May 2018 Blog from Stu Vincent - Hillbilly Boogie
Welcome, dear readers, to another blog from Hillbilly Boogie.
Firstly, I will ask you to check out that fancy t-shirt that I am wearing. In 1990, with only myself to entertain, I went (on my birthday) to see Ry Cooder and David Lindley at the Hammersmith Odeon*…some 27 years later, I can wear it once more after doing my own version of the Shrinking Man** (and losing 60 pounds over the past few months).
It wasn’t the first time that I had seen Ry Cooder but this one was particularly memorable as (from my front row seat) it was like sitting in with two friends as they chatted between songs, selected instruments from an impressive array and then blew everybody’s socks off with their virtuosity.
So what has brought this reminiscence to the fore?
It is not very often that I become genuinely excited about an album release but I was counting the days to May 11th when Ry Cooder’s latest project ‘Prodigal Son’ was being fully released. I had pre-ordered the album and a few tracks were released ahead of May 11th but I wanted to hear it all. As you might have guessed, I am – unashamedly - a Ry Cooder fan!
So, for the subject for my latest blog article, I thought that I would offer an appreciation of Ry Cooder. On the day of the release, I had my trusty Sennheisers plugged into my ears and as I babbled enthusiastically about much I was loving ‘Prodigal Son’ and was greeted by several ‘who?’ comments. So, if you are already familiar, then you will need no introduction but - please - read on regardless!
Before I go any further, here is a short video from Cooder about the making of Prodigal Son:
So how did this fascination with Ry Cooder start?
While I was a relative late-comer to his music, it would have been around 1976 that I became aware of Ry Cooder and, in particular, Into The Purple Valley which had an array of songs by the likes of Lead Belly, Washington Phillips, Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. While I was already aware of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie, the discovery of songs by other, older great American songwriters became a recurring theme for me in my enjoyment of Ry Cooder’s playing. In the 1970’s it was almost mandatory, for anyone declaring themselves to be a music fan, to watch The Old Grey Whistle Test. I don’t know how many times I have watched this clip and I never tire of it – Woody Guthrie’s Vigilante Man.
Wanting to know more, it was with some surprise that I learned that Cooder played on Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk album. Anyone familiar with Captain Beefheart would imagine that there would have been some fairly lively scenarios with this band; there are various interviews concerning this period and those that I have seen and read display a certain degree of diplomacy and affection by Cooder concerning his time with Captain Beefheart such as ‘great musical ideas…not always logical but always interesting’.
As much as the singing and playing of Cooder on albums such as Into The Purple Valley, Boomer’s Story and Paradise and Lunch delighted my ears, I wanted to know more about the origin of the songs that I was listening to. I am sure that many of us have been in conversations where the importance of acknowledging tradition has been raised; I can think of few artists who have been so commercially successful while simultaneously producing fresh and contemporary versions of songs by the likes of Blind Alfred Reed, Kip James, Washington Phillips and others.
In the video linked at the beginning of this article, Cooder speaks about wanting to be a banjo player – indeed, he did play with Bill Monroe and Doc Watson – he also mentions J.D. Crowe and included a photograph of Jim & Jesse by their Martha White tour bus and previously he has made reference to Reno & Smiley and Jimmy Martin, so it is no surprise to see Carter Stanley’s Harbor of Love on Prodigal Son – it is also no surprise that it sounds very different to how Carter and Ralph would have performed this song.
While acknowledging the music in the American tradition, Cooder has also undertaken some exceptional collaborations. In 1993, Cooder recorded A Meeting by the River with V.M. Bhatt and in 1994 Talking Timbuktu with Ali Farka Touré which won a Grammy for Best World Music Album. In 1996/97, Cooder was also involved with the Buena Vista Social Club which brought some of the finest Cuban musicians to the attention of the world such as Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo.
Cooder’s albums Mambo Sinuendo, Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy and I, Flathead were a departure from the familiar Cooder sound but still demanding attention.
With Cooder’s latest release – Prodigal Son – there is a return to ‘classic’ Cooder including the reference to some of the great American songwriters; as mentioned before, there is Carter Stanley’s Harbor of Love, Blind Alfred Reed’s You Must Unload and Blind Willie Johnson’s Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right. While many of the songs on Prodigal Son have religious references, the choice of songs is more about reflecting current morality and in such songs as Gentrification.
I believe Cooder to be one of the most creative and diverse artists of his generation. There will be tracks from Prodigal Son played on Hillbilly Boogie and I cannot wait to see him play, once more, when he returns to London in October.
*Hammersmith Odeon – they can change the name of London’s best venue as many times as they like but it will ALWAYS be the Hammersmith Odeon to me.
**Shrinking Man – one of the tracks on Prodigal Son written by Ry Cooder