Music / Music festivals

Acousticity: A Q&A with Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White and Ry Cooder

Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White and Ry Cooder

By John Lehndorff

(June 17, 2015) I had the opportunity to chat with one of my musical heroes, Ry Cooder, while writing a feature about his upcoming tour with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. You can read that feature at:

You can listen to Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White perform live from the Telluride Bluegrass Festival on Sunday streaming on

Here are some excerpts from the remainder of my conversation:

With all your diverse recordings, you’ve never recorded a bluegrass-style album: “My first instrument was the banjo. I’ve listened to bluegrass since high school, but it hasn’t been a performance thing. … I started listening to the Starday albums when they come out – Jimmy Martin especially…. There is something about the point of origin for a kind of music that rings the truest.”

How aware were you of Ricky Skaggs from his first country album?:  “The songs were all good, good instrumentation. I started following him the way you do with someone you like the sound of.”

About the difference You Tube makes: “The advent of You Tube allowed me to see these performances by The Whites – that’s the best gospel singing of any type you’ll hear. … You hear them and you know the ability to sing is still alive.”

About his favorite country music album:
“Let’s see, my favorite country music on record is the Louvin Brothers with Chet Atkins. It put some swing into older music.”

About boogie:
“You know the rarest thing in the world is genuine dancehall music. Boogie, barrelhouse and swing music were huge before World War II. You can even hear echoes of it in Flatt and Scruggs.”

About Buck White, musical supercharger:
“I said ‘Let’s bring Buck down to the studio.’ He lived nearby. He just sat down at the piano in the studio and started playing. I thought ‘This is it, the swing is there. It’s a supercharger for the music, makes it more orchestral. Buck just knocks your socks off. He already knew all the tunes because he grew up with them.”

What tunes are you working up for the tour?
The repertoire includes “Daniel Prayed;” “Cold Jordan” (“It’s so good”); Ricky does “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin;’”
“I’m Using My Bible For A Road Map;” “My Walkin’ Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore;” “Hold What You Got;” Sharon does “No One Will Ever Know” by Hank Williams; The Louvin Brothers “River of Jordan;” “The Family Who Prays;” “and of course Ricky breaks out ‘Uncle Pen’“

About accordion legend Flaco Jimenez:
“Flaco was the one Norteno accordion player who was interested in journeying out from the tradition. There were a lot that weren’t interested.”

Has your son (drummer) Joachim introduced you to any new music?
“I used to ask him, when he was playing drums for various bands, “Anything good? He’d say ‘Nothing you want to hear about.’ “

About touring and being Ry Cooder:
“I kind of gave up on doing solo touring some time ago. It costs too much and isn’t something I want to do. I’d rather be in a group. The way this music works is as an ensemble. It’s not a star vehicle.”

From the Depression era songs on his early albums to a trio of albums about life in Southern California, there has been a lot of social commentary in your music.
“A lot of our popular music over time contains that element. It’s about love and the way life is. It’s was created by and for poor people. … The language of these songs is interesting. It’s just truthful about life. Like Harlan Howard said, it’s ‘three chords and the truth.’ ”


Ricky Skaggs on rockin’ with Ry, singing with Sharon:

You haven’t lived until Ricky Skaggs croons into the phone “The very thing that makes you rich, makes you poor.” It’s what Ry Cooder calls “chicken skin music” for the goose bumps it induces. Skaggs has been having those chicken skin moments all the time since Ry Cooder called and suggested they play some music.

Here are some additional comments from Ricky:

On keeping up with Ry onstage:
“The fun part is: How many instruments will Ry play tonight? It’s not the same instrument each night on the same song.“

On how he listened to the cassette of Ry‘s “Bop Till You Drop:”
“I listened to a Walkman I got from J.D. Souther for some tortoise shell picks. Best sound of all time.”

It‘s all about the singing:
“For us to sing harmony with Ry and for him to sing harmony with us plus Cheryl is coming. We can sing quartets now, not just trios. People don’t realize what a great singer he is. He can sing bass in a gospel quartet.”

On picking up the Telecaster again:
“Sharon (his wife of 34 years) and I did an album together “Hearts Like us” last year. Instead of acoustic it was more like country in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Why do it bluegrass? So we brought in a drummer and Sharon’s voice sounds beautiful with pedal steel.”

The Ry admiration society:
“Ry is one of those guys who is a treasure. He hears a style and wants to stay awhile.”


Sharon White on roots music and how Ry learned to play guitar:

On how one song leads to another:
“You play on some and it reminds you of something else. One day Ricky started singing “Mother Prays Lord in her Sleep” a story song with vivid pictures, very old time-y. Music of that era was simply stated so they remind you of things in your own life. It’s music that is very moving. As a whole that is what I love about roots music.”

On getting to watch Daddy play the piano:
“I’m excited my sister will be there and we get to watch our Dad play the piano and some music he hasn’t played since we were little girls…. Ry says: ‘Everybody else pounds the keys, your Dad caresses them.’”

How Ry learned to play guitar:
“Ry is very much like Ricky. He wants to pay tribute to the roots of the music. Ry told us ‘I’m from Southern California. I grew up listening to country music on the radio. That’s how I started playing guitar.”

One thought on “Acousticity: A Q&A with Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White

  1. Pingback: Reclusive virtuoso, two bluegrass blue bloods go honky tonkin' - Second Story Garage

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