Ry Cooder is mainly known as one of the best slide guitarists in history, whether on electric or acoustic guitar, but this irrefutable fact often overshadows an excellent recording career that is perhaps the best example of what we know as Americana and which, in his case, is not limited to his country, the USA - with sources such as blues, country, folk, gospel, soul, jazz, bluegrass, Cajun music and rock & roll - but also extends across the entire American continent, including Tex-Mex music, corridos, calypso, son and salsa. From among his 17 studio albums and multiple soundtracks, Guitars Exchange has rescued these 10 marvellous pieces to serve as an introduction to a remarkable catalogue:
Do Re Mi (1970)
On his eponymous first solo album, Ry Cooder transforms this hymn by the father of American folk, Woody Guthrie, and turns it into an explosive blues rock piece, with the best Texan flavour, to which he adds a wonderful string arrangement.
Vigilante Man (1972)
Another wonderful Woody Guthrie cover, a fixation that is perfectly understandable considering that Cooder started playing guitar at the age of five by memorising the records his parents had, mainly those of Guthrie and Leadbelly. Included on his second album, Into the Purple Valley, released in January 1972, although this time he is accompanied only by his voice and the acoustic guitar, to which Cooder gets some of the best notes of his career, demonstrating his absolute mastery of the slide.
Maria Elena (1972)
Ry Cooder's love for Mexican music goes back a long way, in this piece from Boomer's Story, his third studio album, he takes a Mexican folk song from 1932, written by Lorenzo Barcelata, and takes it to his own territory, here we can already guess his next association with Flaco Jiménez and even some of the things that would appear, many years later, in Paris, Texas. An instrumental beauty that doesn't lack, nor is it missing, a single note.
Ry Cooder's versions are total reconstructions of the original sources, something that can be seen to perfection with this Tattler by Washington Phillips, from which a totally different song emerges, to which Cooder even adds a chorus that it didn't have, that "true love can be such a sweet harmony if you do the best that you can", sung in perfect harmony with the voices of people like Bobby King, George McCum and Russell Titelman, which gives the song a new twist. His beloved '67 Fender Stratocaster Daphne Blue dabs at the song here and there, but never asks for the limelight for itself, instead helping to build a song that also benefits from a nice string arrangement. It was included on my favourite album of his entire career, Paradise And Lunch, released in 1974.
He'll Have To Go (1976)
Cooder's love of Mexican music led him to meet the great accordionist Flaco Jiménez, with whom he recorded the seminal Chicken Skin Music in 1976. The strength of Cooder and Jiménez together can be appreciated to perfection in this He'll Have To Go, a song that they make totally their own, despite being a cover. Listening to it, one can perfectly understand the comment Jiménez made about Cooder: "I think Ry Cooder is a genius of universal music, how can I explain the guy? He creates so many things. He modifies.”
I Think It's Going To Work Out Fine (1979)
Ry Cooder takes one of the most powerful and irresistible tracks from Ike & Tina Turner's early days, I Think It's Going To Work Out Fine, and turns it into a superb ballad in which his delicate slide playing shines, as it almost always does. Recorded for one of his most famous albums, Bop Till You Drop, released in July 1979, Cooder uses his iconic '67 Daphne Blue Stratocaster, to which he made multiple modifications and which appears in his arms on the cover of that album.
Paris, Texas (1984)
The most remembered song of his career, and rightly so. Cooder swaps the electric for a 1950s Martin 000-18 acoustic and takes as his model the Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground by Blind Willie Johnson, the man he most admired and the song he considered "the most moving and transcendent piece of all American music", delivering along the way one of the most beautiful and gorgeous instrumental pieces in his 20th century history with the notes of his slide biting the soul and serving as the perfect soundtrack for the desert images in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas.
Cooder has created more than a dozen soundtracks but Paris, Texas is the best of them all, with special mention also for that Canción Mixteca sung by the film's protagonist, Harry Dean Stanton, which could have appeared perfectly on this list.
Chinito Chinito (2005)
Chávez Ravin is the twelfth album of Cooder's career but it is one of the most special. It was the first studio album he had released in 18 years, since the distant Get Rhythm, but it was also one of the best albums of his career, a conceptual work about the Mexican-American neighbourhood in Los Angeles that was demolished in the 1950s to build Dodger Stadium. There were several great songs on there but the most fun and infectious was the version of this Felguerez Diaz song from the 50s that wouldn't have passed the filter of today's political correctness, as the song mocks a Chinese laundryman, with the racism of the era, yet musically it was pure Latin exuberance, with wonderful brass arrangements and the innocent vocals of Juliette & Carla Commagere.
No Banker Left Behind (2011)
Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down is the most political album of Cooder's career, also a logical consequence for this great follower of Woody Guthrie. In the financial crisis at the end of the first decade of the 21st century Cooder found his own Depression to write an album that was exciting but also angry at those who had left us behind, with an opening song that was pure Guthrie, musically and lyrically, and comically titled No Banker Left Behind. The song ridiculed the huge bailout of the big US banks in 2007, after they had already lost all their customers' money. It was a 21st century folk anthem, with Cooder doing his best instrumentally as well as lyrically.
The Prodigal Son (2018)
Ry Cooder's last album to date contained this wonderful adaptation of this popular blues tune which is one of the spiciest and funkiest things, with wonderful gospel backing vocals, that he has ever recorded, as if he were a young twenty-something wanting to eat the world and not a venerable legend who turns 75 this 15 March.