string quartet will cease to have meaning? Because people can’t relate to them anymore. They won’t understand their role or their lives vis a vis those notes. Is it irrelevant? Can Bach become irrelevant? Can Jimmy Van Heusen [laughs] become irrelevant? I think so. Picasso. Is he going to speak to people? Or are they just going to think it’s weird? We’ll see about that. Time will tell.
All those songwriters from the Van Heusen era, they felt rock and roll destroyed songwriting first, even before hip-hop. Do you agree?
Well, sure. That’s right. It knocked a lot of the underpinning out. I like “Summertime Blues” as much as the next guy. Cause it’s such a great tune. The story’s amazing. It’s a really funny song. And it’s a great little record. But it isn’t Jimmy Van Heusen. [Laughs] And it isn’t Yip Harburg. Or none of those guys.
Nowadays, you know, I can’t relate. I’m 71 today. More and more I feel like just sitting in my chair and not going out. And Joachim, he comes to me and he says, “No, don’t do that.”
So I’m getting that you’re not optimistic about the future of the popular song?
No, I’m not. My favorite statement is Pete Seeger’s last public remark before he died. He said, “I have no hope. I could be wrong.”
I’ll leave it at that.
Review of Prodigal Son: https://americansongwriter.com/ry-cooder-the-prodigal-son/hal-horowitz/