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The sonic environments of Ry Cooder
A man in a light pink suit holds a baby blue guitar.

Ry Cooder has a guitar in his hands. He’s playing “Jesus on the Mainline.” It’s 1987 in Santa Cruz, and the gospel traditional has changed, on this day, into something supercharged and incendiary, run through an overdriven amplifier to produce fat, chunky crunch. Cooder’s eyes dart across the stage, locking first with trombonist George Bohanon, as he swings the bluesy lines of a solo, and then over to pianist Van Dyke Parks, as he hammers out a ragtime-inflected chord progression. Cooder’s own guitar playing seems to knit the two threads together: first, he comes down hard on Bohannon’s insistent downbeat, leaning into clipped, distorted blue notes, then somehow stumbles free of them, repeating the same syncopated tagline over and over. Just as the band seems to reach their peak, Cooder points his guitar up toward the ceiling and then bangs it downward, a gesture most bandleaders use to wrangle the ensemble, as if to say, “Hey! Play the notes like I told you to play them!” or “Let’s end this song now!” But, with Cooder, it’s just the opposite. Rather than leading, he’s reacting to the deep groove laid down by the other musicians. He’s dancing a hip-shaking, shoulder-shrugging shuffle. What he’s really saying is “Don’t stop now, we got it, let’s boogie.”

When Cooder plays the song again, in 1994, he’s on an outdoor stage at JazzFest in New Orleans. This time the performance feels unhurried and meditative, as if channeling the slow-moving clouds and ambient din of the festival crowd. Cooder calls out a dedication to the Staple Singers—who in 1960 recorded an unforgettable tremolo-guitar and bass-drum version of the tune—and the audience applauds. Then he bends down his body so close to his guitar, glass bottleneck slide wrapped around his pinky finger, that he starts to wince, contorting his face in an expression of agony. His solo slows things down further, sliding from note to note without settling down, forever reaching for something else. And so the spiritual turns into a kind of lament, as if gasping for breath.

In 2017, Cooder plays the song once more, alone on a huge stage in front of a television audience—he’s being honored at the BBC Folk Awards. Wearing a somewhat oversized suit, with shocks of long white hair tussling out from his beanie, he clutches a bedazzled Fender Telecaster, which is equipped with a special “B-bender” contraption: when he whips his shoulders upward to yank on the strap, the guitar mimics the countrified sounds of a pedal steel. Seated on a chair, he taps his legs insistently, so much so that you worry he might tip over backwards. The lyrics change for the second verse: Richard Nixon of all people is summoned up in heaven, by an angel upset with those folks down in Washington complaining about that “orange-haired faker.” Nixon tells the angel to piss off, people on Earth don’t have him to kick around anymore, they should take matters up with the powers-that-be. Cooder’s voice first snarls out the lyrics, then savors them. By the end of the performance, the audience is singing along.

That a song is never finished business, that it should change—take stock of its surroundings, move in and out of a place like the weather, respond to the styles and inclinations of the performing musicians—has been the central principle animating Cooder’s music. “Some of these folk-type things, vernacular music, it’s interpretative if you let it be that way,” he said recently.

Ry Cooder has sought ways to dramatize his love for the tradition without imitating it.

Cooder emerged in the 1970s with solo albums built off reinterpretations of vernacular tunes like “Jesus on the Mainline”; found a new calling in the 1980s writing sprawling film soundtracks; spent the 1990s recording “world music” collaborations with artists like Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and Cuban supergroup Buena Vista Social Club; and has found a late blossoming in the twenty-first century with a string of historical concept albums. Over a six-decade-plus career, he’s picked up major prizes (multiple Grammys and Lifetime Achievement Awards) and attracted a legion of admirers with his distinctive guitar playing and breadth of styles. Yet the true value of his music lies not in its virtuosity or fusing of disparate traditions. Rather, it’s in how the music keeps spreading out, letting more ideas and collaborators in, and how it keeps asking: Well, what if? What if you “let it be that way?” How far could you take it?

It’s an artistic philosophy that grows out of Cooder’s lifelong engagement with American vernacular music. Growing up in the postwar era, he pored over albums by blues and country musicians—many of them recorded in the late 1920s and 1930s and pressed onto wax shellac discs spinning at seventy-eight revolutions per minute. Later, as a teenager, he saw some of those artists perform in intimate settings, studying their technique up close. These formative experiences instilled in him a desire to add his voice to the tradition. And yet there was little to be gained from simply covering music that was, to his ears, already perfect. “I always knew if I was going to record,” Cooder later recalled, “there would be very little point in doing all that music . . . note-for-note . . . because they already did it, so it was already done to perfection. If you love the record so much, you’re so impressed with this—so imprinted by it—then you had to do something about it. But what was that gonna be?” Answering that question became Cooder’s artistic project. With unflagging dedication and invention, he has sought ways to dramatize his love for the tradition without imitating it, to soak up the beauty of beloved songs and then refract them.

Crucially, this has not been a solitary endeavor. In interviews and liner notes, Cooder has described his recording process as improvised and collaborative, songs written alongside, rather than for, other musicians. His commitment to bringing artists together has created something deeper than a personal style too— it’s a model for forging collectivity through sound. Resisting the commodification of vernacular music, he has instead sought to create sonic environments where tradition, history, politics, and the unique sensibilities of musicians themselves can stubbornly live on.

Ryland Peter Cooder was born in Santa Monica, California in 1947. At age four, he accidentally stuck a knife in his left eye, which had to be replaced with a glass one. Almost immediately after, he was gifted his first guitar. Cooder remembers the scene vividly: as he laid up in bed recovering, “despondent and spooked,” a friend of his parents walked into the darkness of his bedroom, plopped the instrument on his chest, and strummed its strings—sending vibrations out of the wooden box and directly into his body. “It was just like, Ohhhhhh,” Cooder told a TV crew many years later, letting out a deep sigh, closing his eyes, and drooping his shoulders. “He had given me this thing to do. I can only look back and think I was given a kind of magic carpet.”

Cooder grew up in a typical white, middle-class household—his father was an accountant who purchased their home, perched atop a hill overlooking the Santa Monica airfield, on the G.I. Bill. Yet his parents’ love of music also brought them into contact with progressive left-wing circles. The Cooders spent nights and weekends spinning records with friends in the family living room. While classical music was the preferred genre, some guests also played Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Josh White, among others who had provided the soundtrack to the Depression-era Popular Front. Young Ry’s ears took a liking to this music above all else; he began comically announcing his displeasure at any song that sounded too hifalutin: “Even when I was a little kid,” Cooder remembered, “those seventh chords used to bother me and I’d leave the room. My mother would ask me, ‘Why did you leave?’ And I’d say, ‘They did something I don’t like.’”

Cooder’s early musical education was guided by two figures who, at first sight, seem to have walked out of a Thomas Pynchon novel. The first was the family friend who gifted Cooder his guitar—a blacklisted viola player who’d been kicked out of Hollywood and eventually wound up as a camp counselor. Taking note of the boy’s growing enthusiasm, he brought Cooder a stack of records released by Folkways, an independent label founded by Moses Asch in 1948 to document what he called “people’s music.” Recorded in 1940 and reissued in 1950, Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads made a particularly indelible impression on Cooder. A proto-concept album, with thematically linked songs about “Okies,” “Arkies,” and other “Dust Bowl Refugees” who were turned away by gun-wielding cops at the California border, it came with a booklet of evocative photographs of dust storms and station wagons collaged in between essays and lyric sheets. Cooder grew absorbed in the lost world the album evoked. Eventually, he taught himself to play guitar by memorizing the record, gleaning what he could from Guthrie’s simple yet nuanced rhythmic playing.

The other mentor was Ed Kahn, an ethnomusicologist who happened to be the family’s mailman. Cooder frequently rode shotgun in Kahn’s mail truck, flipping through boxes of international records that he distributed to local shops. Noting Cooder’s growing facility with country blues riffs plucked with his fingers, Kahn introduced Cooder to another Folkways artist, Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, whose highly idiosyncratic style fused stately church chords with calypso and swing rhythms. The influence of Spence cannot be overstated. He gave Cooder a sense of guitar playing as something constantly in motion, reinventing itself from moment to moment, swinging hard, freed from the constraints of meter, and willing to break into syncopated, improvisatory flourishes.

If his mentors introduced Cooder to the sounds of distant times and places, he was also deeply shaped by a local tradition: hard-driving country music. Set up in 1921, Santa Monica’s Douglas Aircraft Company had drawn in generations of factory workers, who, in turn, brought their love of honky-tonk and steel guitars. (Cooder would memorialize this history on his 2008 album I, Flathead.) Johnny Cash’s first single, the rockabilly stomper “Hey Porter,” hit the radio in 1954, when Cooder was seven years old. It had a seismic impact on him, not only for its twangy, reverb-soaked electric guitars that announced the arrival of rock and roll but also because its lyrics told of a train passenger speeding through the South, as if mirroring Cooder’s enthusiasm for the landscape of American music opening up to him.

Cooder was less taken with the social landscape of suburban California. As Mike Davis put it so succinctly in City of Quartz, “Community in Los Angeles means homogeneity of race, class, and, especially, home values.” In the early twentieth century, homeowners’ associations enforced strict deed restrictions and racially exclusive covenants that effectively acted as a private form of Jim Crow legislation, closing off entire sections of Los Angeles to Black, Asian, and Mexican people. In this sense, Santa Monica was a typical white conservative middle-class suburb, marked by segregation and Cold War hysteria. “I never liked the grid of Santa Monica streets, the sidewalks and little lawns, and the tract houses we lived in,” Cooder recalled in the liner notes to his 2005 album Chávez Ravine. He preferred riding the bus east into Downtown Los Angeles, where he found a “world back fifty years in time, maybe more.”

Cooder couldn’t stomach how the records he’d grown up obsessing over were now being ground up and repackaged.

Like many white hippies coming of age in the 1960s, Cooder wanted to escape the boredom and conformity of 1950s suburbia. Yet he also was grasping at something deeper and more complex: the desire to create a new identity for himself through music. He had heard “another world and culture” in the music of working-class black and white Southerners, one that was both seductive and impossibly distant from his own. What would it mean for him to try to play this music?

One way forward presented itself at The Ash Grove, a folk music club in West Hollywood founded in 1958 by Ed Pearl, “an old commie” who, according to Cooder, “believed in the Pete Seeger ideal of cutting through the class struggle by bringing people together through music.” At The Ash Grove, Cooder saw performances by Mississippi John Hurt, Hylo Brown, The Stanley Brothers, and Bukka White—icons of the 1920s recording boom and 1950s folk music revival. “You could sit there night after night and see these people eight feet away from you,” Cooder remembered. “That thing he did on the record, now I see it.” This “old teacher/acolyte” approach would shape his musicianship moving forward.

Pearl planted the idea that Cooder might collaborate with Henry St. Claire Fredericks, Jr., another young blues obsessive hanging around The Ash Grove. The son of a musical family active in the Harlem Renaissance, Fredericks studied African and Caribbean music in addition to blues and country growing up, and assumed a stage name, Taj Mahal. The two hit it off and were soon performing together at clubs like The Ash Grove and the nearby Troubadour. As a young interracial band playing a wide swath of regional styles, they seemed to embody the utopian ideals of the Folk Revival. Along with the Revivalists’ respect for traditional forms, they also brought a love for the electrified sounds of their own childhood: rock and roll, blues, doo-wop, rockabilly. The combination spoke most directly to other young musicians: a teenage Linda Ronstadt was blown away by one of Cooder’s shows, helping steel her decision to leave Tucson for the bright lights of Los Angeles.

When Ronstadt moved to Los Angeles in 1964, The Beatles and other “British Invasion” bands had begun their ascent up the American pop charts. In 1965, The Byrds, a group made of young musicians playing at the Ash Grove kicked off what was all but inevitable when they released an electrified cover of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which established the new genre (and market category) of “folk rock.” Cooder and Taj got swept up in the craze: they plugged in their guitars, bought matching velour suits, and adopted the appropriately British Invasion-sounding name, The Rising Sons. The duo even landed a recording deal with Columbia Records. But their 1965 sessions were shelved by the label and not officially released until the early 1990s.

Nevertheless, the sessions opened new doors for Cooder. He jumped headfirst into the nascent rock counterculture, adding indelible guitar parts to Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s debut album Safe as Milk (1967), a wild masterpiece of garage rock, psychedelia, and atonal blues. He also worked as a session musician, appearing on records by Nancy Sinatra, The Monkees, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. And soon after, still hardly twenty, he found himself virtually at the apex of the rock world, flying to London to record with The Rolling Stones. Eager to return to their blues roots after forays into art pop, the Stones studied Cooder’s guitar techniques closely, particularly his use of open tunings, which inspired Keith Richards’ to adopt a Fender Telecaster tuned to open G and strung, like a banjo, with five strings—a move that would produce distinctive riffs like those on “Honky Tonk Women” and “Tumbling Dice.”

Yet Cooder was alienated by the Stones’ coked-up and casual approach to recording. He puttered around the studio for hours on end, noodling on the guitar while waiting for the recording to begin, or, at times, for the Stones to show up. (The clash of personalities was dramatized by Bill Callahan on his 2020 song, “Ry Cooder”: “English rockers, all their money goes straight up their nose / Ry just smiles and tries another difficult yoga pose.”) More significantly, Cooder couldn’t stomach how the records he’d grown up obsessing over were now being ground up and repackaged—that the context in which they were being listened to and understood had totally shifted. Ultimately, he drew a decisive link between the commodification of rock and the quality of the music itself. “There’s no space in rock, it’s so compressed, it’s so hard and it’s so unyielding and what it’s doing is selling something,” he reflected in a later interview.

This was a key insight. If the music was squeezed and compressed into a product, he’d respond by letting it expand outward, “creating some sort of environment” in which it could be heard again with new ears.

In the wake of his work with the Stones, Cooder released a flurry of albums made up of creative reinterpretations of vernacular songs, all released by Warner Bros. At Warner and its affiliate label Reprise, he fit in with a group of musicians extending traditional music into new territories, like Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks, and Jerry Garcia. Like them, he rejected a purist sensibility, embracing rock sounds for what they could offer, using all kinds of special pedals, vintage amps, modified electric pickups, and alternate tunings in search of a “fat sound” on the electric guitar. His laidback, California-by-way-of-Oklahoma voice created a nice foil to his blistering guitar sounds.

Cooder was drawn in particular to comic message songs of the Depression era, like the populist fable “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All” and Washington Phillips’ “Denomination Blues,” an inventory of where various Christian denominations stand on how clean your feet need to be in order to get into heaven. He reveled in the tunes’ sparkling particularities—the sudden movements between formal and informal language, the pleasures of proper nouns and place names, of odd chord changes and shifts in rhythm—and the ways in which seemingly cornball or passé details could take on political force, depending on the way you swung it. On his rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” Cooder strips the tune to its starkest components, playing a haunting, unaccompanied slide guitar that shakily states the melody and then cloaks itself in silence. The glass of the bottleneck slide saws itself directly against the wood of the guitar’s fretboard, sometimes pounding against it with a disturbing plunk—like an unwanted knock on the door at night—and other times pulling back as if in fright, fluttering around notes that jitter backward in creaky half-steps toward a bleak, wailing drone note.

Cooder moved toward a more relaxed and irreverent tone on Paradise and Lunch (1974), his fourth solo album. The album’s pastel-painted cover sets the tone: it’s a kind of stoner-savant cocktail of vernacular forms, arranged with funky panache and decorated with colorful splotches of sound. His guitar playing would reach full bloom on “Tattler,” another Washington Phillips tune: beginning with a hypnotic walkdown riff, soaked in a pulsating, enveloping tremolo effect, he mixes inventive chords with syncopated bass lines that roll and stumble around in a spectacle of rhythmic propulsion. His guitar is tuned down to a resonant open chord and his fingers, rather than the more commonly used guitar pick, run in counterpoint, between what his thumb plays on the bass strings and what his index and middle fingers play on the treble strings.

Records, with their “limited storage capability,” only offered a dim approximation of the rich experience he’d had playing the music in the studio.

By the time Cooder recorded Chicken Skin Music (1976), he’d arrived at an “improvisational concept of recording.” Songs slowed down and got longer; the distinction between rhythm chords and lead solos blurred; and the production emphasized the space between instruments, so that a listener might imagine a large room where musicians were playing each song together, live, right now. Chicken Skin Music was also the first album on which Cooder was credited as the producer, a role he’d fill for every solo record moving forward. He approached the job in an almost old-fashioned sense, thinking deeply about finding the right “cast” of musicians, and conversely, allowing his own guitar playing to fade into the mix. His arrangements were daring and frequently inspired. What might happen if the waltz-time guitar runs of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” combined with the cascading accordion triplets of Flaco Jimenez, the San Antonio-born master of Norteño? What if the Western Swing standard “Yellow Roses,” recorded in 1953 by Hank Snow and The Rainbow Ranch Boys, served as a showcase for the magisterial steel guitar playing of the Hawaiian slack-key musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs? What if the intricate gospel harmonies of Bobby King, Terry Evans, and Willie Greene added a soaring gravitas to Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 country song “Always Lift Him Up,” a paean to the plight of the everyman?

Yet if on Chicken Skin Music Cooder had reached an artistic peak, he’d also stalled out commercially. His solo albums had sold modestly, usually hovering around fifty thousand copies; he’d never had anything near approaching a hit single. (He speculated, only half-jokingly, that his label only kept him because of George Harrison’s approval. Whenever the former Beatle visited the Warner Bros. offices in Los Angeles, he’d request a copy of the latest Cooder record.) Artistically, too, Cooder’s interest in “creating some sort of environment” often meant a frustration with how his records were heard and understood, even to himself. Records, with their “limited storage capability,” only offered a dim approximation of the rich experience he’d had playing the music in the studio. “Records don’t tell you a lot about the essence of the harmonic space around people,” he reflected. “And that’s the trick.”

Ironically, perhaps, Cooder found the freedom to explore these ideas by giving up recording his own albums, in favor of composing film soundtracks. Walter Hill, a director known for his revival of the Western genre, was responsible for the shift. After hearing Cooder’s 1978 album Jazz, which employed arcane instruments and arrangements to revive the sounds of the early 1900s, he approached with the idea of writing similarly period-specific music for The Long Riders, his Civil War film about the exploits of Missouri outlaw Jesse James. Cooder loved the job, which allowed him to dive deeper into regional particularities. What would Texas in 1880 sound and feel like? What instruments would these characters be playing? How might they be playing them? Unlike most other film composers, who wrote timed-out scores for symphonic musicians to read, Cooder projected scenes onto a large screen in the studio and asked musicians to react, spontaneously.         

Cooder’s best-known score was for Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas (1984), about an amnesiac drifter, played by Harry Dean Stanton, who emerges from the Texas desert after a long break from society. For the film’s iconic opening, where Stanton stumbles through the desert, Wenders asked Cooder to play something based on Blind Willie Johnson’s desolate slide guitar instrumental “Dark Was The Night Cold Was The Ground” (1929). It proved to be a perfect distillation of Cooder’s unique gifts: an improvisation on an early blues recording buttressed by eerie, floating drone notes that seemed to emanate out of the landscape.

Back in 1994, at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, you could hear the influence of the soundtracks on Cooder’s own music. The guitar he cradled was actually an electric twelve-string mandola; the tones emerging from it were mournful, spacious, sketch-like. Flanked by multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, playing the Greek bouzouki, and his teenage son Joachim, playing congas and a huge bass drum, they sounded like some off-kilter Civil War marching band.

Later that night at JazzFest, Cooder played a second set, this time a collaboration with Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, with whom had just recorded an album, Talking Timbuktu. Rather than a simple “fusion” of Delta Blues and West African modal guitar, it spotlighted Touré’s voice and playing, with Cooder adding supporting flourishes on a variety of stringed instruments. Mellow, unrushed, and warm, most of the songs draw their energy from Touré’s recursive guitar riffs, which seem like they could go on forever. The chemistry between the two musicians can be moving. On “Soukoura” and “Gomni,” their guitars feed off each other so sympathetically, in interlocking patterns, that it seems there’s only one person playing.

Talking Timbuktu fit into an ascendant new genre called “world music,” an awkward formulation with a complicated history. The term first gained traction in the 1960s in avant-garde jazz circles, to describe the boundary-pushing work of musicians like Yuseuf Lateef, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, and Don Cherry (who often referred to himself as a “world musician”), who drew on and played with artists from different global traditions. Yet that had changed by the late 1980s, as the genre was taken over by major labels as a marketing tool—one that, according to scholar Brad Klump, exemplified a “neo-colonialist attitude” that articulates a musical “other”: there’s Western pop music and then there’s everything else.

Perhaps the best-known product of the “world music” boom was Graceland (1989), a multi-platinum-selling extravaganza that paired Paul Simon’s pop songcraft with the ornate harmonies of South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. While Cooder could have been similarly positioned—a globe-trotting American with folk and classic rock bonafides—he was less interested in stardom than in immersing himself in “the company of musicians.” And so he did throughout the 1990s, playing with Hindustani instrumentalist V.M. Bhatt (on the Grammy-winning A Meeting By The River), Irish folk band The Chieftains, Touré, and, in what he called “the greatest musical experience” of his life, a group of Cuban musicians known as Buena Vista Social Club.

The initial sessions, at EGREM Studios in Havana in 1996, were actually a kind of fluke. Cooder had been invited there to play on a collaboration between a group of Cuban and Malian musicians. But when the latter’s passports got lost, preventing them from making the trip, Cooder, Afro-Cuban All-Stars’ director Juan de Marcos González, and World Circuit record-label director Nick Gold decided to proceed recording anyways, inviting a new cast of musicians from across Havana to play with those who’d come from the eastern countryside. The new project that came into focus was a collective exercise in reviving the Cuban sons and boleros from an earlier era.

The on-the-fly nature of the sessions—which took place over six days—perfectly suited Cooder’s skills as a producer. Typically, recording had been done in EGREM’s downstairs studio, which had contemporary booths and sliding separating walls—erected to help cushion sound-bleed and clearly delineate instruments. But Cooder thought they might be able to capture a feeling in the older, open studio on the second floor, where he took a pair of room mics and placed them up high near the ceiling, asking the musicians to sit in a loose circle. The resulting sound mix, as Gold recalled, had almost no overdubs, additional close-micing, or added reverb. This was “creating some environment” in its most direct expression.

The Buena Vista Social Club album became an unlikely worldwide hit, helped by Wim Wenders’ soon-to-follow documentary, which featured live performances in Europe and New York City’s Carnegie Hall. As with all pop cultural breakthroughs, the album prompted much cultural and political commentary. Was Cooder at fault for breaking the U.S.-enforced trade embargo and implicitly supporting the economy of a communist country? (He was issued a $100,000 fine by the U.S. government for doing exactly that; it was reduced to $25,000 after a public campaign.) Or was the album’s backward glance actually a nostalgic evocation of a pre-Revolutionary past? Cooder dodged these questions by simply recording more in Cuba, working on solo albums by the golden-voiced “Cuban Nat King Cole” Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González. A particular highlight of this era was Mambo Sinuendo (2003), Cooder’s collaboration with guitarist Manuel Galbán, the former guitarist of Los Zafiros, a 1960s-era doo-wop-inflected group. Together, the two crafted an instrumental record that harkened back to “the cool world of mambo-jazz.”

While Cooder loved his recording experiences in Cuba, he did not enjoy the fame and notoriety that came with it. “I give up on pop music,” he told a reporter in 2003. “As far as a commercial entity, as far as pop music goes, I quit, I absolutely throw in the towel.” Instead, he turned back to the models of his youth, like the countercultural folkies hanging around The Ash Grove. It was almost as if his entire career had been a bumpy ride with the music industry, and, fascinatingly, when he’d found a bankable seat in the “world music” market, he decided the whole thing was no good for him and jumped off the train, heading back home.

Cooder has sometimes compared his musical process to a form of archeology: “You dig a little, and you find a bottle, and then you go, whose bottle is that?” He prized the early blues and country recordings of the Depression era most of all for their immediacy, what he called the “very hot, almost overheated sense of the present in the music.” He admired, too, their unvarnished poetry, populist sensibility, and lyrics that dramatized or made light of everyday life—in short, how they told a “story of American life before the big explosion of consumerism which we’re now swallowed up in, which came after World War II.” Indeed, they offered the “last look and the first look, really, at real life.” 

Cooder would try to recreate this feeling in the next stage of his career. He emerged in the 2000s with a string of concept albums that reimagined those sounds of the past, dramatizing how ordinary people had been ground down by capitalism and racism. Released in 2004, Chávez Ravine was billed as “a record by Ry Cooder,” technically his first solo album since 1987. But it was really a collective project, for which he enlisted a cast of musicians including labor organizer and grandfather of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero, David Hidalgo of East Los Angeles rock band Los Lobos, longtime associates like Flaco Jimenez and Jim Keltner, Dr. Dre bassist Mike Elizondo, and Hawaiian musicians like Ledward Kaapana and Gabby’s son Bla Pahinui. The album revisited a crucial episode in Los Angeles history: the bulldozing of the Latino neighborhood of Chávez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium in 1955. Voiced from the perspective of different characters, the songs chart how a potent combination of redbaiting, nativism, and corrupt city planning combined to destroy the neighborhood and displace its residents.

Despite ranging across any number of styles, his work has a recognizable consistency—held together by his syncopating guitar and plainspoken voice. 

Chávez Ravine also marked Cooder’s first consistent foray into songwriting. He wanted his songs to feel like they existed in a fragile, ever-shifting present; their characters spoke plainly to the listener and, often, to themselves. On “3rd Base, Dodger Stadium,” a parking lot attendant at Dodger Stadium uses the new baseball field to map his memories of his childhood home: “Second base right over there,” he sings, “I see grandma in her rocking chair, watching the linens flapping in the breeze.” With its spartan chord pattern and gritty, masculine address, it has a structural affinity with a Bruce Springsteen song. But Cooder asked Bla Pahinui to sing instead, in an achingly delicate falsetto that cracks over the syllables.

Cooder followed it up with 2007’s My Name is Buddy, a comic yet pointed suite that follows the Depression-era ramblings of a communist “Red Cat” named Buddy, a Guthrie-esque Dustbowl refugee who is also a literal cat that shares some cheese with an organizer mouse named Lefty. The album is built off laidback, mostly acoustic playing, with Cooder using his voice to particularly great dramatic effect. For 2008’s I, Flathead, Cooder created an alter-ego, the irascible country singer Kash Buk, to ostensibly dip into the “Bakersfield Sound” of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. But the album also came packaged with a novella, written by Cooder, that included first-person testimonies of strange characters living on the edges of the California desert, like the auto-enthusiast and extraterrestrial alien Shakey, who rides supercharged flathead cars around the dried-up Salt Flats.

Cooder’s latest album, GET ON BOARD (2022), reunites him with his longtime friend Taj Mahal, on a collection of songs recorded by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Formative influences on Cooder and Mahal as well as important figures for the Popular Front, the midcentury folk duo had themselves creatively interpreted songs sourced from an even earlier era. On “The Midnight Special,” which imagines a late-night passenger train shining its “ever-loving light” down onto its riders, Cooder’s acoustic guitar and Taj’s harmonica lock in and out of step with each other, pushing and squeezing around the same notes until you hear them break up in a fit of laughter. 

“The best place to be is at the margin, out there at the periphery somewhere, hanging on,” Cooder claimed in a 1992 interview. “It allows you to do two things. You can see in . . . If you’re on the edge looking in, you can see the whole picture. [And] you see out away from the middle and you can drop off the planet once in a while.” It’s a beautifully instructive metaphor, not just as a description of his fraught relationship with the music industry, but also of his musical vision. Where many equate the margin with powerlessness, he has used it as a unique vantage point for understanding the world.  

Cooder’s desire to “drop off the planet for a while” and then reemerge, as Bill Callahan put it, like a cat hopping into its next bag, might suggest that he’s a kind of a chameleon, a shapeshifter. Yet he doesn’t claim ownership of new identities or musical approaches. And despite ranging across any number of styles, his work has a recognizable consistency—held together by his syncopating guitar and plainspoken voice. When asked how he’s been able to pull off playing in so many different ways, he replied simply, perhaps cryptically, “Well, I’m sort of an osmotic fellow.”

Yet for Cooder that process of musical osmosis was not cryptic at all. It grew out of his fascination with understanding how music gets transferred physically from person to person, how the body might absorb the “harmonic space around people” and then turn that back into a new kind of expression. In order to make music like this, Cooder maintained, you need to “feel it.” “And in order to feel it,” he continued, “you need to absorb that feeling from another person.” It’s a sensation that stretches back to his first contact with the guitar—the vibrations of the strings traveling out of the wooden box and shaking his body—and to his earliest visits to The Ash Grove. Now, as he grows into an old man himself, the sound of his guitar just seems to get richer, absorbing all those feelings and carrying them with him, recalling them and refashioning them, placing them next to other feelings, and then sending them back out there.