As a genius of mining the musical archives, Ry Cooder has no equal. He’s been finding new brilliance in old records since he began recording, and his achievements include not only his classic recordings as a leader, but also the fantastically successful rediscovery of the Buena Vista Social Club, which should go down in history as the coolest A&R move of the late 20th century.
But despite being prolific in the studio in multiple capacities, Cooder doesn’t get out much. He released a firecracker of a live record called Show Time in 1977, and then didn’t make another live record for 35 years. Even when he had new music, Cooder didn’t always perform it live. There have been some recent exceptions, as in 2013’s Live in San Francisco recorded with Corridos Famosos, but until he found this new partnership with Ricky Skaggs, it was a rare thing to see a concert that included Ry Cooder on the bill.
Today, thanks to Skaggs, his wife Sharon White, and a great band that includes Cooder’s son Joachim on drums and White’s 85-year-old dad Buck on piano, Cooder has become an unlikely road warrior. They’ve been touring on and off since the spring, and this is the beginning of another ambitious jaunt that will lead them up the west coast to Washington by way of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and some other choice gigs.
When I spoke with Ricky Skaggs about the experience by phone last week, he was ebullient, and emphasized the fact that it’s a big deal to see Ry Cooder in person, citing the crowds of top musicians who packed the group’s recent appearance in Nashville. Skaggs humbly left out the fact that the occasion was the Americana Music Awards, at which Cooder presented Skaggs with an award for his Lifetime Achievement as an Instrumentalist.
With Sharon’s sister Cheryl on board and Buck White at the piano, the group will explore a range of American music including some gospel numbers on which they sing quartet harmony. According to Skaggs, it was Cooder’s idea to get Buck White into the studio, and as a result, the group travels with the man Skaggs calls “our resident elder.” As for the set list, “it wasn’t things Buck had to learn—he was there when it started in the 1940s.”
One surprising thing about this splendid archival song raid is how it’s partly a product of some very 21st century technology. “Ry [Cooder] is a master of YouTube,” Skaggs told me. “That’s how we found a lot of the songs we’re doing—we found them online.”
UCSB Arts and Lectures presents Cooder White Skaggs at the Granada on Tuesday, September 29 at 8pm. For tickets and information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu or call 893-3535.