Ry Cooder's prodigious accomplishments as a guitarist, producer, film scorer, and ambassador for music from around the globe are such that it's easy to overlook all he's done as a solo artist.
The native Californian makes a rare Philadelphia appearance on Tuesday at the Mann Center on a bill with Emmylou Harris in support of his superb gospel-fired new album The Prodigal Son (Fantasy *** 1/2). His band will include vocal trio the Hamiltones.
Cooder played with Taj Mahal, Randy Newman, and Captain Beefheart in the 1960s, shaped the Rolling Stones' sound on Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, and has scored more than a dozen movies, including Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas in 1985.
In the 1990s, he helped bring Cuban music to the world by producing the mega-selling Buena Vista Social Club, and he collaborated with fellow virtuosos such as African guitarist Ali Farka Toure and Hindustani classical musician V.M. Bhatt.
But Cooder has also had an impressive solo career. "Across the Borderline," the immigrant's song he co-wrote in 1982, has been covered by Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Bruce Springsteen and is more haunting today than ever.
In the mid-2000's, Cooder went on a jag that resulted in a string of superb historically minded albums, starting with 2005's Chavez Ravine, about the destruction of a Mexican American neighborhood in the 1950s that made way for the Los Angeles Dodgers stadium.
Talking from Santa Monica, where he's lived all his life, Cooder spoke about discovering Guthrie when he was 4, the career he might have had as a car pinstriper, and The Prodigal Son, which he co-produced with his son Joachim.
What was Santa Monica like when you grew up?
It has kind of a funny history. Douglas Aircraft built their factory there and up through World War II there was huge employment. People were coming to L.A. from everywhere. They built street after street of identical little houses. It was incredibly boring and dull.
How old were when you got the music bug?
My father was a big classical music aficionado, so I had that. And in the 1950s it was the McCarthy era, and my parents had friends who were super-progressive left-wing people. The father in the family couldn't get work because he was blacklisted.
So he went from being an elite classical musician, a string player with the L.A. Philharmonic, to nothing, eking out a living. He knew I liked music, so he brought me a guitar when I was 4 years old. A little four-string, a tenor. A good one. …I said, 'Oh … I like it."
You remember that vividly.
The whole thing is clear as anything. I can see it now. Also, the family had the equipment to go with it. The Folkways 78s, Woody [Guthrie], the Dust Bowl Ballads. Leadbelly's albums. I would listen to the records and look at the WPA Farm Security photos. It was a whole world. So distinct and exotic. Not Santa Monica.
So there was a musical world, and also a world of dissent?
Oh, completely. I was fascinated. The pictures are really what did it. You could see the places, the way they looked, the way they sounded. I thought, 'You know, I'm going to stay with this.'
And there was a radio station, KXLA in Pasadena. A country station started for these aircraft workers from the South. Speedy West and Merle Travis did the jingles. I used to listen and wait to hear something good, like Johnny Cash in 1955.
It was that, and cars. I liked cars. I wanted to be a car pinstriper.
You paint lines on the cars, these designs. There were a couple of guys out here who created it out of nothing. They look like Rorschach drawings, symmetrical and fanciful and weird. Von Dutch was the king and Dean Jeffries was the prince. The designs were easy, but the brush work and the technique was so hard. I couldn't do it.
So your music career is a result of your failure as a car pinstriper?
Probably. When you're young, you do what you're good at. If you're a baseball pitcher, you do that. Music I knew I could do.
You came at it from a country-folk-blues angle. Were you a purist?
When the Byrds hit, everybody loved that, and I did too. Folk rock suddenly was invented. … [Producer] Terry Melcher said to me, 'What can you play?' I said, 'Mandolin I'm kind of good at. An electric guitar tuned like a banjo. A bottleneck, if you like.' It was a small scene. The phone would ring. It could change your life.
You made five really excellent and strange solo albums between 2005 and 2012, but The Prodigal Son is the first since. What’s been going on?
I, Flathead [from 2008], that was going to be my big one. And nobody cared. Now that's interesting: You make a great record and nobody cares.
Then times got bad and I started getting pissed off on these political records. Then that sort of ground to a halt and I hurt my back. Messed up a disc.
My Chinese doctor, the acupuncturist, she blamed it on the political writing. Said I got too angry and hurt myself. So what do you want me to do? 'No more of that. Love songs, all love songs.' So I got this idea to do something with Ricky Skaggs and play gospel music.
When I talked to you in 2012 you had sworn off playing live. Now you’re touring like a demon. What happened?
I played with Ricky and the Whites for a year and a half. And I loved it so much. We sang four-part gospel harmony. It was sensational. Joachim was on drums, which is my favorite thing. We had a ball.
>> READ MORE: Cooder: 'These things should be said . . . right now'
[Before], I didn't like the way it sounded on stage. That's been overcome. [Recording engineer] Martin Pradler is going to make it sound like the record. So I'll never feel that nagging worry that used to drive me insane. Martin is really good. It's like having Einstein do your taxes.
The new album has a lot of gospel and country. You added a verse about Ralph Mooney, the great steel guitarist, to The Prodigal Son.
I love that music the most. I'm older now. I sing better than I used to. I certainly play better. And this music is durable, it's solid. It feels good.
What’s “Shrinking Man” about?
The Shrinking Man, it's this book by Richard Matheson in the '50s. It's about this 9-to-5 suit-and-tie guy living his suburban existence. His clothes start to get baggy and he starts shrinking down. He goes from this modern-day middle-class human, a cog in the wheel, and reverts into a primitive state. He has to defend himself from a cat and a spider.
But then he realizes he didn't need all that stuff. He has everything he needs. He says, I don't need your fancy shoes made in a sweat shop. I have a new way of walking and talking. I'll do the best with what I got. I thought it was a good idea for a song.
In “Gentrification,” you call people colonizing American cities “The Googlemen.”
It's everywhere. Greater Los Angeles is a place on unbridled unchecked development. Always has been … It's destroyed the place.
Where’d “Jesus and Woody” come from?
I went back to see if Woody was going to have something for me on this record. I always go back to trusted sources. Blind Willie [Johnson] and [Blind] Alfred Reed. Woody wrote a lot of tunes around the World War II era. People believed fascism had been licked and it was going to be an era for the workingman. Two cars in every garage.
And of course none of it worked. This land is not ours. The fascists did not lose. Hannah Arendt, if you read her work, it's about the spore that is always there and is always going to poke through again. How do you say that in a song? Jesus and Woody are up in heaven and Jesus says: 'Let's remember the good old days. I preached brotherly love, and you preached the era of the common man, and neither have taken hold. I'm tired. It's been hard work.'
In 2012, “Election Special” had some angry songs, one written in the voice of Mitt Romney’s dog. Political discourse has gotten nastier since. How are you coping?
I'm not going to tell people that there's no hope. Don't go up there and frighten them. There's no point in that.
What is the point then? To find meaning in art and music and life?
Well, of course. And we have to protect nature. We have a job to do. I'm 71, and we have our two grandchildren now and they live next door, and that's very helpful and quite fascinating. And the music itself is still my best shot. The instruments and how they sound and the amps and the drums. And just being alive and trying to be happy and good. Not at the expense of people doing worse than me, of course.
Are you producing anybody?
Oh, God no. That's a hard job. I did play on a record that Joachim produced by Carly Ritter. Her grandfather was Tex Ritter, the country singer. I'm not sure if it's ever come out. [It hasn't.] That's a really good record, probably the best record I've ever been on. It's incredible. Real cowboy. Not that ersatz Americana bulls-.
Is it gratifying to have your son play with you?
I mean, what better thing? He opens the show. Songs that he's written, plays an array of strange instruments. Plus, he plays the rhythm right. And it's not because he studied the music. I poked around and studied as hard as I could. He's not like that. Right out of the womb, he got it. I guess he absorbed it. It's great. Really good. Fantastic.