STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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It’s a rare configuration of talent that involves a combined 20 Grammy Awards.
Guitarist Ry Cooder has joined forces with bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, of ‘80s country band The Whites — Cooder-White-Skaggs, if you will. White’s father, Buck, of The Whites, and Cooder’s son, Joaquim, are also part of the country dance band that will take the stage at Glenside’s Keswick Theatre on Nov. 12.
“If people come down, they’re gonna like it,” Cooder said of the “Music for the Good People” tour. “We do these old country tunes. The tunes are simple tunes — three-chord songs, strong melodies. You’re going to hear stuff, probably from (World War II) up to 1965. Half of them are gospel (with three- and four-part harmony). To sing gospel harmony is the greatest thing you can do for yourself.”
Cooder, 68, recalled growing up in Santa Monica, Calif., stumbling onto a country radio station broadcasting out of Pasadena, and being so taken by the music that he would skip school to learn how to sing and play the songs. “I used to think: ‘Who are these people? What is this music?’,” he said, adding that Pasadena, at that time, had a lot of relocated Southerners working in the area’s aircraft factories.
Pianist Buck White is 84 years old, and according to Cooder, can play a gospel song like it’s jazz number, and vice-versa. “This guy’s a fabulous player,” he said.
That’s praise coming from Ry Cooder — No. 8 on “Rolling Stone”’s 2003 list of Greatest Guitarists of All Time, a musician with a discography that stretches back to 1970, and the contributor of important guitar parts on “Kokomo” by The Beach Boys, plus the albums “Sticky Fingers” by The Rolling Stones, “Safe as Milk” by Captain Beefheart and “12 Songs” by Randy Newman.
Cooder also introduced folks to the band Buena Vista Social Club, producing an album in 1997 of them performing traditional Cuban music, which begot an Oscar-nominated documentary film on the group in 1999. Trouble was, the project was in violation of the U.S.-Cuba trade embargo, and Cooder was fined.
So what does he think, now that the embargo was just recently being lifted?
Cooder said he, his wife and the surviving touring members of Buena Vista Social Club were all guests at the White House about three weeks ago to celebrate. “(Buena Vista Social Club) played real well. The people cheered and clapped and took selfies,” Cooder reported.
Then he reflected on the reasoning behind lifting the embargo, which happened to occur during National Hispanic Heritage Month. “That was interesting to see Cubans in the White House. Time changes everything. Naturally, there’s business to be had in Cuba. You can’t tell businesses: ‘You can’t do business.’ So what politicians do is take care of business,” he said.
Cooder was also the first artist to release a digitally recorded album, 1979’s “Bop Till You Drop.” “The 3M company had invented this machine. It was all based on sampling technology. They adapted the computer technology, such as it was, for recording,” he said, explaining that he was chosen to be the guinea pig to test the experimental technology because his label, Warner Bros., got the first machine.
Cooder remembered thinking “this is weird” during the studio playback of the songs because the “harmonic content” sounded different, in both good and bad ways. “The resolution was either all-on or all-off. It was dramatic because it was loud,” said Cooder. With a super-low sampling rate by today’s standards, it was definitely a far cry from modern Pro Tools software, he said.