A FEW MINUTES WITH… Ry Cooder & Ricky Skaggs
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
The Egg is billing Sunday’s (November 15) concert by Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White & Friends as Ry Cooder’s first live performance in decades. “I don’t think Sharon had the vaguest idea who I was,” says Cooder. “Why would she, unless she heard from Ricky?”
With 14 Grammy Awards and 12 No. 1 hit singles – five of them while still in his twenties – Ricky Skaggs is arguably the highest profile bluegrass mandolinist alive. His wife Sharon White has been lead vocalist in the traditional country band the Whites for 40 years. Cooder is arguably the most iconic of the three… and the least well known.
Listed as No. 8 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time, the six-time Grammy winner is best known for producing Buena Vista Social Club, a 1997 Grammy-winning platinum worldwide hit album that brought together veteran Cuban musicians Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Conzales. That collaboration did as much to put Cuban music on the map as Paul Simon’s Graceland did for African music.
In 1965 Cooder formed the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Spirit drummer Ed Cassidy, showcasing slide guitar at a time before Duane Allman had convinced rock fans that he’d all but invented the use of slide in electric rock and roll. Cooder was thre before him. Check it out.
For half a century Cooder has displayed incomparable versatility of styles including rock and roll, blues, reggae, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, Dixieland, jazz, country, folk, R&B, gospel and vaudeville. In 2014, Rhino Records released a seven-disc box of his soundtracks from films that include “Performance” (1970), “The Long Riders” (1980), “Paris, Texas” (1985), “Crossroads” (1986), “Last Man Standing” (1996), “The End of Violence” (1998) and “Steel Magnolias” (1989). This tour is Cooder’s first venture into bluegrass and marks a very rare appearance on stage.
It was Cooder’s 37-year-old son, himself a drummer, who pushed his dad into this rare project. “Joachin used to say to me, ‘Aren’t you ever going to do anything? You’re sitting in your chair all the time.’ I said, ‘What am I gonna do? I don’t know what to do. What am I gonna go out and play? Who am I gonna do it with?’ Then it occurred to me one day. I know. This is what I’d like to do. So, they came up with this thing. So, now we’re doing it, having a good time.”
Skaggs is thrilled and calls Cooder “one of the greatest guitar players I’ve ever heard.” The first time Skaggs and Cooder played together was for a Tony Rice benefit last year. CMA ended up interviewing Cooder. “The interviewer asked him if he had, for lack of a better term, a bucket list,” recalls Skaggs. ‘“Do you have something you’d like to do musically that you’ve never done,’ and he said, ‘Well, you know, I’d really like to cut a record and play with Ricky Shaggs and Sharon White of the Whites.’
“So he kind of mixed us all in there together. The next thing I know, Rosanne Cash had asked us to do a show at Carnegie Hall, which is coming up in November (Saturday, November 14, the day before their show at The Egg). She said, ‘Ry, I’d like you to host one of the nights. Put a band together.’ He said, ‘Well, I’d like to do it with Ricky and Sharon,’ and she went ballistic.”
“I sit around in my chair, and I try to imagine what if this or that thing were to occur,” says Cooder about the match-up. “That’s what I’ve always done – take a look at it from different angles, and say, ‘Well, now, that would be really fascinating, and that would work because I like to play that music that they do, but I’d like to play from another angle, you know, rhythmically. Push it with the electric guitar a little, not unlike what Chet Atkins did with the Louvin Brothers.”
Not only is the pairing of Cooder and Skaggs a first, but this tour also marks a rare collaboration between Skaggs, his wife Sharon and members of the Whites. “Sharon and I have gone out with (my band) Kentucky Thunder and done some things together promoting our (2104 duet) record (Hearts Like Ours), but this Cooder/White/Skaggs tour is a totally different show,” explains Skaggs. “I think the only thing newer than 1965 is Ry’s son Joachin Cooder and Mark Fain, the bass player. They’re a little newer than 1965, but all the music is pre-that. Ry is singing Hank Snow, Jimmy Martin and the Goodmans’ ‘Take Me in the Lifeboat.’ Sharon is singing Kitty Wells stuff and songs by the Louvin Brothers and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Pan-American Boogie.’ It’s all gospel, old country, rockabilly and bluegrass.”
Cooder and Skaggs share a dogged devotion to music inspired by their muse and not controlled by record company marketing. Skaggs turned his back on pop country decades ago after scoring five No. 1 country hits in a row. Cooder’s career is filled with left turns collaborating with like-minded artists including James Taylor, Aaron Neville, Warren Zevon, Luz Casal, Captain Beefheart (Safe as Milk), Randy Newman, Van Dyke Parks, the Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers), Taj Mahal and Gordon Lightfoot.
His description of the post-war music industry tells the tale: “Once they had crossed that line (of putting marketing first), the only value the music had was in the personalities. Then, of course, the personalities had to be inflated like a tire with so much air in it so that you could continue to lead the people toward this insane goal. What am I talking about? I’m talking about every industry, cosmetics, clothes, shoes, cars. God, almighty. Now we have total involvement from cradle to the grave. Instant marketing is one of the most growth industries there is. That and private prisons.”
Cooder’s description of Chet Atkins’ role with the Louvin Brothers is an example of how he views the music world. To him it’s like a dance between the individual artists’ muse and the product that finally connects with an audience.
“Look what Chet Atkins did producing the Louvin Brothers. The sound of the electric guitar together with what they were doing complementing them was tremendous. It’s a model. It’s a perfect thing. It’s like a Faberge egg on record, a creation. You can’t help but love it. I like it so much better than their other records. Not that I don’t like their other records, but those that Atkins made with them are perfect. They’re just great. Everything is taken care of. It’s like this whole world, you know.”
A devout Christian, Skaggs is gentler and comes across with almost messianic humility. He’s all about the music and not about himself. That became an issue when he worked with writer Eddy Dean on his autobiography “The Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music.” “It was all inflated about me as a child,” he complains concerning the first draft. “It always made me look like I was bigger than life, and I was Mighty Mouse when I was a kid, and I was some kind of super teenager.
“I never wanted to be inflated. I never shied away from the fact that God had given me a tremendous, tremendous gift as a child, that I could hear this music. I could comprehend it. I mean playing with Bill Monroe at age six, that door opened up. Playing with Flatt & Scruggs when I was seven, and all the people I got to work with before I was 10 years old. I mean, that just doesn’t happen.
“I wanted that story told, but I wanted it to be in a humble way, and so I would have to write it in a way that made me look and seem thankful, not someone flexing my muscles. So that was a bit of a do that I had to do.”
“What we’re really doing here is traveling around, having a good time singing this music just for the beauty of it, for the sake of it,” says Cooder. “That isn’t to say we’re not on the trail of a Top 10 record anymore. You can’t kid yourself. no, it’s not about that. I look at it as a life experience.”
WHAT: Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White & Friends
WITH: Buck White (piano), Joachin Cooder (drums) and Mark Fain (bass)
WHERE: The Egg’s Hart Theatre, Empire State Plaza, Albany
WHEN: Sunday (November 15), 7:30pm
HOW MUCH: $45