Ry Cooder : Mr Guitar…Mr Authenticity

18th September 2019

Title: Boomer’s Story

Label: Music On Vinyl

“Rock as it is known today just doesn’t interest me at all,” said Ry Cooder to The Guardian in 2011. “I hate commercial music. If I hear that money in it, all that winking and nodding… It kills me.”

He looks for authenticity, you see. Ry Cooder – from the general public’s side of the fence – seems to have spent his entire life looking at and playing the music of the American past as well as current and classic music from other cultures. His hunger for musical knowledge means that, in addition to being able to play just about any chord-structured instrument on the planet, he has tackled a whole host of musical styles from rock’n’roll, blues, reggae, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Dixieland jazz, country, folk, R&B, gospel and vaudeville. Apart from having six Grammys on his mantlepiece, he was partially responsible for bringing together the Cuban legends known as the Buena Vista Social Club to public fame while recording with a host of legends from other cultures including Ali Farka Toure and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

So he is often labelled with the professorial term, musicologist. A term he dislikes, “That’s just idiocy to me. That’s so facile and just tossed away by people who just don’t understand. Real musicologists are scholars who study and understand certain things academically and they do the research and they know what they know. But musicians don’t approach things that way, you approach it from the ability to intuit things, that’s what playing an instrument is. Some people have the intellectual ability to grasp Beethoven which I could never do. But we musicians do this out of feeling and some kind of quest and that has got nothing to do with scholarship and study.”

You can appreciate why the term is often attributed to Cooder, nevertheless. 

Released in 1972, originally on Warner Bros., Cooder’s third album release, Boomer’s Story, was another delve into America’s past. So expect to see songs such as Ax Sweet Mama written by blues legend Sleepy John Estes (the man with an expressive blues voice) and Cherry Ball Blues from Skip James (a top quality guitarist with an innovative tuning technique) but also a fine instrumental version of The Dark End of the Street from songwriter Dan Penn (a talented Southern Soul artist). Lawrence Wilson’s Crow Black Chicken wanders all the way back to the 20s in terms of vintage 

Rally ‘Round the Flag, replete with patriotic, warring lyrics is here leant a tired, dark, weary delivery along with a Randy Newman piano. There is very little verve or vitriol here. Little blood-lust. Little enthusiasm.

There is history here but also fantastic guitar technique and while the Ry Cooder vocals might not be his strong suit his interpretive abilities more than make up for that.

More than that, what truly shines through is his natural talent and feel for what he does. It gives him authenticity which means that you forgive any small technical foibles (that voice, for example) because you know that he’s giving his all. 

“People tried to teach me to read the page and understand theory,” he once said. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be taught. I think there was something about me that resisted being taught anything.I didn’t like school, I didn’t like the teachers, I didn’t like the whole set-up. I wanted to do it myself. So I found that I could. The only thing is – it takes longer. If you’re going to go on your own, it’s going to take you awhile.

You could say that this time thing is what gives music its quality. Depth, if you like. Now? The urge for immediate success – always with one eye on the bottom line – often removes something from music. A purity perhaps? Realism?  An individuality? Cooder is of that opinion, “I think, maybe, because everything happens too fast, that you don’t build a craft, you don’t build artistry in yourself. And you don’t listen. If you don’t listen to music, all music, I don’t see how you know. It’s like a child learning to talk without having heard people speaking. What are you gonna do, start talking in abbreviations, like texting? And that’s exactly what’s happening. If you don’t read books and you don’t understand experience, how the hell can you write about it and sing about it? Or you’re just going to end up writing about yourself. Then it’s like everybody’s in a closet with themselves and it’s very limited.”

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