10 Minutes With Ry Cooder
Journeyman guitarist yes, ethnomusicologist maybe
By Jim Caligiuri,
9:00AM, Thu. Sep. 17, 2015
Ry Cooder’s career has taken him from working with the Rolling Stones to winning awards with Cuban supergroup the Buena Vista Social Club and recording in Africa with Ali Farka Touré. Tuesday he fills the Paramount with bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs, Skaggs’ wife and gospel singer Sharon White, and her 85-year-old Texan father Buck pounding piano.
Austin Chronicle: People often describe you as an ethnomusicologist. Is that something you cultivated?
Ry Cooder: I don’t consider myself anything like that. People that have that title, let’s say, those are academics. They give degrees in that. I’m just a musician. I’m just a player. I play what I feel, and like, and try to learn things. I’ve always tried to learn things. If something caught my ear, I’d go check it out and get into it if I could. That’s something musicians do, for heaven’s sake. Especially in the United States, because this is a country of hybrid cultures where nothing stays the same. It's always evolving and moving.
A musician can do what he wants. Classical musicians have to stick with the literature and all that, right? But we vernacular musical types, we can do what we want. Especially on guitar. A guitar is whatever you want to make of it. It isn’t a formalistic instrument like the piano or the bassoon.
AC: I disagree with that slightly. In the world of pop music, I think it’s frowned upon if you don’t stick with one thing.
RC: I don’t know anything about pop music to tell you the truth. Pop music is another world from me. I’m 68 now. I've been doing this for so long, a lifetime. I started playing the guitar when I was like 4 or 5. What it is, any type of creative expression has a lot to do with your inclination, your intuition. That’s what you build on. So I could have been a jazz musician if I had that kind of brain, but I don’t [laughs].
When I was a little kid, I wanted to join Hank Snow’s band or Ray Price’s band and be a guitar player in night clubs and honky-tonks. It didn't happen. What really happens, I’ve found, is you just meander along. Opportunities come up if you’re lucky, and I was coming up in a time when there were real good opportunities to work and make a living. It had a lot to do with living in L.A. The record business was here.
It was fate in a way. I wanted to know about things. To me, it wasn’t about nailing down some career path. It was more about figuring how instruments work and the people that do it. People are the most interesting part. It’s just a question of luck and opportunity and sticking with it.
AC: You were acquainted with Ricky Skaggs before this project came along. Is that accurate?
RC: I’d say we were acquaintances.
AC: And you’ve said it’s become a band. Are you surprised by that?
RC: I’m not entirely surprised. What took me by surprise is Buck White, the old dad on piano. I didn’t know he would be included. Then when he came down, “Do you want to hear Buck play piano?” “Yeah, man, let’s hear it.” The guy comes from West Texas, dance hall pianist. It opened up the whole thing up.
First of all, it’s a forgotten and lost art the way he does it. It’s masterful, incredible. So fluid and eclectic, and rhythmically sensational. This to me created a platform for everything we wanted to do. Now we sound like a great dance band that happens to do gospel tunes.
AC: You don’t have to be religious to appreciate good gospel music.
RC: That’s right. Each of the songs we’ve chosen are miniature masterpieces. Great musical statements, especially when sung in four-part harmony. It’s absolutely airtight and they rock. This stuff has a lot of momentum. It’s got power. It’s so much fun to play – suavecito. Everything is very nice. It just rolls out. The melodies are so great. It gives you something to do on your instrument, something to work with.
AC: Was there any hesitancy from Ricky in participating in this?
RC: He seemed very open to it, and when the idea took hold we just went for it. There was no hemming and hawing. It’s evolved, of course. We add songs. We change arrangements perhaps. But the more we do it, the better it sounds – the more realistic it is. It’s not some kind of two-headed beast that you can’t deal with. It fits together really good.
AC: You both had some interaction with Bill Monroe when you were very young.
RC: [Laughs] He definitely did. I think he spent a great deal of time working with him or just knowing him. Ricky was a prodigy on the mandolin. I knew Monroe only to see him. He would come to the West Coast to play festivals in the Sixties. I did play with him a little and paid attention to him. In those days things were smaller and there was more of an opportunity to get around such people, to get close and talk to them.
You can’t do those things now. Then you could go up to somebody like Carter Stanley and say “hello.” That gave you some insight into what people were like and what they do, which was just great.
I did play banjo with Bill and he told me I wasn’t ready. I knew it was true so I didn’t pursue it at that time. Now I’m playing it in this show. Ricky told me to bring it and it’s opened up some new tunes for us, which is really thrilling.
AC: No offense, but getting back to ethnomusicology, it’s to be commended that you’ve turned people that follow you onto all the different types of music that you’ve been interested in or come upon.
RC: Well sure, if you do something like the Cuban stuff [Buena Vista Social Club], people say, “I didn't know that existed and isn’t it interesting?” I’d say go get the old records. Same with the bluegrass. Go get Reno & Smiley or Jimmy Martin if you want to hear something good.
Whether they do or not, the world of recorded music is so amazing. It can be heard. That’s how we came up with a lot of the music for this show. It’s on YouTube. I’d send Ricky some, and he’d send me some. There’d be a black and white clip of the Stanley Brothers or something. It’s just a real good resource.