Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

I've been missing Ry Cooder.

He hasn't gone anywhere, of course. He lives, and until someone informs me otherwise I will assume he remains well. But...

My introduction to Ry Cooder was 1987's Get Rhythm. I had no idea what an anomaly it represented in his ouevre. Sister Rosetta Tharpe said there are only two types of music — blues and gospel. Get Rhythm was blues at its rowdiest. The album had its circumspect moments — or “moment,” since “The Borderline” was really all that passed for sober circumspection on that album. The rest of it was torqued up to 11, in attitude if not always in amplitude. The album rocked, and when I caught up with past offerings I understood just how hard it rocked. Get Rhythm offered a schooling to up-and-coming youngsters, but was also in hindsight an aging master's farewell to youth and young manhood.

After that, Ry seemed to become a predominantly serious man. Of course things have become serious for us all — I wouldn't argue against that. And Cooder seemed to be walking alongside (if not slightly behind, where he seems most comfortable) his listeners, taking things in stride to the best of his abilities. Chavez Ravine (2005) was an admixture of cultural/political/let's-have-fun sensibilities. My Name Is Buddy (2007) was a pet (sic) project that channeled Woody Guthrie and Kenneth Grahame in equal measure. Then I, Flathead showed up, getting the octane mixture exactly right — equal parts nostalgia to thrill. 2011 brought Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, and 2012 Election Special — both strong indicators that Ry believed there were clear political solutions to the difficult problems besetting us all, if only we had the courage to face them and act.

It is 2018, and political solutions do not appear possible to those determined to act in good faith.

With The Prodigal Son, Ry reaches for spiritual coherence and elevation, and achieves it. It doesn't have the testosterone-fueled snap of Get Rhythm and the more boisterous songs of I, Flathead, yet it still rocks. Blind Willie Johnson is well represented, as is Carter Stanley and Blind Roosevelt Graves. Ry's own contributions are humbly offered affairs not out of place with his estimable saintly company. And it is bittersweet to hear, probably for the final time, the voice of Ry's long-time collaborator, the late Terry Evans.

“Keep the faith,” is clearly Ry's message. There is still joy to be had in the day-to-day struggle — sometimes it just takes a rousing slide-guitar to dust it off and let it shine.
Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son.

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