Arguably the finest blues guitarist of his generation, Ry Cooder attracts a following that cuts across most known boundaries. Earning his early blues dues with Taj Mahal and his rock credentials with Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, Cooder has, over the past couple of decades, made superlative rock, jazz and movie soundtrack albums, and crossed effortlessly into world music fusions with artists as diverse as Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure, Okinawan group Nenes, and the Indian guitarist V. M. Bhatt. Indeed, it’s in these ethnic fusions - and the soundtrack instrumentals - that Cooder seems most at ease, as a guitarist essentially. The songs and the vocals often seem a secondary concern.
Largely self-taught, Ryland Peter Cooder began playing guitar at the age of three. Influenced by recordings of blues legend Josh White, he spent his teens at the centre of the Los Angeles blues scene, the Ash Grove, where he regularly took the stage from the age of 16. Encounters at the Grove led to musical experimentation. Conversations with the likes of Gary Davies and Jackie DeShannon made him take up both the banjo and the mandolin, and within a year he was playing both proficiently. It took him even less time to master the bottleneck blues guitar, the style which would later become his trademark.
In 1964 Taj Mahal came to the Grove in search of new ideas and rehearsed extensively with Cooder, before the pair formed The Rising Sons, and began recording an album. With the record only half-finished, Taj Mahal disappeared, but short-lived though their professional relationship was, Mahal's influence upon Cooder is still apparent in his playing.
After years of live performances, Cooder finally entered the recording studio in 1968 to work on Captain Beefheart's debut album. He was hired as a session musician, but his contribution to the project extended to his arranging a couple of tracks. On Beefheart's recommendation, Cooder went on to record successfully with Paul Revere and The Raiders, before traveling to England in 1969 for his first real brush with fame.
Once in England, Cooder set about writing the soundtrack for an upcoming motion picture, "Candy". While working on this project, he was approached with an eye to recording with The Rolling Stones. By all accounts, Cooder thoroughly enjoyed the time he spent working on Let It Bleed, but his experiences recording the Candy soundtrack were to have the more profound effect on his career. Meantime, such was his reputation as a session player that he sealed a deal with Warner/Reprise, and released Ry Cooder (1970), a blues- and folk-inflected rock album, covering songs by the likes of Woody Guthrie.
Cooder’s second album, Into the Purple Valley (1972), with the slide to the fore, was a big enough commercial success to allow him the luxury of experimentation. Later albums would see Ry try his hand at classical guitar on Boomer's Story (1973), gospel music on Paradise and Lunch (1974), and dixieland jazz on Jazz (1978), while a profound interest in Hawaiian guitar manifested itself on his fifth Warner release, Chicken Skin Music (1975).
These records just about covered their costs back in America but Cooder enjoyed more substantial success in Europe. A big hit in Germany and Holland, Ry also found an audience in Britain, where his 1979 album, Bop Till You Drop, made the Top 40.
However, it is in soundtrack music that Cooder has made his mark. After contributing to the score of Nic Roeg's Borgesian thriller "Performance", he has gone on to record numerous scores for Hollywood productions, notably with film director Walter Hill, with whom he has collaborated on western sand action movies from "The Long Riders" (1980) to "Geronimo" (1994). Other film work has included the soundtrack for the Jack Nicholson western "Goin’ South" and the much-praised score for Wim Wenders' haunting movie "Paris, Texas".
Outside of his soundtrack work, Cooder drifted into a number of collaborations on the world music scene, most notably Talking Timbuktu (1994), a collaboration with Ali Farka Toure which stands as a benchmark for world fusions. It was a commercial success - huge by world music standards - but Cooder has also collaborated in a much lower profile way, with Hawaiian, Indian and Japanese musicians.
In recent years, Cooder has played a role in the increased appreciation of traditional Cuban music, due to his collaboration as producer in the Buena Vista Social Club (1997) recording, which as a worldwide hit. Wim Wenders directed a documentary film of the musicians involved, Buena Vista Social Club (1999) which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2000. Cooder worked with Tuvan throat singers for the score to the film "Geronimo: An American Legend".
Cooder's solo work has been an eclectic mix, taking in dust-bowl folk, blues, Tex-Mex, soul, gospel, rock, and almost everything else. He has collaborated with many important musicians, including The Rolling Stones, Little Feat, The Chieftains, John Lee Hooker, Gabby Pahinui, and Ali Farka Toure. He formed the Little Village supergroup with Nick Lowe, John Hiatt and Jim Keltner.
Rolling Stone magazine named Ry Cooder the Eighth Great Guitarist of All Time in their "100 Greatest Guitarists" list. Immediately behind Cooder in the list were Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page and The Rolling Stone's Keith Richards. Ry Cooder was a guest session guitarist on several Rolling Stone's albums in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, and (most significantly) contributing the haunting slide guitar solo to "Sister Morphine" on Sticky Fingers. He even turned down an offer to join The Rolling Stones at one point. Cooder notably taught Keith Richards how to play in the "open-G" tuning; Richards has used the tuning ever since, including on many of The Stones' greatest songs.
Cooder also stepped in for the recording of the slide guitar parts in the 1986 film, "Crossroads", a take on the infamous tale of the blues legend, Robert Johnson.
Ry Cooder's I, Flathead, is the culmination of his ambitious and fascinating "California Trilogy," the last of three albums in which the singer and guitarist journeys through the real and imagined history of mid-20th century, multi-ethnic California, sampling the sounds of its barrios and byways, its nightclubs and honkytonks. He encounters the disenfranchised, the hopeful, the cheerfully strange and seriously nefarious, along with the occasional alien who races around in a souped-up flying saucer on the desert salt flats. On previous installments, Chavez Ravine (2005) and My Name Is Buddy (2007), learning the facts and stories behind Cooder’s songs made them even more compelling, whether it was the not-quite vanished legacy of the Chavez Ravine neighborhood of Los Angeles, bulldozed to make way for Dodger Stadium, or the allegorical, Bound For Glory-like adventures of Buddy Red Cat in a time of commie-baiting and union-busting. This time, however, no research is necessary: Cooder, a California native, has written a remarkable 104-page novella to accompany this disc, a surreally funny page-turner of a tale about itinerant musician Kash Buk and the various characters he meets in his travels out west, all of whom get to narrate parts of the story. If you mixed John Steinbeck with, say, Thomas Pynchon, and threw in a bit of Popular Mechanics for good measure, it might read something like the I, Flathead narrative.
The musical souls of two nations, Ireland and Mexico, are movingly brought to life in San Patricio (2010), the latest international collaboration by six-time Grammy winners The Chieftains - the leading practitioners of Irish traditional music for the past four decades. The album features multi-instrumentalist, singer and composer Ry Cooder, another multiple-Grammy winner, who co-produced with The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney. It tells the nearly forgotten story of the brave San Patricio battalion - a downtrodden group of Irish immigrant conscripts who deserted the U.S. Army in 1846 to fight on the Mexican side against the invading Yankees in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
“These times,” says Ry Cooder, “call for a very different kind of protest song. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” We’re way down the road from that.”
On his fourth solo effort for Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records, the globe-trotting composer, singer, and multi-instrumentalist leaves behind the fantastical yarn-spinning, the magical realism, and allegorical tunes of his acclaimed, Grammy Award-nominated California trilogy- Chavez Ravine (2005), My Name Is Buddy (2007), and I, Flathead (2008) - for the most forthright album of his career. The fourteen songs on Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down (2011) are, by turns, angry, outraged, bitterly funny, and deeply poignant. With brilliant, Woody Guthrie-like directness and a healthy dollop of satire, Cooder’s lyrics address the often-sorry state of our domestic affairs: the bank bailout, the anti-immigration movement, the ever-growing gap between rich and poor, and the never-ending war in the Middle East and its devastating physical and emotional toll on young soldiers.
Ry Cooder’s Election Special (2102), is a wake-up call as the United States heads into the fall election season. “Howdy there neighbor - let me ask you something. Do you really think Charlie and Davy sit around on the couch with family and friends watching re-runs of Dancing with the Stars?,” asks Cooder.
“See, ‘Wasting Away in Margaritaville’ was a good song in its day, but we need a different kind of a song now if we’re going to make headway against the likes of Charlie and Dave. Those type of guys are plenty swift, they’re all deacons in the High Church of the Next Dollar. We need to get smarter, fast. The world is full of C and D students in high places and there’s more coming up all the time. Don’t be one.”
Cooder sings and plays mandolin, guitar, and bass on the album, with Joachim on drums. Arnold McCuller sings harmony vocals on “Take Your Hands off It.”