Few musicians have been lucky enough, prescient enough and doggedly determined enough to call the artistic shots of their careers while sustaining those careers. For Ry Cooder, that’s how he’s done things for five decades. His vision and leadership skills have given the intangible entity called popular music some rather heady shots in the arm when it needed it the most. Cooder, along with another giant of musicianship who does things his own way, Ricky Skaggs, appear at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall this Thursday. Completing the trio is Susan White, of the venerable gospel group The Whites, in an evening of traditional and contemporary country and gospel music, with a bit of blues and bluegrass tossed in for flavor. Adding to the sounds are Joachim Cooder on drums and Mark Fain on bass.
Ry Cooder is the kind of musician who’s balanced on the edge of household name status. If an unheralded treasure of American roots music still exists, it’s certainly this award-winning roots guitarist. Though his publicist stated firmly that the interview was not to touch on his rich past career, a quick overview will not detract from his current tour with Skaggs and White.
Ry Cooder is a product of the California folk revival of the early 1960s, but his involvement and appreciation runs far deeper than the mainstream forms that were soft-peddled en masse during those turbulent years. “There was this early ’60s bluegrass thing centered around this little West Hollywood club called the Ash Grove,” says Cooder, “It made me want to get my first Gibson Mastertone banjo.” Quickly mastering the form, Cooder moved on to the infinite possibilities of country blues, learning at the feet of everyone from Doc Watson to Mance Lipscomb and scores of other legends who appeared at the club, in the process educating the herd of Californians who, a decade later, would be the superstars of country rock. That kind of success didn’t exactly elude Cooder; he never sought it out. His early band, The Rising Sons, featured a young Taj Mahal; they were the next big thing that never was in the L.A. scene. Cooder became a charter member of the hallowed Wrecking Crew of first-call studio musicians until his creativity was mixed out one too many times at a session. ”Everyone was so slick, polished and right on all the time, and laughing at me for not knowing what a diminished chord was,” he says, “…they also told me I would never work again when I quit Captain Beefheart.”
Shaking off popular tastes, as a sideman he navigated a delicate period of The Rolling Stones (recording with them in the space between Brian Jones and Mick Taylor), delved into Hawaiian music, tejano dance hall (he singlehandedly gifted the world with the brilliant accordionist Flaco Jiménez), evoked the tumult that was urban renewal and McCarthyism when the City Fathers of Los Angeles evicted a rich Chicano community in favor of a baseball stadium (“Chavez Ravine”) and unearthed a long-forgotten heritage of Cuban dance music in his epic, “Buena Vista Social Club” release and documentary — winning accolades and Grammys in the process.
A collaboration between Cooder and bluegrass king Ricky Skaggs seemed logical, if not likely. Both musicians are possessed of virtuosity, each with a different bent. Skaggs is incapable of making a wrong move and if there’s an heir to Bill Monroe’s legacy, Skaggs is the one. The contrast of this tour is one of an ethnic approach to music. Cooder has embraced music from all over the world while Skaggs, as good as he is, has for the most part stayed closer to home.
Folio Weekly Magazine: It seems an unlikely collaboration. How did it all start?
Ry Cooder: “I’ve been going in the [gospel] direction for quite some time. I surf YouTube a lot and I came upon some of this great old-time white gospel music from people like the Happy Goodman Family and The Louvin Brothers and, of course, The Whites. With the Whites being contemporary, it told me that this singing was alive and well. The singing always fascinated me but I was never too open to this music until I started learning some of the songs.
How did you connect with Ricky Skaggs?
I knew him only to say hi to him and knew him as a friendly guy, but I really didn’t know a way to approach him about the music.Then an opportunity arose — it was a benefit for Tony Rice [the guitarist who’s been plagued by muscular deterioration issues and has suffered escalating medical expenses and cannot perform] and so I asked Ricky if Joachim [Cooder’s percussionist son] and I could perform and so we were invited. That’s how it began.
And the current tour?
Well, we actually spent about a year getting used to each other and in that time I got to experience playing with The Whites, Susan, Sheryl and dad Buck White. So it was a way to connect in real time, so to speak. It became apparent to me that this isn’t just me, this was real good and maybe it was time to push it on down the road. Good enough to make it a reality.
You’ve been at this for a while — is there a release planned?
We’re thinking of a live record. That’s really the only way to capture the feeling, really. We’re carrying around recording gear to record off the soundboard every night. So we’re listening to the shows, trying to pick the best versions, the best grooves. Each time, it seems we hear things that we haven’t done before.
The vocal chops here are superlative. What’s your vocal role specifically?
It’s four-part gospel singing and I’m mostly doing bass parts. It’s best for me, I get to move around a lot.
Anything unusual on the set list? Will it be an all-gospel show?
We have a lot to draw from, but there’ll some different things, too; we do some old Jimmy Martin things.
Any a cappella?
[Laughs big.] Well, we may close with “I’ll be Reunited in Heaven,” but we’ll see.