Here’s a clip of roots music archivist, film composer, world music ambassador, and slide-guitar superhero Ry Cooder with a 1987 performance of Billy ‘the Kid’ Emerson’s “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile” in Santa Cruz, California, a town which Cooder incorporates cleverly into the narrative for this particular performance. The studio version of this song can be found on his 1980 album Borderline.
This tune is a quintessential rock ‘n’ roll song, full of sexual vigour, and with a touch of Tex-Mex and Zydeco flavouring heating things up even more. The band here is stellar, including stalwart session drummer Jim Keltner, Van Dyke Parks on keyboards, Flaco Jimenez on accordion, among others. The calibre of the playing certainly helps to attain a funky groove about being horny and being down and out without wheels at the same time. This is ripe subject matter for rock ‘n’ roll, drawing a distinct correlation between the two.
Ry Cooder himself is a fascinating musical figure, being something of a boy-genius when it came to the guitar and many other stringed instruments when he started out. Before the 1960s had concluded he’d worked with Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal, and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Cooder built a career as a gatherer of R&B, folk, and pop gems from decades past, and re-positioning them in new contexts. His slide playing became his trademark, as did his ability to repurpose old songs, many of them minor hits and forgotten treasures into a succession of celebrated albums, like Boomer’s Story and (my favourite) Paradise and Lunch. His 1979 Bop ‘Til You Drop LP was the first major label album ever to be recorded digitally.
Yet this would be merely a stage in his career. His 1980s work eventually turned to scoring films, the most high profile being the evocative and impressionistic score for the film Paris, Texas starring Harry Dean Stanton who also sings on the soundtrack, and with contributions from fellow stringed-instrument mage David Lindley. He would also score the film Crossroads, a film which also concerned itself with blues folklore, making Cooder something of a logical choice as film composer.
Apart from his work with John Hiatt, Jim Keltner, and Nick Lowe as the short-lived Little Village, Cooder would have a third phase of his career by the 1990s with world music albums featuring Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure, and later with a group of Cuban musicians later to be known as the Buena Vista Social Club. This latter project would make stars out of all participants, with a smash hit album and a celebrated film by Wim Wenders, profiling the story of how Cooder discovered a group of masterclass, and very elderly, Cuban musicians and brought them into the limelight at Carnegie Hall in 1998.
But overall, Cooder is a phenomenal guitarist and arranger, incorporating an incredible stew of influences to take old material and make it shine in a new context while not betraying the original spirit out of which it was born. That’s a skill that isn’t to be underestimated, and in this Cooder is one of the best at wielding it.