Ry Cooder's Roots

From Tex-Mex to R&B — looking to the past for fame and fortune

Ry Cooder, Hammersmith Odeon, Circa November 1980 Credit: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty

A few weeks after Christmas, Ry Cooder hopped a plane for the Cajun country of southwestern Louisiana. Director Walter Hill had enlisted him to head down there to record part of the soundtrack to his latest film, Southern Comfort, and it was the sort of excursion Cooder loves to make. Even though it lasted only a couple of days, the guitarist was able to play with some of the region's finest musicians and immerse himself in the centuries-old French-American traditions that still prevail there.

"Ry was something else, not only as a musician, but as a human being," Dewey Balfa says of Cooder's visit. A fifty-four-year-old fiddle player, Balfa may well be the world's best-known Cajun musician. "To tell you the truth, I lost my brothers Will and Rodney in an auto accident a few years ago. I thought I never again would make a recording session and be in the same mood as when Rodney played rhythm guitar for me. But Ry made me feel like I was back in those days. As much as I like other music — country, bluegrass, some rock & roll — I can't get into the grooves because I'm too deeply rooted in my own music. But Ry can break away from his regular music. He just fell right in with us and lifted the group. I played like I hadn't played since my brother died."

With those few sentences, Dewey Balfa manages to sum up much of what makes Ry Cooder special. Though the very mention of words like curator, musicologist or archivist makes Cooder's skin crawl, he has done more than any other contemporary musician to bring the various strains of regional music into the pop mainstream. And, as Balfa's testimony illustrates, Cooder hasn't accomplished that feat just by duplicating the sound of other people's records. He's ventured out — to slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahinui in Hawaii, to bluesman Sleepy John Estes in Tennessee, to Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez in South Texas — learning the music firsthand. And the records that have resulted from those encounters haven't come off as studied re-creations of little-known art forms; rather, they've been accessible, contemporary and personal.

"I know a lot of musicians who like all kinds of music, but very few of them seem able to incorporate these elements into their own stuff and make it come out as a kind of personal music," says Chris Strachwitz, owner of the California-based Arhoolie Records, a label that specializes in regional and ethnic music. "Ry has what I call a composer's ear; he's able to hear things in a way in which they might reach more people. It's a lot like what some of the classical composers used to do when they'd incorporate elements of folk music into their compositions."

Even if he didn't have the most eclectic tastes around, or even if he weren't able to meld seemingly disparate forms of music into a unified and pleasing whole, Ry Cooder would still be a musician to be reckoned with. For Cooder is a brilliant bottleneck guitarist; his bending and blending of notes can make the instrument sound like it's talking or crying or laughing (just listen to his instrumental version of Ike and Tina Turner's "I Think It's Going to Work Out Fine" on 1979's Bop Till You Drop). As a rhythm guitarist, Ry may not possess a lot of technique — "People who have technique are like Pat Metheny," he says. "That, to me, is impossible" — but he is an economical player with an uncanny ability to create unique and interesting sounds.

"I sometimes think he must be playing with four hands," says drummer Jim Keltner, who has appeared on nine of Cooder's ten albums. Bassist Tim Drummond agrees. "When we're in the studio and he's playing, it's all I can do to keep playing my bass. I just want to stop and watch him."

Crimson Sound is a small rehearsal studio hidden away on an alley in Santa Monica just a few blocks from the ocean. Ry Cooder himself lives only a couple of miles from the studio — in a Spanish-style white-stucco house just off the Pacific Coast Highway near Sunset Boulevard — and he'd jogged to Crimson earlier in the morning to work out some material for an upcoming tour in support of his new album, Borderline. When I arrive, he is seated, oddly enough, behind a drum kit.

"You know 'Trouble You Can't Fool Me'?" he asks, referring to a track from Bop Till You Drop. "Well, there are certain things that song has to have: these off-time parts, these hits, have to come at a certain time, otherwise the song doesn't work. Often I'll tell my poor drummer something, and he won't understand what the fuck I'm talking about. It's tough to describe a part, so I gotta find ways to show him."

It's typical Cooder. Ry Cooder the perfectionist. Ry Cooder the arranger. Ry Cooder the man obsessed with searching for the perfect sound. Jim Keltner tells how during one of the sessions for Bop, Cooder heard the band make a sound he liked and proceeded to spend the day breaking everything down until he found out what caused it.

Ry fiddles around on the drums for a few more minutes, then moves over to a stool in front of his guitar amplifier. He's dressed in a baggy violet T-shirt, loose-fitting green slacks and gray running shoes, and his legs — Cooder stands over six feet tall — are spread out in front of him. ("The guy has long legs. And big feet," Keltner says. "When we're in the studio and he's standing behind a baffle, all I can see are his head and those gigantic running shoes sticking out.")

The forthcoming tour will be Cooder's first full-fledged set of U.S. dates since his Chicken Skin Music trek in 1976. For those shows, Ry was accompanied by accordionist Flaco Jimenez and, he says, "Everything happened that possibly could."

Such as? "Well, such as death," Cooder says, staring down at the floor and talking in a quiet, choppy drawl. "The bass player's oldest son died suddenly. Then the saxophone player's father died. And illness. Flaco had problems and had to go home for a week. The guitar player got pneumonia and had to be put in the hospital. And hardship. We had a bus we couldn't pay for, so we lost it and had to drive cars, which would break down in the snow. I was sick for two years after that. Exhausted. Debilitated. Demoralized. I believed in it, and I thought it was going to happen; it was so great, who could not like it? But it turned out that very few people did like it. Those were dark days."

This time around, Cooder is being backed by the Radio Silents — New Wave singer-songwriter-guitarist John Hiatt and his band (Jesse Harms, keyboards; Darrell Verdusco, drums; and James Rolleston, bass), plus vocalists Bobby King (who's worked with Cooder for the past eight years) and Willie Green Jr. "Hiatt's great," Cooder says. "I was looking for some contemporary songwriters, and someone mentioned him. I listened to his albums, but those weren't the kinds of songs I can sing. Then he brought me 'The Way We Make a Broken Heart,' and it was perfect."

The key members of the lineup, though, are top tenor King and bass vocalist Green. When their voices combine with Hiatt's and Cooder's, it makes for some terrific ensemble singing. "I love listening to gospel records," Cooder explains, "and when I got to know Bobby, he was the perfect guy to learn from. He projects a lot of feeling, and he's got a lot of feeling to project. It's great onstage. When people aren't used to that kind of thing, it knocks 'em dead. And who else does that now? Nobody. Certainly not with black male voices, which is my very favorite musical thing."

After ten years of releasing albums to lavish critical praise but almost total commercial indifference, Cooder finally appears to have found his niche in the market — and he thinks that this tour is evidence of that acceptance. "Promoters don't book you 'cause they like you; they do it 'cause there's good business to be done," Cooder says. "Bop Till You Drop pulled me out of a weird hole. It's crazy to make records nobody buys. It's just a waste of time. Once you make the decision to cut a record, you figure that's a public gesture and you want to get the record out there. With Bop, I finally did that. It sold about 300,000 copies, which is six times what the rest of 'em ever sold. It was just in the nick of time, too. Warner Bros, had a big blackboard up there, and an eraser, and a lot of names were suddenly disappearing. And I'm telling you, I said, 'Uh-oh, what's going on here?'"

Before the rest of the band arrives for the practice session, Cooder decides to get a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and as we head toward a neighborhood coffee shop, he begins talking about Santa Monica. "This is a different city than it was when I was growing up," he says. "Back then, it wasn't as crowded; it was more wide open. But I still like it. The ocean is very comfortable. I could never live inland. Plus, it really is the land of opportunity out here. One thing I've learned from traveling around is that it's not so easy for people from other places to do what they want. Like in Europe, musicians say to me, 'How did you ever pull this off?' I have to say, 'Well, probably because I live in Los Angeles.' If you're smart, if you know how to pull it off, you can do almost anything here."

World War II had ended, but another war had just begun. This one was being waged by a U.S. senator, Joseph McCarthy, and its ostensible goal was to wipe out communism and alleged communist sympathizers. In the late forties, the effects of McCarthyism were being felt to varying degrees in white, middle-class, liberal households throughout the country — households just like accountant W.H. Cooder's in Santa Monica. The Cooders were a fairly activist couple — not really left-wing, but certainly very liberal democrats — and when they'd gather in their living room with friends, they often played Woody Guthrie records or strummed guitars and sang folk songs.

The Cooders' only son, Ryland, was born in 1947, and from his youngest days he enjoyed listening to these tunes and to the classical music that often emanated from the family's record player. Before he could hardly walk or talk, Ry was able to recognize compositions, saying things like, "Gâité Parisienne?" to Offenbach's music, or "Archduke Trio?" to Beethoven's.

"One day, when he was three years old," Ry's father says, "I had him on my lap, and I was plucking my four-string tenor guitar and singing folk songs to him. And he said, 'Daddy, show me how to do that.' So I put the guitar in his hands, placed his fingers on the strings for a simple C chord and said, 'Now strike the strings with your other hand.' And, oh my! The light went on, his eyes widened, and from that moment on, he was sold. By the time he was five, I quit playing. He was that good."

Not very outgoing or aggressive, Ry spent much of his youth by himself, listening to records and playing the six-string Martin guitar his parents bought him. Sports were off-limits because of an accident he had when he was four. "I stuck a knife in my left eye," Cooder explains, not flinching at the memory. "I was playing with this toy car. I had it in one hand, the knife in the other, and the knife slipped. It was just a weird accident." The eye had to be replaced with a glass one. "I was a little self-conscious, of course," says Ry. "But luckily, I did it at such an early age I was able to make adjustments physically." (Even so, Cooder is still somewhat bothered by the eye, and is sensitive about being photographed.)

In his early teens, Cooder started hanging out at McCabe's, a guitar shop on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, and at the Ash Grove, a local folk, blues and bluegrass club. There he met and played with people like Tom Paley, Doc Watson, Sleepy John Estes, Lightnin' Hopkins and Reverend Gary Davis. He also studied slide guitar and banjo. "One night, when Bill Monroe was playing at the Ash Grove," Ry's father says, "his banjoist was ill, and they called on Ry to fill in for him. At the last minute, I guess the guy decided he'd better get well and show up, so Ry didn't actually get to perform. But Ry was of a caliber that Bill Monroe was willing to have him play with the band without his ever having rehearsed with them."

At the Ash Grove, Cooder also befriended Taj Mahal, and in the mid-Sixties they formed a short-lived band called the Rising Sons. After recording one unreleased album, Cooder split and joined Captain Beefheart's Magic Band. That alliance was also brief, though Cooder appears on Safe as Milk. It was as a session player, however — with everyone from Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Rolling Stones — that Cooder really established himself. But even that endeavor didn't last too long.

"I'm always looking for new and different situations to play in, 'cause that's how you grow musically," Cooder says. "When I was a sessionman, it was the same thing all the time. One year you play one lick and the next year you play another one. Plus, when the L.A. sound became identified with very clean, jazz-oriented stuff, like it is now, there was no part in that for me at all. They started mixing me out, and when you start getting mixed out, you know you'd better quit. I was a little poorer for a while, that's all."

In 1970, Cooder launched his solo career, releasing Ry Cooder on Reprise. In the decade since, he's made ten albums that touch on nearly every aspect of America's musical heritage: from country blues, Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl tunes and Depression-era material to pre-Thirties jazz, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Tex-Mex, gospel and rhythm & blues.

With Borderline, Cooder has managed to combine several of these influences into an original-sounding amalgam. If it had to be categorized, it would probably be considered an R&B record — especially with its covers of such classics as "634-5789" and "Speedo." Cooder himself admits that he feels most at home with that style of music. But both gospel and Tex-Mex are readily identifiable on the record, and Ry has even drawn from another source: Okinawan music. "That's the Tex-Mex of Oriental music," he explains. "I can't really describe it. The song 'Borderline' is kinda what it sounds like. It's an Oriental scale, a five-note scale. It's real lively and happy, jumpy and choppy, like reggae. I like the way it sounds, and if something sounds good, I'll use it."

Ry Cooder is not your typical rowdy rock & roller. Not by a long shot. Not even when he's on the road. He doesn't go to parties, drink much, do drugs or smoke cigarettes. He tries to get enough sleep, and he watches his diet. He also gets lonesome for his family — his wife, Susan Titelman (sister of Warner Bros. producer Russ Titelman), and their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Joachim. "I'm pretty much a homebody," he says, "so I like to be home."

At the moment, Cooder is far from home. After two shows in New York, he's en route to Washington D.C., the site of his next gig. The rest of the band is traveling by bus, but Cooder — perhaps wiser after the Chicken Skin Music debacle — prefers the less-taxing Amtrak Metroliner. "If you get sick on the road," Ry says, "especially me, the boss, it all falls apart real fast."

One of the more poignant songs Cooder played during his New York shows was a tune called "The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)." It was written by Sidney Bailey, a black Memphis cabdriver Cooder met several years ago through Chips Moman, a Nashville songwriter. Moman gave Cooder a demo tape with about fifty of Bailey's songs, and Ry was so impressed he tried to get Warner Bros. to allow him to take Bailey into the studio to record a few sides.

"I had it all lined up, and then one of these fuckin' middle-management guys listened to the demo and decided it was dogshit and wasn't worth a damn, so they wouldn't let me do it," Cooder says. "And then I recorded 'Thing That Makes You Rich' on Bop, and all of a sudden they want to know where Sidney Bailey is. Ridiculous. Now, even the publishing company can't locate him to pay him his royalties. As far as I know, he could be sitting in jail right now, and that money could bail him out. Or maybe he's sick and needs an operation....But since I just passed through Memphis on the tour, I've resolved to see if I can find him."

When Cooder first met Bailey, he gave him a couple hundred dollars, "just to say, 'Here's something for something.'" Though an offering like that may seem patronizing on the surface, Cooder sees it as a necessity. "Most of these people, it turns out, never got any money from anybody, and certainly not from white folks in the record business," he says. "So if you can bring some money into their lives, that's good, that's fair, and they're open. But the main thing you have to do is indicate immediately that there's some reason for this to happen. Like when I tried to make contact with Gabby [Pahinui]," he says. "I sent some of my records down to this little label in Hawaii, and they gave them to him and said, 'Do you like this guy? Do you think he's any good?' And he said, 'Yeah, he's not bad.' They said, 'Want to meet him?' And he said, 'Okay, you can bring him around.' But he was not impressed. Why should he be? But we got on well. When musicians find out that they have something in common, there's a nice thing that happens right away. You just take each other at face value, and it works pretty well."

Cooder's most telling encounter, though, was with accordionist Flaco Jimenez. Prior to going to Texas to meet him, Ry spent six months — eight hours a day, seven days a week — learning to play accordion. "I knew I had to do that," he says. "You can't go to a guy with a bizarre instrument unless you know what it is, what key you can play in, etc. And I also knew that to get him to do different things, I had to be able to show him. I worked so hard on that thing, I drove myself crazy. But when I got down there, I picked the thing up and showed him, and he thought it was amazing....And it was amazing!"

To Cooder, the most intense American music, the music he enjoys most, has always been regional. "Regional was the only thing there was until Hollywood was discovered," he says. "But to me, American music was always a synthesis; it was always a combination of one guy plus another guy who was different. Like Mexicans playing German polka music, or black people in Louisiana like Clifton Chenier taking Cajun music and making it syncopated. Sam Phillips is a good example, trying to make blues with Elvis Presley. And that's the stuff that hits me.

"Initially, all the people who performed these kinds of music were isolated in some way, so they developed a community life that included a certain musical style: Cajun, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Southerners, hillbillies. They play the way they do for a reason. It has something to do with where they're from and what it looks like and how they live and what they eat. That's all very interesting to me, so when I've gone to places like Hawaii, I've always thought I was getting something subliminal."

In the late Fifties, however, pop music started to invade all those areas via radio, and, Cooder believes, much of the music was watered down as a result. "Along came the idea that what these people really wanted to do was what they do in Hollywood — make a Hollywood record, sell more, do better. So they began to suck up these influences, and pretty soon you had a different thing on your hands. That's part of the isolation breaking down."

Cooder pauses and turns toward the window. A somewhat wistful expression has come over his face, and as he stares out at the passing Eastern Seaboard, it almost seems as if he's watching the music he loves slip away. He turns back and continues in a reflective voice. "I was lucky," he says. "I saw a lot of good things firsthand, and I heard them the way they were supposed to be heard. I made it a point to check out what was there so I wouldn't miss anything. But my own little boy — I don't know what he'll like to listen to. I think we're in a period of total transition right now and that by the time he's twelve, things will really be different. And I don't know what they'll be like."