You can’t just call him a guitarist. He plays so many instruments. He’s written a book of short stories. He produces, finds and nurtures talent, is something of an ethnomusicologist, he’s created evocative film scores, is a gifted singer/songwriter and yet through all of that he is simply one of the very best guitarists you might ever hear.
I fell for Ry Cooder’s music at a young age. A strange thing to be caught up in, but at about seven or eight years old I knew a few Ry Cooder songs. And I knew he was good. And then I got into the movie soundtracks – due to his Crossroads score. I first identified with Ry Cooder through the blues, his approach to slide guitar. And then I started to work through that incredible run of singer/songwriter albums he made in the 1970s. Each one tackling a different ‘lost’ style or genre. It was very clear that Ry Cooder was expert in all styles.
And then his name just kept appearing. Slide guitar on a Rolling Stones track or two. Accompanying Randy Newman on his early, vital records. A partnership with Taj Mahal. He played on that extraordinary first Captain Beefheart record. Goddamn!
In the 1980s the soundtrack work saved Cooder – gave him a job. How sad and strange to think that the best guitarist in the world needed work. Had to be given a lifeline. But it was the truth.
He’d already given the world so many incredible albums – and played a part in some crucial songs by other artists, a super-session guy at a young age, and then he was the mastermind behind the Buena Vista Social Club album and tour and film, and then he was playing on and producing the finest “comeback” album of Mavis Staples’ career. And then he was on the road with Nick Lowe, taking turns singing their songs from across their storied careers.
You can find Ry Cooder in so many places. And it’s always worth looking.
Across the mid-2000s he returned to solo albums with a string of themed records – his best work in years.
But you’ll find Cooder’s best work everywhere. A solo acoustic version of a traditional blues holler, his searing, searching slide guitar work, crooning a Tex-Mex ballad with the finest ensemble of musicians you’ve never heard of; making dud movies shine with his greasy guitar workouts.
And then that Paris, Texas theme. The slide guitar so perfect in capturing the feel of that hypnotic film. The heat and isolation, you can almost feel sweat trickling down your back as you hear the guitar creep into place. A rusty nail on an old fencepost.
A few years ago I interviewed Ry Cooder. Shit, I was nervous. Most nervous I’ve been. Reckon I got a hell of an interview out of him. He wanted to talk crackpot conspiracy theories and political rage. And we did. For a bit. But we also got to talk about a young musician immersed in so many different worlds of sound. He was, he told me, “just a guitar player from Santa Monica”. That was – “still, and always” – the best description of his life and work; his life’s work.
A teenage Ry Cooder worked with Ray Price. He gave Jackie De Shannon a ride home from a recording session, she asked to be dropped off at a friend’s house – that friend? Elvis Presley.
He summed up the hunger and spirit of his times working as a session player with a story about Dr. John. The young Mac Rebennack (the good Dr’s government name) agreed to take a gig on an instrument he couldn’t even play. Ry asked him what he was doing. Mac said he had a week to learn the chart and he’d work it out since he had to eat.
Ry reckons that was entirely what it was about.
You find a way to do what you love and to make that work for you so that you can eat. And live. So that you can survive.
Ry Cooder’s latest records are recorded in his lounge, no studio, no recording contract, no label. He sits down with the instruments, “still practicing, still learning, still loving these instruments” and he crafts weird and wonderful tales about UFOs landing in California in the 1950s, about talking cats, about his extreme disgust with the way big business has a stranglehold on us all. About the pilfering of the land.
And there are so many reasons to listen to anything Ry Cooder has done. Such warmth in his sound. So many ideas. Never a note out of place, always the exactly correct tone and timbre and feel.
And never ever do you think of him as any kind of star. Not for him to ever be on a Best Guitarist List. Yet you’ll always find his name there. Whether it’s Guitar Player magazine or Rolling Stone. Or Stuff.co.nz.
He’s happiest, it seems, at home with a guitar in his hand. An almost J.J. Cale-like figure.
But most days I reckon he’s the greatest guitarist around, the best guitarist in the world. My favourite.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.