We don’t hear from Ry Cooder all that often these days. But when we do, we take notice.
For more than 50 years the venerable multi-instrumentalist, composer, producer, band leader and singer has been one of the music world’s most vital artists, whether he’s playing rock, roots or World Music, collaborating with all-star friends in outfits like Little Village or spearheading exceptional projects such as the Buena Vista Social Club. He’s covered plenty of musical terrain over the years and is regular mentioned in any survey of the world’s best guitarists.
Cooder’s new “The Prodigal Son,” his first solo album in six years, finds him taking a spiritual turn, inspired by country gospel and built on arrangements by his son, Joachim Cooder. It reminds us that Cooder still has something to say, and we should stay ready to receive it when it comes...
• Cooder, 71, became enthusiastic about spiritual material after he and Joachim toured with Ricky Skaggs & the Whites during 2015. “It’s a heavy thing to sing. It’s special,” Cooder says. “I always loved country gospel from back when I was a teenager in high school and started listening to bluegrass quite a lot. You can play as good as you want, but it’s a whole other thing to actually sing them. It’s daunting. But I got in there and sang the bass parts, and Ricky, being an expert, helped me if I had the wrong notes or something.
“And I had such a good time singing these songs. It was a fantastic experience, very satisfying. By the end of the year I began to think about it in a different way.”
• Cooder credits Joachim with pushing him into “The Prodigal Son” project. “He said, ‘It’s time to make a record. You saw how people reacted when you sang those songs. That’s the thing for you to do.’ I used to sneak gospel tunes into my old records, just as kind of a personal thing. It certainly was part of the live shows I used to do. But a whole record? Damn... That’s daunting.”
• “The Prodigal Son” features three originals as well as covers, including the Cooders’ arrangement of the title track. “I wasn’t going to be imitating or trying to imitate classic records or classic performances. I didn’t push myself trying to do something I can’t’ do. I found a new way of doing (the songs) but inspired by (the originals). Then it has something you can sink your teeth into. Once we got going we said, ‘This is really gonna work...’”
• Some of Cooder’s new songs, particularly “Gentrification,” feature political overtones, which he feels go hand in hand with the rest of the album’s flavor. “I didn’t see that coming until I was a little more than halfway through. By a certain point in the record I said, ‘There is a social context for this in a loose kind of way.’ A lot of these songs talk about the working man, about the ordinary, common man, the guy who is nobody, just another one of the people. The Prodigal Son is not some hero or larger than life character; He’s just somebody looking for something, on some kind of a quest. I think these tunes are positive-minded rather than negative, but the outcome is not certain. You are not marching to Zion, necessarily. And that’s fine. I like gospel tunes that don’t lean on the idea of the Resurrection and have a little more uncertainty to ‘em.”
• Cooder’s current tour is his first extensive road trek since 2009 and features the vocal trio the Hamiltones. “It’s been a helluva deal to assemble this. Who does this, at age 71, try to put a tour together from scratch? I have to say it’s scary at times. But I like a challenge ‘cause it keeps you on your toes. You might come up with something real fascinating. I think that’s going to happen.”