Whether serving as a session musician, solo artist, or soundtrack composer, Ry Cooder's chameleon-like fretted instrument virtuosity, songwriting, and choice of material encompass an incredibly eclectic range of North American musical styles, including rock & roll, blues, reggae, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Dixieland jazz, country, folk, R&B, gospel, and vaudeville. In addition to his American music bona fides, Cooder is an unofficial American cultural ambassador: He was partially responsible for bringing together the Cuban musicians known globally as the Buena Vista Social Club, recording with Ali Farka Toure, Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Manuel Galban, to name scant few. During the '80s and '90s he was a celebrated film composer, scoring works such as Walter Hill's The Long Riders, Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas and The End of Violence, and Tony Richardson's The Border. Since 1989, he has won six Grammy Awards and been nominated for many more in genres ranging from children's music and folk, to Latin (pop and traditional), Americana, and world music. Among his most notable albums in the 21st century were the conceptual albums Chavez Ravine, about an LA neighborhood bulldozed to make way for bringing the Dodgers baseball team to Los Angeles, and San Patricio with the Chieftains, about a band of immigrant Irish soldiers that deserted the American Army during the Mexican-American War to fight for the other side. The 16-year-old Cooder began his career in 1963 in a blues band with Jackie DeShannon and then formed the short-lived Rising Sons in 1965 with Taj Mahal and Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy. Cooder met producer Terry Melcher through the Rising Sons and was invited to perform at several sessions with Paul Revere & the Raiders. During his subsequent career as a session musician, Cooder's trademark slide guitar work graced the recordings of such artists as Captain Beefheart (Safe as Milk), Randy Newman, Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, the Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers), Taj Mahal, and Gordon Lightfoot. He also appeared on the soundtracks of Candy and Performance. Cooder made his debut as a solo artist in 1970 with a self-titled album featuring songs by Leadbelly, Blind Willie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, and Woody Guthrie. The follow-up, Into the Purple Valley, introduced longtime cohorts Jim Keltner on drums and Jim Dickinson on bass, and it and Boomer's Story largely repeated and refined the syncopated style and mood of the first. In 1974, Cooder produced what is generally regarded as his best album, Paradise and Lunch, and its follow-up, Chicken Skin Music, showcased a potent blend of Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, gospel, and soul, and featured contributions from Flaco Jimenez and Gabby Pahinui. In 1979, Bop til You Drop was the first major-label album to be recorded digitally. In the early '80s, Cooder began to augment his solo output with soundtrack work on such films as Blue Collar, The Long Riders, and The Border; he has gone on to compose music for films such as Paris, Texas, Streets of Fire, Alamo Bay, Blue City, Crossroads, Cocktail, Johnny Handsome, and Steel Magnolias, among others. Music by Ry Cooder (1995) compiled two discs' worth of highlights from Cooder's film work. In 1992, Cooder joined Keltner, John Hiatt, and renowned British tunesmith Nick Lowe, all of whom had played on Hiatt's Bring the Family, to form Little Village, which toured and recorded one album. Cooder turned his attention to world music, recording the album A Meeting by the River with Indian musician V.M. Bhatt. Cooder's next project, a duet album with renowned African guitarist Ali Farka Touré titled Talking Timbuktu, won the 1994 Grammy for Best World Music Recording. His next world crossover would become one of the most popular musical rediscoveries of the 20th century. In 1997, Cooder traveled to Cuba to produce and play with a group of son musicians who had little exposure outside of their homeland. The resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club, was a platinum-selling international success that made stars of Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Rubén González, and earned Cooder another Grammy. He continued to work on projects with his Buena Vista bandmates, including a collaboration with Manuel Galbán in 2003 titled Mambo Sinuendo. His other work in the 2000s included sessions with James Taylor, Aaron Neville, Warren Zevon, and Spanish diva Luz Casal. In 2005, Cooder released Chavez Ravine, his first solo album since 1987's Get Rhythm; the album was the first entry in a trilogy of recordings about the disappearance of Los Angeles' cultural history as a result of gentrification. Chavez Ravine was followed by My Name Is Buddy in 2007, and the final chapter in the saga I, Flathead in 2009. In 2010, Cooder was approached by Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains to produce an album. Moloney had been obsessed with an historical account of the San Patricios, a band of immigrant Irish soldiers who deserted the American Army during the Mexican-American War in 1846 to fight for the other side, against the Manifest Destiny ideology of James Polk's America. Cooder agreed and the result was San Patricio, which brings this fascinatingly complex tale to life. In early 2011, Cooder was taken by a headline about bankers and other moneyed citizens who'd actually profited from the bank bailouts and resulting mortgage and economic crisis, and wrote the song "No Banker Left Behind," which became the first song on 2011's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down, an album that reached all the way back to his earliest recordings for musical inspiration while telling topical stories about corruption -- political and social -- the erasure and the rewriting of American history, and an emerging class war. A month after its release, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti's fabled City Lights publishing house issued Cooder's first collection of short fiction entitled Los Angeles Stories. He continued to follow his socio-political muse with Election Special, released in the summer of 2012, and in 2013 released Live in San Francisco, his first live album in 35 years, with Corridos Famosos (son Joachim on percussion, Flaco Jimenez on accordion, Robert Francis on bass, and vocalists Terry Evans, Arnold McCuller, and Juliette Commagere). The ten-piece Mexican brass band La Banda Juvenil also guested. In 2014, Rhino Records offered an epic-scale look at Cooder's work in film scoring with Soundtracks, a seven-disc box set compiled from his movie music of the '80s and '90s. After playing mainly bluegrass and country gospel songs with Ricky Skaggs in 2017, Cooder's percussionist son Joachim convinced his dad to cut an album of country and blues-gospel songs. The younger Cooder arranged the 11-song set and the guitarist fleshed them out for a band. Entitled The Prodigal Son, it comprising eight covers including songs by the Pilgrim Travelers, Blind Willie Johnson, Carter Stanley, and three originals. In late March, Cooder released a preview video of an arrangement of the title track recorded live in studio. The Prodigal Son was issued in May 2018 and followed by his first American tour in 15 years; he was backed by his own band (with Joachim on drums and percussion) with backing vocals by the Hamiltones. ~ Steve Huey
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Folk - Released September 1, 2006 | Nonesuch
During the present era, as the Iraq war grinds on, Americans are trying belly-button gazing, trying to remember a history where America regarded itself as world citizen, and came to the aid of many nations in trouble and nearing despair. It is true that this is part of our national heritage and America as a whole is, or at least used to be, known the globe over for the generosity of its people. Like any story, there are multiple narrative threads at work in defining such a history, and at least one has been all but forgotten and virtually erased by numerous politicos since the 1980s. Ry Cooder's My Name Is Buddy offers a view of an America in deep trouble with itself during the Great Depression when it either couldn't -- or wouldn't? -- feed its own people. Cooder's narrative is told in his own versions of folk tales through the voices of Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse, and the Reverend Tom Toad. They are set during the Dust Bowl era of the '30s when many people were economically forced to relocate or become ramblers and hoboes, roaming listlessly over the continental terrain. The truth behind these stories is an official part of American history, yet they were all but absent in "popular culture" during the last two decades with few exceptions. Music has recently -- in the mid-'90s tribute to Woody Guthrie, and in the music of Bruce Springsteen, Michael Franti, Mike Ness, and Bob Dylan -- addressed this period and on occasion gotten into the charts. The politics here are unapologetically left of center: J. Edgar Hoover is portrayed in a song about a pig bearing his name, a copy of Karl Marx's Das Kapital adorns the inside cover (one of the beautiful illustrations by Vincent Valdes), the songs are chock-full of unions and strikes, labor and hobo camps, big bosses, sundown towns, bigotry, and corruption. The lyrics have their fair share of real anger in them, though there is no political sloganeering or sermonizing -- just check out "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer" -- Cooder uses humor instead. He introduces each of the 17 tunes with prosaic vignettes (one for each track) in the CD booklet; these provide the context of each song. Old-timey string band music, blues, bluegrass, country, polka, jazz, corridos, and more are the musical vehicles these tunes travel the rails and roads in, and Cooder has again chosen his collaborators well. While Mike Seeger, now a king of the traditional American music scene, is a mainstay on fiddle and other instruments, his brother Pete, an actual warrior of the time period portrayed, is also present , as are Ry's son Joachim, bassist Mike Elizondo, Juliette Commagere, Stefon Harris, Flaco Jimenez, Van Dyke Parks, Roland White, Jim Keltner, Jon Hassell, the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney, and others. Here is a supergroup arranged in various conglomerations to play simple tunes that tell hard stories, funny though they may be on the surface. Singling out tracks is mostly futile, because all 17 are solid, noteworthy in their own merit making the whole virtually unassailable. Besides, the contextual framing of this concept work is important enough to warrant notice as an "unofficial" history--as if the official version were any more accurate; music has a way of making folk tales true, and when informed by the perspective of history, becomes part and parcel of the thing itself. What can be said is that My Name Is Buddy sounds like another restless Ry Cooder album, though rooted as it is in the very music he was playing when he began his recording career some 17 albums ago (the subtitle of the album is "Another Record by Ry Cooder.") After resurrecting the Buena Vista Social Club, his last outing, Chavez Ravne, was a look at one of the last working class L.A. neighborhoods of the past, from the street and from outer space, through social narrative toward the future of its ruins. My Name Is Buddy is an offering where time and space are erased too; so much so that the past is looking at the future looking back at itself as in some dirty mirror uncovered in a corner of a forgotten closet. All of this said, the set is actually great fun to listen to; it is ever shifting musically, friendly, full of the kind of warmth that folk tales generate. The main characters may be mythological, but these days, when anyone remembers or even speaks of Joe Hill, Paul Robeson, Emma Goldman, Guthrie, C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, David Harris, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton or even Phil Ochs, it's as if they were mythic creatures who passed through social history to instruct not as real people, but as voices from an ether we can't quite tune in anymore. At least one of these men is alive in the simple, sage-like persona of Pete Seeger, who continues the struggle that his late fellow myths had to hand down. Fans of Cooder's will flip over this; fans of freak folk might get a mighty charge out of it as well and find a way to dig deeper into the subjects addressed. Certainly the NPR crowd will find it an all but obligatory-to-own CD, but in so many ways, My Name Is Buddy isn't really for any of them: it's for those who are encountering these kinds of stories for the first time. It's a record of an era, but it's also an introduction to a way of looking at America from inside that hasn't been represented in "popular" music for quite some time. Instrumentally and lyrically brilliant, sociologically intelligent, and anthropologically astute, My Name Is Buddy stands tall against Cooder's best work from the '70s; whether it be his self-titled debut, Paradise and Lunch, Into the Purple Valley or Boomer's Story. My Name Is Buddy is an equal among greats, and may prove to be as enduring, but it's more than that, too: it's a re-telling; a reclaiming of history in the grand treasure trove of the folk tradition. ~ Thom Jurek
Country - Released January 1, 1970 | Warner Bros.
Already a seasoned music business veteran at the age of 22, Ry Cooder stepped out from behind the shadows of the likes of Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, the Rolling Stones, and Captain Beefheart, signing his own deal with Warner Brothers records in 1969. Released the following year, Cooder's eponymous debut creates an intriguing fusion of blues, folk, rock & roll, and pop, filtered through his own intricate, syncopated guitar; Van Dyke Parks and Lenny Waronker's idiosyncratic production; and Parks and Kirby Johnson's string arrangements. And while he's still finding his feet as a singer, Cooder puts this unique blend across with a combination of terrific songs, virtuosic playing, and quirky, yet imaginative, arrangements. For material, Cooder, the son of folklorist parents, unearths ten gems -- spanning six decades dating back to the 1920s -- by legends such as Woody Guthrie, Blind Blake, Sleepy John Estes, and Leadbelly, as well as a current Randy Newman composition. Still, as great as his outside choices are, it's the exuberant charm of his own instrumental "Available Space" that nearly steals the show. Its joyful interplay between Cooder's slide, Van Dyke Parks' music hall piano, and the street-corner drumming creates a piece that is both loose and sophisticated. If "Available Space" is the record's most playful moment, its closer, "Dark Is the Night," is the converse, with Cooder's stark, acoustic slide extracting every ounce of torment from Blind Willie Johnson's mournful masterpiece. Some of the eccentric arrangements may prove to be a bit much for both purists and pop audiences alike, but still, Cooder's need to stretch, tempered with a reverence for the past, helps to create a completely original work that should reward adventurous listeners. ~ Brett Hartenbach
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