It’s hard to get an exact handle on exactly what Ry Cooder’s musical journey has been, even when you know where it’s gone.
He’s recorded with everyone from Neil Young to the Monkees, from Malian bluesman Ali Farka Toure to Hindustani slide guitarist VM Bhatt. He’s played American blues and Tex-Mex conjunto.
There was the time he got the alumni of Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club back together for an album, a movie and tours.
The mandolin on the Rolling Stones’ “Factory Girl”? That was Cooder. And there was even talk of him joining the Stones as Brian Jones’ replacement.
Thursday, he arrives exploring yet another musical muse. The Songs for the Good People tour comes to the Ponte Vedra Music Hall. That’s Cooder along with bluegrass/country great Ricky Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White. Buck White, leader of longtime family band The Whites, sits in on piano. Keeping it in the family, Ry’s son Joachim Cooder plays drums.
Q: You’ve certainly been through as many musical forms as anyone. Is there anything you can say that’s been the thread? If they’ve been the tributaries, what’s the river?
It’s just the songs. Everybody sings songs, no matter where you’re from. For me, it has to be a good song. Our American song bag is different because they settled on one length with verse chorus. I don’t think that exists anywhere else.
When I hear something that I like, I want to play it. It just gets to me somehow. Music is a great carpet ride.
Q: Why this, why now?
When I was in high school out here in Santa Monica, long-play bluegrass records starting showing up with this whole new group of guys playing it differently. Mike Seeger and Ralph Rinzler. I thought that this was culture music, folk music, not jukebox hit parade. I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever heard. Beautiful singing, great banjo playing.
I bought myself a Mastertone banjo and figured I could learn this three-finger roll.
One night, Bill Monroe was there. I went and he said “Son, you just ain’t ready.” And I wasn’t.
But it got me. The three-part, four-part harmonies. I thought I would love to live this. Travel around and be part of a group. But if you’re not born into it, you can’t really do it. So it didn’t happen.
Q: What made it happen now?
So here I was pushing 70, about four years ago when my son asked me what I was going to do with myself. I wasn’t performing or doing shows, and he knew I couldn’t just sit there.
Then one day I was tooling around YouTube which I like to do because you can find anything on there. If you want Indonesian jukebox, you can find it. And I came upon Ricky and Sharon and Buck White, probably 1973. We can talk about the Stanley Brothers and others, but these guys are more or less my age, but look what they can do. I said I was going to get in touch with them.
It took three years for it to take hold, but we went to Nashville and sat in with them.
Q: It’s not straight traditional, is it?
They didn’t put drums in Ricky’s bluegrass, but I thought there was something we could offer. So we did a few shows. I didn’t want to slide into my golden years and not get to sing the bass part.
It’s great to see Ricky play so much mandolin that it hurts. And then when Buck White came in playing that Texas dance hall piano, that’s just icing on the cake.
Q: What we are we going to hear Thursday night?
It’ll be a classic repertoire. Not a lot of people are doing these songs back to back like we are. The odd Hank Williams, the odd gospel, everybody’s got one or two of those. But not two solid hours.
They let me sing a Hank Snow song, who was my first favorite. We have Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs. I think “Reunion in Heaven” is one of the greatest songs in the English language.
And Sharon and Cheryl [White], when they start doing those high harmonies that their father taught them, it’ll curl your hair. They’re not sliding around on hits and fame. These people lived this music. Me and Joachim are fans, but they were born to it.
The oldest is the best. Buck White is 85 and you need that age.
Q: What instruments do you and Ricky play?
I play guitar and banjo. Ricky said to play my banjo and I am, even though I haven’t since I was 16. I’ve got a couple of electric mandola type things, some oddball variations. They’re mostly electric.
Ricky plays mandolin, fiddle, some guitar. Sharon plays guitar. We’ve got Mark Fain on upright bass. We’ve got seven pieces up there. It’s pretty hot.