by RIP RENSE
MUSIC FOR THE GOOD
(Jan. 17, 2016)
From left: Ricky Skaggs, Joachim Cooder, Sharon White, Ry Cooder.
The so-called music in this café would be very good
for murdering giant lizards in hell. Then gutting them and eating their
organs raw, and smearing yourself with their cold reptilian blood. While
being flogged by Satan.
that, it’s okay.
Which is to
say, go and see Cooder-Skaggs-White. Hurry. It is music as good, or good as
music. Well, it’s good music. It’s what music used to do, is supposed to do,
for you. Not a murdered lizard in sight, no fires, no pitchforks. You know,
like a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. It is no bit of careless whimsy
that the tour is billed, “For the Good People.” Me, I wasn’t sure there were
any “good people” left in this country, but that’s beside the point. If you
build it, they will come. . .maybe that’s the idea here.
that’s Ry Cooder, the six-time Grammy-winning, musically peripatetic
champion of Cuban, African, Indian, Hawaiian, Mexican music, and blues,
jazz, norteno, folk, various fare too conveniently summed up as “roots
music.” (Most notable, probably, for introducing the world to venerable old
musicians in isolated Cuba via the 1999 film, "Buena Vista Social Club.") Now, at 68, he is delving into an archaeology of tunes from a bygone
era called the 20th century. From a country even more out of reach than Cuba
was, because it no longer exists. Think you know what American music is? You
might, but then again, you might not.
|This is a minor history
lesson in music; a survey of stuff that used to be as much on the
radio as it is not today---certainly when Cooder was a boy in Santa
Monica tuning in country station KXLA in the early ‘50’s, waiting
for Johnny Cash.
Among the repertory: The Delmore Brothers, Flat & Scruggs, The Louvin
Brothers, Kitty Wells, Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, Bill Carlisle, Merle
Travis, Hank Snow, Blind Alfred Reed, Ralph Stanley. Among the tunes: “The
Family that Prays,” “Take Me to Your Lifeboat,” “Sweet Temptation,” “Mansion
on the Hill,” “On My Mind,” “Cold Jordan,” “Daniel Prayed,” “Hold What You
Got,” “Pan American Boogie,” “A Fool Such as I,” “Above and Beyond,” “No One
Will Ever Know,” “Gone Home,” “Wait a Little Longer,” “No Doubt About It,”
“Wait A Little Longer, Please, Jesus,” “Pan-American Boogie,” “Unload,”
“Above Yer Raisin,” “Reunion.”
New to you? Hie thee to
hear it. Old to you? Hie thee to hear it. Not your favorite kind of
music? All the more reason to go. I did, a couple months ago in Santa
Barbara, Calif., not quite knowing what to expect. Wound up with an
education, and no socks. Fields of clover spread before me as I walked out
teamed with the endlessly touring country/bluegrass mandolin/fiddle
virtuoso Ricky Skaggs, his guitarist/singer wife, Sharon White, harmony
singing sister Cheryl White, and their miraculous piano playing 84-year-old
dad, Buck. With the chugging, joyful rhythm section of Nashville bassist
Mark Fain and drummer Joachim Cooder. Together they are playing a music so
genuine, unaffected, so un-processed and non-GMO that it might not even be
recognized as music by people under 30. Maybe 40. We’re talking songs
here. With verses. Middle eights. Harmonies. Rhymes. Drummer of flesh and
blood. Songwriters. Bluegrass. Gospel. Country. Hillbilly. Dance hall.
Sometimes all at once.
"If people come
down, they’re gonna like it,” Cooder told the Harrisburg Daily News a
couple months ago. “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.”
thing you can do for yourself: listen to it. If this sounds like
shameless cheerleading, rah rah. You leave the theater feeling a hell
of a lot better than you did when you walked in, and that is no easy feat in
the United States of Acrimony. Not to get hysterical here---this won’t cure
sciatica, but it’s apt to make you forget about it for a while. You will
certainly leave with an expanded idea of what constitutes Great American
Music. (Hint: it ain’t Aerosmith and Jamie XX.) There is something important
Aside: I went to a couple of concerts at legendary McCabe’s Guitar Shop in
Santa Monica not long ago. I won’t name the artists here, because they are
talented and well-intentioned, but the folky-country-ish ballady stuff of
which they were alleged exemplars was just contrived, a pose. It was like
the “USDA Organic” stamp on food. Government-redefined “organic.” Imitation
Cooder-Skaggs-White is likely as close as you will ever get to the real
thing. Well, it is as close. These people might not have written the
songs they are playing, but the songs are written in their voices and
fingers. This is a minor history lesson in music; a survey of stuff that
used to be as much on the radio as it is not today---certainly when Cooder
was a boy in Santa Monica tuning in country station KXLA in the early ‘50’s,
waiting for Johnny Cash. Indeed, for the
multi-instrumentalist/composer/master of slide guitar, this tour is going
home again. As a kid, he used to skip school to work out tunes by the
Delmore Brothers, Flat & Scruggs, the Louvin Brothers, Bill Monroe, Hank
Williams, Merle Travis, et al. Now, as an old kid, he’s playing them on
No wonder the
famously tour-shy Cooder told the Chicago Sun-Times:
“This is the music I listened to on the radio and always wanted
to play. This is the most fun I have ever had in my life onstage.”
multi-Grammy-winning Skaggs told the same interviewer:
“I’m not one to
judge or criticize another man’s work — the Bible tells me that. I was
new country in the early ’80s, but I still was dedicated to blending
bluegrass with a country guitar. I wanted to honor all those that came
before me with everything I was doing, unlike some of the kids today.”
respect your elders, kiddies.
White? The easy, sparkling lyricism in the old gent’s solos tells of
decades in dance halls and honky tonks and the road (he and his
daughters founded The Whites about as soon as the girls were able to
sing and play.) Wind him up and watch him go.
might wonder, here in the Home of the Brave and the Land of the Me,
how it is that Skaggs and The Whites, who are assiduously, you might say
religiously, devout Christians---and who testify right there in their
songs, big-time---could collaborate with an evil unbeliever such as
Cooder. Well, at least a person of private feelings on the matter. The
answer gets at the heart of how they collaborate. Put simply, they all
recognize one another’s fundamental decency, civility. Good people
collaborating for the good people. In a world that daily reminds
everyone of almost nothing but. . .bad people, to call this a potent
implicit message is not an overstatement. Get along with one another despite
differences? Why, gee, it’s the, uh, Christian thing to do. Besides, they’re
really not at cross-purposes. Consider the message of this verse in Blind
Alfred Reed’s “You
Must Unload,” from 1927, which closes the show:
fashion loving Christians / you'll surely be denied / You're robbing God of
treasure when you feed yourselves with pride / If you want to get to heaven,
your future uphold / you must unload.”
Who would argue? Who needs to literally believe to embrace
gospel music? Who needs to be Jewish to dance the hora?
We owe it all to Youtube. Sort of. Cooder has explained
in various interviews that he and Skaggs began trading Youtube videos of
their old faves, after having worked together on The Haden Triplets
eponymous 2014 album, which Cooder produced. As Skaggs told the Sun-Times:
“When we were sending songs to each other, I was completely surprised that
most of Ry’s list was the old gospel quartets and bluegrass country music
that I soon found out had always been in the back of his heart.” Now, as the
tour enters its second year of sporadic runs here and there around the
country, Cooder exhorts the audience at each show to “Youtube” the artists
they’re showcasing. Musicology at your fingertips.
As for the
review portion of this unpaid infomercial, we start with Buck White. The
easy, sparkling lyricism in the old gent’s solos tells of decades in dance
halls and honky tonks and the road (he and his daughters founded The Whites
about as soon as the girls were able to sing and play.) Wind him up and
watch him go. Skaggs is, as the old music cliché went, a monster on the
mandolin, and one superb country fiddler. Kinetic solo after kinetic solo.
Cooder, who is playing banjo, guitar(s), and less identifiable stringed
instruments on the tour, contributes solos that are, as one would expect,
poetry. Deep poetry. He also sings an excellent, husky gospel bass (he
“harrumphs” it, said the New York Times), and does a lovely job with
Hank Snow’s 1953 classic, “(Now and Then) A Fool Such as I.” The lead and
harmony vocals of Sharon and Cheryl White are all things bright and
down-home beautiful---with that added sisterly simpatico. Their vivacity is
as untarnished, unjaded as their father’s playing. The buoyant rhythm
section of bassist Fain and drummer Cooder (Ry’s son), pulls off the rarity
of always being right where you need them, and never in the anybody’s way.
That four of the players have worked together for decades does not hurt the
depth, nuance, and rapport on display.
this simply do not come along often. Certainly not as often as bands
that play music good for murdering giant lizards in hell.
Cooder-Skaggs-White will next perform:
Jan. 29, Thalia Hall, Chicago, Illinois.
Jan. 30, Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Jan. 31, University of Illinois, Springfield, Illinois.
Mar. 30, Savannah Music Festival, Savanna, Georgia.
Apr. 1, Parker Playhouse, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
Keep tabs on more dates as they are made
BACK TO PAGE ONE