Vinyl Choice

Interview of Ry Cooder

Sunday Times Magazine, UK - November 1980

Ry Cooder was once described as a "curator of American music". A fair assessment, but it hardly captures the joy and affection of his modern interpretations of old traditions in blues, popular and folk music. A brilliant guitarist, he has played on records by the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and many others, and has made nine solo albums. His recent tour of Britain, in October, was a great critical and popular success.

"There's a handful of guys that have something to do with the way I play now, in particular Joseph Spence, the Bahamian guitarist. He always played in a melodic and rhythmic way that I found exotic, intricate and fascinating, with bass, melody, chord and this interior syncopation all going on at the same time, like juggling. He played played mostly church music, old Protestant hymns. But he'd sit down with a hymn that everybody knew and twist it up so even his own wife can't sing along with him. He could play Jingle Bells and make it sound unrecognisable, but it's how he likes to here it. As far as he's concerned, everyone else is wrong. (Good Morning Mr Walker, Arhoolie)

"Sleepy John Estes was always my favourite blues singer. He had this high, whiny voice and he played in one way, but all his stuff was very intense. He'd start in on this funny beat, with his mandolin nervously following his voice; it was like an old car, pushing to get it going, and once he did it just rolled on. His songs are funny, ironic stories about his life. 'The Floating Bridge ' ( Sleepy John Estes, 1929-40, RBF) is about the time he was in a car that ran into a river. It's a really funny song, very cartoon-like. He was blind, always drunk, but he had such a sly humour. He came to Europe and the whole trip was a matter of where the best cheeseburgers were. He rated the whole world like that. 'Good cheeseburgers in Japan'.

"He was always up for anything, just as long as he could eat, because nobody could take care of him. He lived in a shack in Tennessee; no glass in the window, unbelievable poverty. I'd take royalty money to him, pitching through his bean field in a Rentacar, and here would come all these people because they heard about white boys coming with money. He knew damn well it wasn't going to do him a damn of good, but he appreciated the fact that he got paid at all. It'd be gone in an hour, people coming over and borrowing money for a new set of tyres or a drink. He died so poor that some of us had to send money to bury him.

"I guess my favourite guitarist must be Blind Willie Johnson, a bottleneck guitarist who sang gospel music. Bottleneck came from the Hawaiian groups who toured the States around the beginning of the century. They'd play the guitar flat on their lap, tuned to an open chord, using a bar or comb. The black guys got hold of it, and the hillbillies. By the time Johnson recorded, in the Twenties, it had been incorporated into a local style: his style is the most artful of all, the most haunting. (Praise God I'm Satisfied, Yazoo ).

"It's hard to talk about bottleneck without talking about Elmore James. I swear he had the best tone I ever heard. It Hurts Me Too (One Way Out, Charly) stands alone, the guy is getting it all out there. The voice is the same vibrato as the guitar, the man is in sync with himself, and when that happens it makes the record shake almost out of its grooves.

"Somebody once said blues is a music of bare competence, and it's true. Some of these blues guys were fantastic in their own way, but most of what was recorded was not good. Gospel was always more respected in the black community.

"Bobby Womack came out of that Gospel Tradition, a great singer and a sensational guitar player. 'It's All Over Now' and 'Looking For Love' by the Valentinos are my favourite records in terms of sound. Womack's guitar is not the featured instument, but it's moving along with the rest of the group; the rest of the arrangement is simple, but it works.

"In Sixties soul the electric guitar reached its zenith: Womack, Curtis Mayfield and Robert Ward, who played guitar on the Falcon's 'I Found a Love', with Wilson Pickett singing. (Wilson Pickett's Greatest Hits, Atlantic).

"Curtis Mayfield playing on Jerry Butler's 'Find Yourself Another Girl' (Up On Love, Charly) has to be one of the five greatist guitar situations on record. He played a Stratocaster, with his thumb and with a capo, very atmospheric, very beautiful, very casual, too. He doesn't play like that anymore; nobody in black music does. It's unthinkable, reverting; nobody wants to do that, except me and a few others.

"I don't listen to a lot of contemporary guitarists, but 'Are You Glad To Be In America?' by James Blood Ulmer (Rough Trade) has to be the best record I've heard in ten years. That guy is a genius. He's played with Ornette Coleman, so he has an abstract approach, but he's not coming up with the most notes, or weirdest distortion. It grooves, it's happy, it's neat,and there's some structure in there which is very deceptive, simple but well worked-out, and kind of lumpy round the edges, like some of the reggae stuff.

"Besides Joseph Spence, Gabby Pahinui would be the greatest influence on me in recent years. He was the greatest acoustic guitarist I heard; he'd play 'slack key', the Hawaiian term for tuning a guitar to a chord, and his touch would be second to none. Yet nobody really knows who he is, just a Hawaiian guy who played in bars all his life. (The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band, Warner/Panini).

"If you're that good, that natural, that talented, it just works. The rest of us just have to work at it. I've seen Gabby play a junk guitar, Spence play so out of tune he wasn't even in key. But it didn't matter. It sounded fantastic."

Mick Brown

Information supplied by List member Willie Milne