Ry Cooder: The Prodigal Son Returns


By Brian Wise.


Ry Cooder’s last album, Election Special in 2012, was a full-on assault on the faults in the United States political system. I noted at the time that he was one of the few musicians who were commenting on record and it seemed odd that it was mainly left up to veterans like Cooder and others to make a point.

Now, Cooder has returned – just like a musical prodigal son – with his sixteenth studio album (at an average of one every three years) and his first fully-fledged North American tour for 9 years. It is an album to gladden the hearts of all of his fans, and maybe win a few others over to his cause.

It seems notable that I speak by phone to Cooder on the occasion of his seventy-first birthday, March 15. The first thing I ask him is why he is working on this day. “I don’t know,” he laughs, as if the event hadn’t occurred to him beforehand. Later, he tells me that he will be having dinner with his family to celebrate.

I guess the fact that we have only 30 minutes set aside to talk, instead of the 45 minutes on which he usually insists, means that today he is not working quite so hard! Any conversation with Cooder seems only limited by how much time you have to spend with him. It is a remarkable contrast to most interviews organised by record companies or PR people where you are often limited to a maximum of 15 minutes, which can be extremely frustrating most of the time and a welcome relief only on a very few occasions.

I don’t like to ask Cooder what he has been doing for the past half-decade as I assume he has been busy in his studio, so I simply note that it is good to have him back.

“I’m glad to be back,” he replies, explaining that his son Joachim, who also plays drums on the album and has been a collaborator for many years, suggested he get back to recording.”

“What do you think I should be doing? What should I be looking at?” asked Cooder and he explains that his son responded by saying, “Well, you did all that political stuff…..so why don’t you just play some guitar and do like you used to do?”

“Just so long as it has that kind of sound that you used to like to do,” responded Joachim who,

in essence, suggested that Cooder go back to the sorts of things he was doing in the ‘70s: recording a batch of favourite songs and the occasional original using a great studio band. It is a strategy that will gladden the hearts of all Cooder fans who loved albums such as Paradise & Lunch and Chicken Skin Music.

Cooder’s new album tackles some of the same problems but in a more obtuse way. In the ‘70s’ he recorded Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ and now he adds Reed’ ‘You Must Unload.’ He also includes The Pilgrim Travelers’ ‘Straight Street,’ Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right’ and ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine,’ ‘I’ll Be Rested When The Roll Is Called,’ by Blind Roosevelt Graves, Carter Stanley’s ‘Harbor of Love’ and more. Sounds like another classic Ry Cooder album, right?

When Cooder asked his son what approach he should take, Joachim had a simple answer: “Just play.”

“Stay away from the bitter harangue,” added Joachim. “Don’t get mad. It’s bad for you to get mad.”

I tell Cooder that in the Trump era I thought that he might possibly be even madder.

“Well, no,” he replies. “It’s a matter of self-regulating too. For a while, I was just fuming and fussing about politics. But nowadays, what I see is, it’s like, ‘Okay, just skip it.’ There’s nothing you can do. People are upset, they don’t like the regime, they don’t like things that are happening, but I cannot risk mental health and physical health in banging your head against the wall. That’s not a good idea when it comes to music. Let’s find something more comforting, let’s find something a little more positive and go down that road.

“So, once I said that to myself, then I thought, ‘You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to sing these gospel songs. I love them the most,’ especially after being on tour with Ricky Skaggs and the White family. They encouraged me to sing the gospel tunes, which I’d never felt I really should be doing, because I wasn’t a born gospel singer by any means. But they kept saying, ‘No, we like what you do. Do it!’ And we were singing these things on stage, and I got to feeling a little more secure, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll try these songs, but I have to figure out how to do it so it’s not me trying and failing to match up to the old records and things, so let’s see what I can come up with.

“But it was an idea that I had. You know, I like the songs the most. It’s the most interesting and fun to play and sing, of all the music that I know. So, damned if I’m not gonna do it. I’m old enough and I’ve done enough, and who’s to say it’s wrong? I’m just gonna do it!”

In many respects the new album harks back to what Cooder was doing in the 1970s where he was bringing attention to a range of non-mainstream musical styles – such as Tex Mex, gospel and jazz – that were in danger of becoming obscure.

“Well, the guitar and the rhythm, that’s true,” agrees Cooder. “The guitar’s the same. I mean, I’ve always played this kind of stuff. You see what I mean? The instrumentation for me is the same.

“It’s always been this, ever since I was a teenager, started this way of playing sort of. So that hasn’t changed. I got better at it, I think, but it’s the same idea. You sit down with your instrument, and you say, Here I go! [singing]I used to live on Broadway, and play the song

“The difference, this time was, though, rather than try all the tunes from scratch, I had Joachim’s background tracks to play over, these things that he’s come up with. They’re sort of tone centres, and they give me a kind of a different platform. And that way, I can sing into those tracks and avoid some of the problems of trying to sing, for instance, ‘Straight Street’ as it was originally recorded by The Pilgrim Travelers. Well, nobody should do that, you know? You just shouldn’t. Let that alone. Classic form. Let that alone and do it a different way.

“So, what is that? Well, Joachim has these tracks that he makes for himself and I borrow them. And they’re very conducive, they’re very meditative, and it gets me in a good frame of mind. So, I feel relaxed, and I’m happy to do it, and then I sing better. Then I can play anything I want to. You know, I can play mandolin, banjo, or however I may do it. So that’s how we sort of went about it. That’s where he helped.”

“Obviously,” he replies when I mention that he must enjoy working with his son Joachim.  “Because he’s helpful that way. He can help me see in a new way, look at these things differently.”

Joachim has released recordings with his partner Juliette Commagere and we saw them together in Australia with Ry on tour but he has also recently released his debut solo album, Fuchsia Machu Picchu on which Ry appears. (The first video for the album is directed by Zack Whedon, brother of Joss (AvengersBuffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly).

“He’s perfected the style of these, layering these mbira instruments, which I could never describe, you’d have to see,” says Ry. “I play with him in some of his shows. I play bass, he likes me on bass. I like the bass very much, it’s a great instrument to play, so much fun. So much different from guitar, so I like that. And we do those little jobs sometimes.”

They have been doing a series of gigs in the USA promoting The Prodigal Son and have a few more gigs in July and August before heading off to Europe in October. Their work together in the studio seems very much a collaboration.

“I got more familiar with what he was doing,” explains Cooder. “He would have a track and I’d hear it and I’d say, ‘Well, is that your song? Have you got lyrics?’ And if he said yes, he had lyrics, then I’d leave it alone. If he says, ‘Well, I just did this, I don’t have lyrics,’ I said, ‘Well, let me have it, let me use it.’ So, we did ‘Harbor of Love’ that way, and ‘Straight Street’ and, of course, ‘Gentrification’ was a track that he had that I thought was funny. So I thought, ‘I’ll do a funny song about the destruction of Los Angeles, rather than be angry and bitter and hateful, hating it, I’m gonna be … make a funny little story out of it, like a cartoon.’

“So that’s the influence of his work on the thing, you see? That helps me do something new and interesting. And yet, play the same. I mean, I’m just the same old guy, playing the guitar the same. That never changed that much. That’s always gonna be there.”

Cooder has said that the song ‘Shrinking Man’ was a deft commentary on the ailing moral state of the world.

“That’s right,” he says. “Sure. Well, remember the book. I mean, the original Shrinking Man story was a very kind of hidden … there was a subtext.” The Shrinking Man, a 1956 novel by Richard Matheson, was also made into the film The Incredible Shrinking Man a year later.

“Yes, the guy was shrinking,” explains Cooder, “and as he did, he left the world, a sort of sterile, middle-class, American suburban life behind, and he was thrust into this primitive state. The tarantula’s after him, and the rat is after him, the cat is after him, whoever is after him. He got smaller and smaller, and as he got smaller and smaller, he found new ways to go about living, you know, new ways you might still exist.

“Which is a good message, if we look at it vis a vis such things as sweatshops and stoop labour out in the lettuce fields. In other words, where are you getting your stuff from? You’re a consumer. You buy things, you eat things. Who makes those things? Who produces that? What labour was required to put that head of lettuce on your table there, see? It’s an old question. And labour has not gotten easier.

“We think in terms of automation and robots and whatnot, but the truth is, that the working man and the working woman still has as much a tougher time as they used to. And with the destruction of unions and collective bargaining, especially with our, of America, our new regime that we have here, this insane regime that we have, what is going to happen to poor people and working people? How are they going make it?

“And so, the Shrinking Man says, ‘You know, I don’t want people to make my shoes, 14-year-olds making my shoes in Mexico or Malaysia or something. And I don’t want to see these poor people out in the lettuce fields breathing in the pesticides.’ I mean, this is something I think about, we all think about it. Nobody does anything about it. They still buy sweatshop Adidas shoes or whatever. And lip service is given to the destruction of the workforce here in America, it’s only obvious, you see.”

The struggle of the working class is a theme that Cooder has pursued for his entire career from the songs on his early albums such as Blind Alfred Reed’s ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’ – which he also sang in concert when we saw him here – right through to Election Special and the new album where he tackles another Alfred Reed song, ‘You Must Unload.’

“That’s certainly true,” he agrees. “We were doing this on tour with Ricky [Scaggs] and the Whites. We were doing ‘You Must Unload’, and people were really responding to it, standing up before it was done. I mean, it had a tremendous impact. Joachim said, ‘Well, you’d better record that.’

“In the gospel field – white and black – some people stand out. There are certain people that stand out, and I’ve always thought that Reed was one of the key guys. His songs were unique to himself, he was not a generic writer, he’s real unusual. I thought, ‘Yes, we have a way of doing this tune, let’s just do this.’ It came out great. I mean, it’s a real fine sounding piece, I think, with Aubrey Haynie’s fiddle and everything, it’s just terrific.”

“So, I went back to some of these sources from before that I like, to try to select material for the record, you know? I’m going to comb through it again. It was quite interesting. I hadn’t thought about ‘Straight Street’ for years, used to like that song. And, of course, ‘Harbor of Love’ by Carter Stanley and the Stanley Brothers, is one of the greatest white gospel tunes of all time, I think so. The melody and the lyrics, oh man, it’s just a … It’s a real trance song, it really puts you in an interesting mood. Done here very differently, of course, I mean it’s totally different than the original, but a favourite. In fact, I was sitting around the house the last couple years singing that song, and I wondered why. I asked myself, ‘Why are you picking that one?’ So, well then, record it. Let’s just do it. Find a way to do it and do it.”

“I used to worry about those kind of songs,” confesses Cooder who thought, ‘I can’t sing that stuff. I better not. The wise man would stay away from such things, you can’t pull that off.’

“But I think it came out okay,” he admits, adding, “It’s alright for me, I’m 71 now.”

“That’s a really ancient song, I think,” says Cooder when I ask him about the title track, ‘The Prodigal son. “It’s probably 19th century. I heard it from…..The Heavenly Gospel Singers, that’s who it was, that’s who did it. They were on Bluebird. They were in an early quartet, even before the Golden Gate Quartet, they were very popular. Fantastic group, with a lead bass singer. Imagine, a lead bass singer back then!

“So, Joachim had a track with the rhythm. He says, ‘Do something with this track, this good beat. It’s a good swinging beat.’ So, I said, ‘Well, I know what goes over top of that, is ‘The Prodigal Son.’ But there’s no lyrics. There’s only like two verses and a chorus. So, I made up the whole story about the guy. The prodigal son ends up in Bakersfield, listening to Lynn Stewart and Ralph Mooney on steel, and finds that this is a kind of faith … It’s a crazy idea, but it popped into my head one day, and I thought,  Well, I’m just gonna sing it, I’m not gonna worry about it. Just do it.”

Cooder recorded a song called ‘I’ll Be Rested’ by Blind Roosevelt Graves and during my reading I found a claim that Graves and his brother recorded what was considered to be one of the first rock ‘n’ roll records in ‘Crazy About My Baby,’ released back in 1929.

“Really? I don’t know that one,” admits Cooder. “I’m gonna look that up! ‘Crazy About My Baby’ was Blind Roosevelt Graves? I’ll be damned. I never knew that. Yeah, he recorded with his brother. ‘Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother,’ it says. So, we don’t even know the brother’s name. But I didn’t know he did that, I’m gonna look that up. That’s good to know.”

I suggest to Cooder that he obviously spends a lot of time listening and researching old songs.

“These tunes here are old favourites,” he responds. “You might say saved up. That’s kind of how it goes. You think, ‘Well, I used to like this and now I’m gonna try it.’ I’ve known that song since I was about twelve but it never occurred to me to record it. I just liked it. ‘I’ll Be Rested,’ I’ve liked that for a long time. Even made a different version of it for the Mavis Staples Freedom Song record, wrote all new words. But after all this time goes by and you know which ones you like, my idea was, let’s just do it. Let’s not worry about it, let’s just sing it. So, why not? Let’s just take a chance with these tunes. They’re great songs, and if you’ve liked them all this time, then that’s a good enough reason.”

The song ‘Jesus and Woody’ is an original by Cooder and his son and reflects the fact that on his past few albums he has been doing what Woody did, writing about problems that afflict ordinary folk. In fact, on Election Special many of the songs seem inspired by Woody, so Guthrie is obviously someone that you think about

“I’ve been reading some political books lately,” says Cooder, “and I thought about Woody going, ‘This land is your land, the other one fascists bound to lose.’ Well, if Woody were around today, what would he be saying? ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work out that way.’ The fascists are winning more than they’re losing. We have it again. It’s a kind of a thing that never goes away.

“You know, when Woody was writing those tunes around World War II, the common belief was that, well, we beat fascism. The killers are gone. Hitler’s gone, Mussolini’s gone. And everybody really believed that, they thought, I know they did. I remember my parents believed this. We beat fascism in the war.

“Well, we didn’t, the truth is. Now we know better. It’s like a spore. It went down into the soil and now it’s come back up in the form of race hatred….Why would you say a wall between Mexico and the United States, and all of this bad thinking and all of this divisiveness? This is the thing about fascism, divide and conquer, and that’s exactly what’s being practised in this country right now. I’m not gonna speak about other countries, okay? But I know what I’m seeing here. People have predicted this, that it would come back, and that it would re-emerge.

“So then, we say, Jesus, up in heaven, says to Woody, ‘You know, remember your tune, This Land Is Your Land, and Fascists Bound to Lose? You were a dreamer. You dreamed a dream. Well, I did too. I’m … Let’s say, we were dreamers. It didn’t happen. It didn’t work out the way you planned.’

“So that was my idea, so that’s a nice idea, I like that idea. Just to make a comment. I’m not going sit there and sing, ‘Goddamn, the fascists are back.’ I don’t wanna sing that. Joachim said, ‘Don’t go down that road.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m gonna take it from another point of view, then, I’m gonna say, you know, Jesus and Woody sitting around, musing, and remembering old times.’ Well, guess what? We both had hope. We both were optimistic about human nature and about humanity in general, the things we could teach people, and we could work it out and that they would do the right thing, but they didn’t. Now that’s only obvious. So, that’s the thought behind that tune.”

‘Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right,’ a Blind Willie Johnson song, addresses the subject of the proposed border wall.

“Well, it certainly does,” agrees Cooder. “Where that tune comes from, who knows? When Blind Willie recorded a lot of the stuff that he cut way back, my guess is, he heard these tunes, or he adapted these tunes, they were probably old when he knew them, or had learned them or formulated them. That’s how it went in those days.

“So, it’s possibly that it’s taken, it’s extrapolated from biblical scriptures, I don’t know. I don’t know what the origin would be. But from our point of view now, where the song says, ‘If you treat the stranger badly, you drive him away,’; whereas, we should accept him in your home, it’s very timely. And it’s a good song. It’s very rousing. All Blind Willie material is good, all the songs are good. And you can really play them. They’re sort of in a modality that lets you just go for it. I like to do them.

But that tune……..they’re starting up this whole thing now about excluding people. What do you mean? Throwing people out of the country? They shut down the state department so hard that you can’t get a passport? I mean, what is going on? Dysfunction is what’s going on. Insanity is what’s going on.

But still, the musical context is good. You can take that song any way you want to but you’re bound to say to yourself, Well, treat a stranger right. It’s better than hating the stranger, it’s better than wanting to hurt the stranger, you know? We don’t want to do that. Why would you do that? Yet, that kind of hatred is being promoted, here, right now in this country. I’m telling you, it’s very thick, very bad. It’s a heck of a dang deal, is what it is.

Before we close our conversation, I have to ask Cooder about the cover of The Prodigal Son which looks like a photo from the 1930’s which might have been on the cover of an old detective novel.

“Well, what that is a picture I came across, taken probably in 1928,” explains Cooder. “That’s downtown Los Angeles. That’s the Second Street tunnel which was had been opened under Bunker Hill and you see this little guy going to work. It’s morning, you can tell by the shadow that it’s the early morning, and he’s walking to work, he’s got his cheap suit and his little hat. And it’s a beautiful picture. I mean, the geometry of this fantastic image. But that, to me, is the prodigal. He’s somebody, just an ordinary person going out, seeing if he can’t find something. What’s he going to find out in the world? What’s he gonna discover?”

“And we had a very hard time figuring out how to package this record, you know,” continues Cooder. “It wasn’t obvious to me. But I’ve saved a lot of things over the years, a lot of imagery, a lot of graphics, a lot of sources. I’ve got a house full of all kinds of books and old material, old archival stuff; you can hardly walk through the house anymore. So, then I remembered this picture, dug it up, you know. And it really sets a mood. It really tells you a little something about this guy, seen from the back. You can see how little he is, how scrawny he is, with his head held just a certain way. So, it’s got a feeling to it I really like. Of course, old time Los Angeles interests me, since I hate and despise what it looks like now, I like to look back.”

I mention to Cooder that only the night before I was watching the film Chinatown which was set in 1937 in a Los Angeles that looked marvellous with orange groves and farms close to the city.

“It was. Oh, I’m sure it was,” agrees Cooder when I say the Los Angeles of 1937 looked fantastic. “You know, the light … the beautiful western light, with the ocean reflecting the light and the shadows the way they are. There was so much terrain, there was this oasis, areas of rural areas and then mixed with the urban, and the trolley cars you could take, and the hills meeting the ocean. I mean, come on. Before it was so crowded and the freeways … Los Angeles, before the freeways is really what it’s all about. So, after the ’60s, forget it.

“By now, it’s nothing but a swamp of malls and horrible architecture. I would just as soon never go out into it. Once you go out, you get stuck in traffic, you just run home. But if you look at old movies, which I do, you can see it. L.A. was where they shot films. I mean, you see, especially in the ’40s and ’50s, you can see this fantastic place. But, well, that’s another time. Like a lot of where this music comes from, it’s just another time.”           .

Are we likely to see Cooder back over here at any stage?

“Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ve had to kind of assemble this tour from scratch,” he replies. “I didn’t have a ready to go machine. I didn’t even have Terry Evans, I had to start all over again with just me and Joachim, but we have kind of made it up now. We’re just about ready to go. We have to rehearse and things, everybody. But, I tell you, we’re gonna hit the U.S. and take a look and see how we do. I’ll be interested to see what people think and what they like. And then if we do well and everything goes okay, then we might head off into other parts of the world, such as down where you are. We had good times there. I’m older now, you know I’m 71 today. I have to kinda be a little bit careful. When you get to be my age, you know, you gotta kind of watch and see.

Before we finish I ask Cooder if he is doing anything special for his birthday.

“Talking to you,” he laughs and then adds, “I’m doing this here. Then we’re going get together with Joachim and Juliette. The grandkids are next door, they live next door to us, and have a little sit-down together. But otherwise, every day I have to do things to prepare for this tour. Really, I tell you, I have to look at my equipment and I have to look at all kinds of stuff. Man, we just had to start from scratch. So, it’s busy. I’m busy. I gotta hustle.

The Prodigal Son is available via Concord/Warner Music.




Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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