The recent release of two double-disc sets associated with Ry Cooder is, I suspect, more of a fortuitous coincidence – at least for a music columnist – than a calculated career boost. Yet the juxtaposition of The Ry Cooder Anthology: The UFO Has Landed (Warner Bros./Rhino) and Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall (World Circuit/Nonesuch), the latter of which credits him as producer and supporting musician, provides the opportunity to assess his unique legacy as an all-American, pan-American treasure.
Like other music writers who have been at this too long, I became aware of Cooder’s music well before I began writing about it, even before he began recording his own albums. He was a name on the liner credits, a name that kept popping up in association with the shimmering sound of the slide guitar, his signature contribution as a sideman. In the early 1970s, albums cost only four bucks, and though four bucks in those days meant more than a cup of designer coffee, you could still take a chance on an unknown artist because of the right producer, the right sidemen, or the right label.
Even major labels in those days had more of a distinctive identity, and the Warner/Reprise combine, which frequently featured Cooder as a sideman and would soon record him as a “prestige” artist (i.e. one who wasn’t expected to move many units but made the label feel good about itself), was known as particularly impressive in terms of quality control. I’m not sure whether the first time I heard Cooder – or slide guitar, for that matter – was on his accompaniment to Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down The Cornfield”, but it imprinted itself so strongly on my consciousness that I’d buy anything with his name on it, just to hear that sound.
Newman was another of the Warner/Reprise prestige artists, as was Van Dyke Parks, who would co-produce Cooder’s 1970 self-titled debut. The music of all three artists reflects a strong sense of place in general, and of their native Los Angeles in particular. (Santa Monica, in Cooder’s case.)
Where most anthologies are sequenced chronologically, one of the revelations of Cooder’s set, even for those of us familiar with his work, is its organization – because there really isn’t an artistic maturation or progression in his music. As a young man, he always sounded older, drawing from obscure, even anachronistic sources to create music he could make his own. As an older musician – it’s an amazement to realize he is now 61 – what Cooder has mainly done is widen the net, crossing borders and even oceans to renew his artistry with fresh inspiration.
It’s fitting, then, that the set opens with “Get Rhythm”, Cooder’s turbo-charged rendition of the Johnny Cash Sun classic, and a cut that easily could have served as the title track of this set. For groove is as central to Cooder’s aesthetic as geography, with tone and texture equally crucial. He’s always been there to serve the song rather than to showcase his virtuosity.
So as the listener tries to figure out why the tracks were assembled in the order they are, what connections to make between instrumental and vocal cuts, between soundtrack selections and album songs, between music from the early ’70s and recordings from 30 or almost 40 years later, such concerns are crucial in a consideration of why this music flows so well across decades and categories. And then it ends pretty close to its beginning, with “Little Sister”, sung as a warning by Elvis Presley, Cash’s early Sun labelmate, but rendered by Cooder more as a plea.
Since the notes credit production to Joachim Cooder – Ry’s son (and, naturally, a drummer) – one assumes he’s responsible for selection and sequencing. Yet Ry’s annotation of each song attests to his involvement and seal of approval, with revelations abounding. Who knew that the Sidney Bailey credited as songwriter on the wonderful “The Very Thing That Makes You Rich (Makes Me Poor)” was a prolific Memphis cabbie whose work was brought to Cooder by frequent accompanist Jim Dickinson? Or that “Down In Hollywood”, which I would have previously dismissed as novelty jive, was inspired by a true story involving a pair of hookers and a car out of gas?
Or that Cooder is such a philosopher? His notes, in full, to “Crazy ‘Bout An Automobile (Every Woman I Know)”: “By Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson. The message is: Life is beautiful. I believed it, and I got a car. Next message: The road is long, and the way is hard.”
Accompanying Cooder’s notes is an introduction by award-winning novelist Michael Ondaatje. He’s best known for The English Patient, but the side of him that connects with Cooder is reflected in the earlier Coming Through Slaughter, a fictional meditation on the mysterious Buddy Bolden, a seminal New Orleans jazzman.
He writes of The UFO Has Landed, “It is a magical reconstruction of Ry Cooder’s career….The effect is almost flawless; it’s a thrilling structure.”
Because Cooder has a reputation as something of a perfectionist, it’s not surprising that there are no alternate takes here and only one previously unreleased cut: a version of “Let’s Work Together” with Buckwheat Zydeco, its ramshackle spirit closer to Wilbert Harrison’s one-man-band original than to better-known covers by Canned Heat and Bryan Ferry. Yet the generous selection of 34 tracks places the music in both proper perspective and fresh light. As disc two opens, the spare atmospherics of “Paris, Texas” segue so seamlessly into “Theme From Southern Comfort” that they sound like they are two movements of the same piece, or at least from the same movie; they’re also a perfect intro into the traditional “Tamp ‘Em Up Solid”.
Or listen to how his soulful vocals make “Tattler”, by the obscure Washington Phillips, and “Teardrops Will Fall”, a Wilson Pickett throwaway, sound like companion pieces. Or how he recognizes his vocal limitations by recording the classic “Dark End Of The Street” as an instrumental (no competing with the tortured James Carr version) and then follows it with a transcendently moving vocal, with Bobby King and Willie Greene as gospel chorus, on “Why Don’t You Try Me”.
Though it would be standard to suggest this is all the Cooder you’ll ever need to hear, it isn’t. Every fan will find a favorite selection or two missing (no “Vigilante Man”? no “Mexican Divorce”?). Though his Tex-Mex excursions with conjunto accordion master Flaco Jimenez are represented, there’s no hint of his infatuation with Hawaiian slack key guitar. And the anthology mostly misses his more conceptual and overtly political recent work; only one track from 2005′s Chavez Ravine, “Poor Man’s Shangri-La”, is here (though its follow-up, 2007′s My Name Is Buddy, is better forgotten and goes unrepresented).
The set necessarily slights Cooder the sideman, who made such crucial contributions to so many artists that even the Rolling Stones apparently felt compelled to rip him off. (The riff to “Honky Tonk Women”, it was claimed, was Cooder’s from some session jamming, the same charge that harp player Sugar Blue would subsequently make for “Miss You”). And his slide guitar was so important in helping to John Hiatt’s career on Bring The Family that Hiatt has subsequently employed Sonny Landreth as a Cooder substitute.
And then there’s Cooder the producer, whose recent collaboration with Mavis Staples resulted in some of the best work of either of their careers. In this role, it’s the other recent release, Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall, that gives a sense of how wide and deep Cooder’s musical legacy extends. He’s credited as producer, as he was for the studio sessions assembling the Cuban veterans that became such a popular, Grammy-winning phenomenon; but he’s really more of a curator, without whom this Club simply would not exist. The music would have remained unheard by most of the world.
This concert from 1998, filmed for the documentary of the project by Wim Wenders (also the director of Paris, Texas, bringing his association with Cooder full circle), adds an extra dimension to the percolating percussion, Ellingtonian majesty and vocal call-and-response of a bygone musical Cuba. The rapturous audience becomes a participant as well, an integral part of the Club, inspiring the music to stretch further, soar higher.
What began as Cooder’s expedition in search of music that had all but died well before Castro has turned into a franchise, with more than a dozen individual and group releases resulting from Cooder’s rediscovery. Yet the years since this concert recording have also seen the deaths of three principal members – vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, guitarist-vocalist Compay Segundo, and pianist Ruben Gonzalez – whose timeless musical contributions highlighted here make this belated release a fitting memorial.
In his own work and in his support of others, Cooder has never considered himself an ethnomusicologist or a musical archivist. He’s interested in the pulse of the music, how it moves and breathes. The artists inevitably die; most are forgotten. The music lives on.