By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(Note: This feature originally appeared in the Daily Camera and online at Second Story Garage. Cooder-Skaggs-White performs Wednesday, June 17, in Aspen, Friday in Boulder, Sunday in Telluride, and Monday at the Denver Botanic Gardens.)
Ry Cooder may be the greatest musician of our era that almost nobody knows.
Guitar geeks do know of Cooder’s slide guitar virtuosity and his spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. Filmgoers love his spine-tingling score for Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas.” Music nerds know Cooder for creating the opening riff to “Brown Sugar” in 1969.
If the name rings any manstream bells it’s because of 1997’s “Buena Vista Social Club.” The best-selling album and Oscar-nominated documentary introduced the U.S. to Cuban music and doctored a $25,000 fine.
The six-time Grammy winner has remained obscure because of his famous aversion to live performance. It has been decades since Cooder last performed in Colorado, so the news he would travel with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White – and play shows in Aspen, Boulder, Telluride and Denver, sounded close to miraculous.
This rare public opportunity started in the sounds that flooded Cooder’s ears growing up in Southern California in the late ‘40s and 1950s.
“It’s what you hear when you first start listening and that sets you up for life,” Cooder said, calling from his home in Santa Monica.
What the guitarist and producer heard on records and radio was the blues, Mexican music, swing, R&B and country music that stewed in his consciousness as he started performing professionally as a teenager. A prime ingredient was the harmonies of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. “I first heard the Foggy Mountain quartet singing when I was in junior high and it was fantastic. It‘s one of the greatest things ever sung in the English language,” Cooder said.
“So you could say that a dream of my youth was to recreate that sound.”
The Cooder-Skaggs-White convergence started with a set of songs with a particular vintage sound. “I had these tunes in my head and wondered who could sing them. I started to see Ricky and Sharon singing this stuff. I like to sing bass parts. I thought ‘I can be the third or fourth voice.’ The question I start with is ‘What might be conjured by this?’”
“Ricky” is silver-maned 14-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs who started in country music, become a bluegrass stalwart, and branched out with pianist Bruce Hornsby. In 1979, Emmylou Harris gave him a cassette of “Bop Till You Drop,” Cooder‘s brilliant homage to R&B and early rock. “I played it over and over again. I was really smitten. Ry’s guitar playing was amazing,” he said, calling from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. .
Skaggs’ wife, Sharon White, remembers that year, too.
“Me and Cheryl and Dad were on tour with Ricky and we listened to Ry for a million miles. I really look up to him,” Sharon White said, also calling from Hendersonville.
“Me, Cheryl and Dad” are The Whites, a legendary bluegrass group that also had country hits in the ’80s including “Pins And Needles.” Cheryl White joins the tour on harmonies as well as Cooder’s son, drummer Joachim Cooder.
“Dad” is Buck White, the 84-year-old mandolin-playing patriarch of The Whites.
“My Dad, bless his heart, played honky tonk and rockabilly piano at the time that music started. We were in the studio and Ry started singing ‘Hey, Good Lookin.‘ It was a real rockin’ version and Daddy took a hot ride on it and then stood up from the piano and gave Ry a 2-thumbs-up.”
Don’t attend these concerts expecting a quiet acoustic evening, said Skaggs who is breaking his red Telecaster out of mothballs.
“I’ve got coal dust in my DNA but I also have rock and roll,” he said, adding a cautionary note:
“I can play loud but nobody can possibly be as loud as Ry.”
Audiences should not expect to hear familiar tunes from Cooder, The Whites or Skaggs. The band’s repertoire includes gospel, early country and dance hall chestnuts including the Louvin Brothers’ “River of Jordan,” the Delmore Brothers’ ‘Pan-American Boogie“ and “My Walkin’ Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore.”
“It’s cool because we each are lead vocalists on songs and the others harmonize,” Sharon White said.
Skaggs said that he and Cooder are on the same wavelength. “Me and Ry are like steak and good wine – well, maybe steak and sweet tea,” he said.
For his part, Cooder said he is prepared to hit the road again. “It only takes a lifetime to learn how to do music. I’m just getting good.”
John Lehndorff’s has been trying to interview Ry Cooder and see him perform since he began writing about music for the Daily Camera in the early 1980s.
If you go
What: Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White
When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 19
Where: Chautauqua Auditorium, Boulder
Info: chautauqua.com; 303-440-7666
Also: 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 22, Denver Botanic Gardens, Denver. Tickets: $66-$71; concerts.botanicgardens.org; 877.987.6487