A common thread throughout the career of roots rock icon Ry Cooder has been his propensity to revive a wide variety of American musical styles, and in the process somehow preserve the genre’s origins while simultaneously refreshing the sound with a gently sardonic worldview and a unique way of playing an equally wide array of instruments. His new album The Prodigal Son continues in that tradition once again as Cooder goes back to folk, blues, and gospel much like he did in the early 1970s via a slew of Warner/Reprise albums like Into the Purple Valley (1972), Boomer’s Story (1972), and Chicken Skin Music (1976). This time, however, he’s joined by percussionist Joachim Cooder, the record’s co-producer — who also just happens to be his son.
A Spirited Interpreter of the Times
In a recent promotional interview he did with writer Tom Piazza, Cooder insists that he’s not a religious man. Yet church music is pervasive throughout The Prodigal Son. It kicks off with a cover of “Straight Street,” an old Pilgrim Travelers tune about changing one’s selfish ways for the righteous path, followed by “Shrinking Man,” and “Gentrification,” tunes that reflect Cooder’s quirky sense of humor and his championing of those glossed over by the modern world. The latter, co-written by Joachim, is a sendup of Los Angeles techies that has a particularly funny refrain: “I heard the Googlemen drink so much coffee, that they may drown,” sung over a calypso beat.
Woody Guthrie Reborn
It’s just one of the songs on The Prodigal Son to reflect Cooder’s commitment to shining a light on the lost, forgotten, and downtrodden — a sensibility that makes him seem like a modern-day Woody Guthrie. Indeed, Guthrie, America’s bard of social justice, has more than a cameo on Cooder’s new LP. “Jesus and Woody,” the penultimate song, on the album is a surreal conversation in which Jesus speaks wry words to Woody such as “I like sinners better than fascists and I guess that makes me a dreamer too.” Cooder has always been a fan of Woody so it makes perfect sense that he’d make that folkie of folkies the chosen receiver of a message from Christ on the importance of fairness for the common man.
Voices of the Past
Elsewhere on the album, Alfred Reed’s “You Must Unload” points out the perils of materialism, the levitating “Harbor of Love” addresses judgment day, and “I’ll Be Rested When the Roll Is Called” sounds like an outtake from Boomer’s Story — an upbeat melody that could easily be played during a New Orleans funeral march, if some horns were added. Throughout, Cooder’s voice, which has somehow grown richer and deeper with age, captivates. He’s not the only singer on board though. Several tracks also feature vocalists Terry Evans, Bobby King and Arnold McCuller, three superb gospel/R&B singers who have sung with Cooder on many previous projects. They surface here again on the album’s title track, Blind Willie Nelson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine,” and most memorable of all, “In His Care” a rousing “deep South” gospel number that finds Cooder (on bucket slide guitar) harkening back not only to early American music but to early Cooder as well.
Photo Credit: Ry Cooder performs during the Austin City Limits 2017 Hall of Fame Inductions, October 25, 2017 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images)