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Interview: Ry Cooder, February 13, 1981

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I was a Ry Cooder fan from the time I heard “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” from his first album on the radio. His second album, Into The Purple Valley sealed the deal, and I started seeing him every chance I could. This included more than a few solo acoustic shows at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, PA., just outside of Philly and then a succession of various bands and expeditions into all kinds of music. This interview took place a few months after the release of his Borderline album, his second digital album, when he was pretty much into doing soul and R&B tunes. John Hiatt played rhythm guitar in his band and would do a guest spot singing O.V. Wright’s song, “Eight Men and Four Women.”  I didn’t know whose song it was or who O.V. Wright was until this interview. Not long after, working at the once legendary Philly record store, Third Street Jazz & Rock, an O.V. Wright album came in by accident. I quickly said, “Don’t send it back, I’ll buy it.”  All my other interviews took place either backstage or on a tour bus at shows usually before or between sets and rarely sometimes after. This interview took place the next day after Cooder played the Bijou Café in his hotel room. When I arrived, he was a bit grouchy and somewhat suspicious probably figuring I’d ask him about working with The Rolling Stones. But when I brought up his working with Joseph Spence and Sleepy John Estes, he warmed up considerably realizing I’d listened to his records.

Your last two records and the show last night seemed to be… you seem to be getting into, at least on this tour pretty much of an R&B type groove. Are you going to continue in that direction or is this just what you’re enjoying at the moment?

Well in my opinion, you have to look at it from my point of view, I figure all the stuff I do is that – kind of in that vein. I mean the tunes have always been sort of R&B format tunes even though some of ’em were older and not in that genre, they still sort of lend themselves to that guitar/bass/drums sort of setup and singing – background singing. And then it was just a matter of time to get it to sound right. I’ve been through a lot of different permutations of that thing. But still, trying an accordion here, or this or that, or getting some Hawaiian guys in on the thing, but it ends up being the easiest kind of music to play. And the easiest kind of music to present, on stage or on record. It makes good little three or four-minute songs and it’s what I like myself. I’ve always sort of fancied myself an R&B guitar player. The last two records are sort of focused down to that, you see, rather than have so many things on them. It seems to work better and the people like it better if they can perceive continuity. I think that’s the main thing really.

I’ve noticed that my favorite kind of songs that you do are the songs like “Teardrops Will Fall.”

Mine too. That’s a good example.

And with your latest record, I really felt that you hard really reached a groove, even more in a sense than on Bop Till You Drop.

Oh yeah, I think so too. Well, for one thing, that little band in the studio is now in a place where they really have a good intuition about the kind of thing they should play and what I want. And I mean I’ve been playing with Jim Keltner for 12 years now. We should understand one another by now. And then, Drummond came in on it and that proved to be very good and then Smitty the piano player and all these elements, once they’re in the right place, you really can make good records. And it’s a matter of having done something long enough to get better at it. So I know how to present the material better to them and I know what I’m doing in there. I mean 10 years of making these albums you’re supposed to get to where you know how to go about doing these things. Most of those tunes are first-take tunes. We don’t labor over ’em. It just indicates that the folks in the room are the right folks. And I think that if you can match up your talents properly and organize your thing then you’ll make very good records that way.

Could you talk a little bit about the digital process?

Yeah I can talk about it. It’s kind of a bland subject. It’s an idea, it’s the engineers and technicians in this field which has become so advanced, and now we’ve gone way beyond the kind of thing that Les Paul was interested in when he made his eight-track which I still think is the world’s greatest recording machine. But you’ve gotten in this idea of the computer age as applied to making records. I’m not sure it’s compatible, because if you reduce music to number equations… so the thing is, the thing is you then have like this infinite compartmentalization of sound. So it’s very unlikely that you’re gonna get the kind of blend and the kind of mix that the music is accomplishing  in the room itself. Now, we set up naturally in the studio. We don’t use baffles. I don’t like to use ’em. I don’t like to have the drummer in a booth and this guy in that booth. So I like everybody out there in the front and I like a lot of overhead mikes. We get a good wobbly well-integrated mix sound in there. And then what the digital it turns out does, is push it back into baffles again. It makes everybody sound like they’re in a different room. When I discovered that I wasn’t too pleased. At first it seems that the digital is… because it’s so focused, is giving you a lot more sound than you ever heard before, and that’s true. But the problem is that you take the transistor aspect of the board you have which speeds up everything and the damn digital machine which then clarifies everything a little bit more than is necessary maybe, and you’re fighting. You’ve got a machine that wants to do one thing and you wanna do something else. I’ve come to that conclusion, after making two records. It certainly is a good idea. But somewhere along the line you have to figure out how to go about using all of this facility and this technology to make it work for you in the way that you want. I mean I’m not satisfied ’cause I still don’t hear like what I like comin’ out of that on those records. Frankly, the little disc can’t take all that digital sound. The needles jumps out of the groove. So they have to cut it back when they cut the thing. They have to reduce the sound spectrum that’s going on the record and then when we get to have laser beam record players in our homes, this will be probably much more applicable. Tape is fine. Laser video is okay, but for disc I still don’t know if digital is quite the thing yet. I’m not sure about it, that’s all.

What are those little boxes you have on your guitars?

Those are just something that Dan Armstrong invented. They’re battery operated. I’m not sure what it is–he won’t say what it is they do. He won’t come right out and say. But it seems to clean up the sound and broaden it. It’s like having a little amplifier at your guitar stage and it just makes the instruments, to me, sound a lot more present. I use my hands. I mean I’m playing with my fingers so I need all the signal I can get so I don’t beat myself to a pulp which I do anyhow. I like ’em. They’re noisy though. That’s the only problem with ’em, but they just make those funny guitars sound better somehow.

You seem to prefer Stratocasters even though I’ve read that you’re not…..

I was pissed off because I didn’t like the Strats that I had and that was because I hadn’t found out…. you have to work all this out, it takes years…. the right pickup, the right thing, it’s insane. The amplifiers are important. The strings are important, all that, but the Strat, there’s something about it. First of all, ’cause it’s solid-body, it’s very reliable. It doesn’t move around. The neck doesn’t move and it stays in tune pretty much of the time, even though I play it pretty hard. But it has nice overtones. The guy, Leo Fender is so smart that he was able to build these things and take what would normally be–just a block of wood has no overtones until you shape it and do something with it. And he knew what to do to get these things to sing out. And they really do. I think they’re good instruments. And that pink one I’ve got is a particularly good one. I just got that recently. The blue one I’ve had since I was about 15 and the pink one is new. It’s been refinished, but it’s an unusually good one. It’s like a late-fifties. It has a fat neck. Some of ’em have thinner necks. The popular ones have the thin necks. I got bigger hands so I like the fat necked ones myself.

Do you use any of the Gibson electrics at all?

No, I can’t play on ’em. Can’t get a sound on ’em.

Have you ever considered putting out a Gospel record?

Yeah, of course I’ve considered it. But the problem there is A) esthetically I can’t sing that music to my own satisfaction. I’ve just not got the pipes for it. Without that, without the really great set of pipes to deliver that music you just can’t pull it off. I don’t think anybody can. I would much rather play on somebody else’s gospel record and besides the market being what it is today, it would just further confuse everybody and ruin what slim chance I have of breaking through on this stuff. I mean, it would just be viewed as another crazy trick on my part and it probably would be. It’s not a good idea.

Do you find that your explorations into the different forms of what are basically sort of American music have gotten in the way of your just going out there and wanting to play?

They haven’t gotten in my way, but I think they’ve been misunderstood. People tend to take everything a little too seriously, ’cause I mean a player, anybody, not just me, but a lot of people, that I know and musicians in general are very much interested in whatever they can find. That’s how you learn and that’s how you get better. So, it just so happened that I would get an idea and I’d go see somebody and if it sounded good, you look at the record studio as an excuse to get together. People like to think that they’re doing something,  It further enhances the thing. So you say let’s make a record. Okay fine. Then once you start of course, it leads you into it, and you’re suckered into this thing. You put out a record and people say okay, now he’s doing this and he’s doing that and all that kind of thing happens. Which merely, what it is, is a guy going through some sort of learning process, which is how I look at it, and if I hadn’t have done all of that I don’t think that I would be able to… I wouldn’t be happy. I wanna please myself and I think that all those little funny things that look strange or foreign somehow… in the end, if you’re smart about it, you can breathe some interesting texture of life into some of these tunes and make better sounding records.

I know what you mean because 1), I play, but 2) at the radio station I have the rare opportunity to be able to do shows where I can take…. play basically whatever I want, so I’m able to go from Bahaman music to Mexican music to rhythm and blues to gospel to African drums, Wilson Pickett and back again and tie it all together somehow.

Sure, why not. Well, lucky for you.

So I can sort of understand….

The point of it is the music is all just sound. So people make a mistake of having to think about it and label it and put it into boxes and that’s unfortunate. It gets in the way of your understanding. Folks should just listen and stop worrying about who made it. Of course the business doesn’t work that way so…..

This is kind of economically impossible, but when you did the Chicken Skin Revue shows, that sort of came close… have you ever wanted to like maybe take a lot of the musicians of the different sounds that you’ve put out and maybe put together a couple of shows where….

Oh God, no. It’s not only economically impossible, but you have to be practical. Thing work in a strange way. The Mexican thing that I did, I had an idea that they could play R&B, that was all I was thinking. The Tex-Mex guys are very close to soul music in their approach and their thinking, the simplicity of it, very direct. They could play this stuff. I figured, let’s try it. I like it so much I’m gonna do it. It’s like an all-star band. Was there ever a good all-star band?  I mean it’s hard to say. It seldom works. You have to have unity. So you could do something for the circus value of it but it wouldn’t mean anything to do anybody. A lot of people who saw that show liked it and then some people who saw it, it didn’t make sense to ’em. And of course it was carrying something to a pretty far extent. Somewhere along the line what you do has to have an impact. It has to generate something that transcends all of that business about where are you from. So, I’m certainly never gonna do anything as radical as that again only because I can’t afford it and you can’t survive doing that kind of thing. I had fun with those guys and it meant something to me. I just don’t think that segue-wayed up with the expectations of concert promoters and record promoters and the press and the people in general. I mean it was a little bit strange.

I thought for instance the version of “How Can A Poor Man” on that record really worked.

Sure it worked! Those guys knew what that music was all about. The first time they heard “Goodnight Irene,” they knew it. You didn’t have to teach it to ’em. I played it. They said, “We know that song.”  I said, “Oh, you’ve heard it before.”  They said, “Never heard it before.”  But they just knew what it was. So I knew I had done a thing that made sense. And I had guessed at it. And I had come out on top. Now, esthetically that doesn’t happen very often. But it sure was fun while it lasted, except that like I say you can’t make a career for yourself doing that.

Have you thought about doing record production at all?

I’ve thought about it. It’s a tough job. It’s so hard to do it for yourself  let alone somebody else. You have to contend with them. But I certainly would produce somebody if they wanted me to and I thought they were good and it made sense and I could make some money. It’s a very hard job to do. You end up being disliked I think. You end up fighting.

Is Joseph Spence still around?

Yeah sure, he just made a new record. He’s pretty old. I don’t think he’s in real good shape. But I saw him about five years ago. He started to get heart trouble. Probably his diet. He drinks too much. But he lives in a nice place. It’s pretty down there. He has a nice home, his wife takes good care of him. But he’s old. Christ, it’s the late seventies I think or seventies anyhow and he doesn’t play very much unfortunately because nobody down there can play with him. And I asked him when I saw him, “Do you have pupils at all?  Do you teach?  What’s going on?”  He says, “Oh yeah, lots of students.”  I say, “Any of ’em any good.”  He says, “No!  No good.”  I said, “They can’t play this kind of thing you do?”  And he says, “No, only I can play it.”  Which is weird, but this is a fact. The guy really lives in it all by himself. He’ll sit down and play a little tune, his wife will sing with him and pretty soon he’s gone. I mean he’s off. And she gives up. They can’t make it. And they all kind of chide him for being radical musically, you see, and he’s just an unusual person so when he’s gone that’ll be the end of it. I think that that island he comes from, Andros, there must be some more of that stuff there, but no one has gone over there too much to find out about it. But I think he’s just unique really.

I’m pretty into the records that came out on Nonesuch.

Oh yeah!  There’s a lot of that stuff down there I have a feeling. The jukebox in Nassau has transformed everybody into… put them into the modern age and so kids he says, don’t care for the stuff that he’s interested in. They don’t wanna play that kind of thing. That’s kind a universal impulse I suppose.

Does he play in tunings?

Yeah, he tunes the 6 down to D. But he’s in standard tuning where the sixth is low. But the thing about him is it’s not a key. I tried to play with him and he’s not in a key. He’s in a D configuration on the guitar, technically, but you can’t tune up to Spence. You cannot tune to Spence. Once he’s played your guitar and I took it back — I played with him and I took the guitar back, I couldn’t play it. I mean it was so out of tune. But it had a pitch of its own, it’s very interesting.

I remember a friend of mine was trying to figure out “Coming In On A Wing And A Prayer”….

It’s easy. It’s easy to know. It’s a system that he worked out. For instance, he said, “I don’t play in any key but D.”  I said, “Well, why is that?”  “Well I used to play in other keys, C, I used to play in E, I don’t like those keys anymore.”  I said, “Why?”  He said, “They’re not pretty, it doesn’t give you the bass, it doesn’t give you the movement,” so he’s worked out this thing that he likes and it’s in the key of D. I appreciate that myself. I play in about three different configurations and that’s all I care to do myself. But he can get a lot of sound off that key. That’s the thing that’s amazing to me. It’s amazing to watch. It’s tough. That’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever seen anybody pull off. And it’s a strain for him too, no wonder he’s got heart trouble.

Who’s your favorite bottleneck player?

I don’t know. I don’t think about favorites too much. But I guess if I had to single out anybody I would say Blind Willie Johnson, ’cause he, I think he made the best sounds on the guitar. But some of these electric guitar players like Elmore James, to define what an electric bottleneck might sound like, and Earl Hooker is a great player. Not very well recorded unfortunately. But he certainly was fantastic. There’s a lot of good players down there. I like Blind Willie though just because it was so spooky sounding, the stuff that he did. And he’s certainly good. I certainly don’t know how he played what he played. I mean I know how he did it, but I wish I could’ve seen him do it. Another one of those physical tricks.

What was it like playing with Sleepy John Estes?

Well, it was hard at first because we’re from the city and we tend to be more rapid in our reactions to things, our reflexes are faster and he’s a country guy and he plays slower. It’s just a lot calmer and slower than I thought at the time and in about an hour though, you adjust if you’re smart, and you listen and you get with him. It was very easy to sit there. I knew all the tunes so I’d say to him — we were in this guy’s house — I’d say to John, “Well, how about ‘Working Man Blues,’ or something?”  Bang!  Go right into it. He has a memory for all of that stuff. He never forgot any of his songs even though when I had met him, he’s already so spaced from being undernourished and old. I mean he was something like a yogi mystic who had practically meditated himself out of reality. He couldn’t have weighed 90 pounds. I don’t know how he lived. He had like apparently no movement except that he could play and sing and sounded just like he always had sounded. It was pretty amazing. Nice guy. Very smart. But of course he died of just utter poverty. He might’ve lived another five years if he had heating in the house. Who the hell knows?  He had a pretty interesting life though. He was happy.

You’ve done a lot of sessions. Is there anybody that you’ve done sessions with or maybe haven’t done sessions with that you’d like to maybe tour with?

I don’t quite think about those kinds of things. Sessions I don’t do much anymore first of all. If somebody calls and it’s interesting and I have the time, I might go down. Usually though, a straight pop date is pointless for me to show up on because the stuff I play they can’t use. They think they do, but they end up mixing it out and pretty soon you realize this and so you say why bother. Give ’em a break, don’t go down. I discourage people when they call me unless I know it’ll work, or unless it’s so peculiar that I can’t resist.

How did you get into fingerpicking the mandolin?

I don’t know. I guess I figured because I did it anyhow it was a good idea. It worked out too. I just started doing it one day. I guess I was looking around for a sound on the thing and it seemed to work. Plus, you take a mandola or a mandocello, a larger instrument, you’ve got more mass to work with and it really works out good. The mandola fingerpicks nice. It’s a good sound too. Hard as hell ’cause the strings are so close together.

Will you be doing any more work with David Lindley?

Well I hope so. Jeez. He’s makin’ his own record now and if he doesn’t ask me I’ll be insulted. But he’s been interrupted a lot because he has to go out with Jackson Browne and do these things but all he has to do is play what he knows. He’s so good that he’s got to make a pretty interesting record. He’s a fantastic musician. We did a tour together, just duet. We did Australia and Japan and we just murdered those people. It was amazing. It sounded like an army was on stage. He’s fantastic. He’s the best without a doubt slide player there is in the world I’m sure. At least I think so.

You seem to be a pretty big Wilson Pickett fan?

Well I like all that music. Soul music is my favorite sounding. It makes the best records I think that I’ve heard. I listen to it and then for a while I won’t listen to it and then I come back and it’s always good, it always hits. Pickett was just… is sensational. What a voice!  I’d like to meet him sometime. I don’t know why. He probably wouldn’t give a damn about me.

Soul music’s pretty much my favorite….

You ever listen to O.V. Wright?  He’s the best I think  He just died about last month. He was the best soul singer I’ve ever heard. But he never was known widely because he was on these funky labels like Hi and Backbeat and Duke-Peacock and it never quite got out there. But that’s the guy to me. He came out of the Highway QCs, one of those touring gospel groups like Sam Cooke, but anyhow that guy was like right from church like Pickett but he had this real tender voice, really beautiful. It’s great music.

One guy who I’d love to find who was from Philadelphia is Howard Tate.

Last I heard about him he was in New York, and Jerry Ragovoy used to produce him. He made all these demos with the guy and I asked Ragovoy, “Where in the world is Howard Tate?”, and he wouldn’t tell me. So he’s either in jail or dead or just not working in music which seems unlikely because the guy’s so

great. There’s never been any better than Howard Tate. Fantastic.

© 2019 Peter Stone Brown

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