I had been looking all over for Ry Cooder. He wanted me to write something about his new record, but he’s a hard guy to find when he doesn’t want to be found. For a couple of weeks, I drove all through Texas, up through the Oklahoma panhandle, cut off a piece of Arkansas and went on east through Tennessee.
I don’t mind driving.
Somewhere between Nashville and Knoxville I decided to get off the interstate and take the back roads for a while. The interstates are built for speed; they paved over a lot of things that had been there for a long time. If you are addicted to speed and convenience you can let a lot of things slip away.
I made my way on a beautiful two-lane road through a rolling countryside of hills and barns. After an hour or so I pulled over in front of a little clapboard church; it was a weekday afternoon and there was nobody around, and I thought I’d go in and sit and think about the world for a while.
It was a humble place; the congregation must not have had the money for a stained-glass extravaganza. Just a place to go and have some togetherness for a while before returning to a life of hard work. When I turned to step into one of the rear pews I saw that I wasn’t alone. A guy with thick-framed glasses, a flannel shirt and a wool watch cap on his head was sitting there, one arm over the back of the pew, looking toward the front of the church. It was one of those coincidences you couldn’t make up.
“Ry,” I said, “for God’s sake – I’ve been looking all over for you. We need to talk about the new record.”
“This is a good, quiet place to talk. I like this place.”
I settled in next to him, looked around a little more. “Yeah, I do, too,” I said. “I didn’t know you were religious.”
“I’m not religious, but I always felt drawn to these songs. There’s some kind of reverence mood that takes hold when you play and sing.”
“Reverence,” I said.
“Reverence is a word I heard granddaughter Paloma’s nursery school teacher use. A Kashmiri woman. She said, ‘We don’t want to teach religion, but instill reverence.’ I thought that was a good word for the effect of this music. I remember the first indication I had as a child. ‘He Shall Feed His Flock,’ sung by Marian Anderson. I was maybe four at the time, and everything sort of stopped. Another good one was ‘I’d Climb The Highest Mountain,’ recorded by Pee Wee Russell.”
“People don’t listen to Pee Wee Russell enough,” I said.
“Then later came ‘Reunion In Heaven,’ by Flatt and Scruggs. That’s my #1 pick. Ricky Skaggs & The Whites and I sung it on tour, and we were not Flatt and Scruggs, but I can tell you the audience went to that place. Folks coming across the merch table afterwards said so.”
“Still,” I said, “if you have reverence, you must have reverence for something. Right? What does it mean?”
“It would take a high-grade poet to say it right, but I might say it means being a conduit for the feelings and experiences by people from other times, like when you stand in an old church yard and let the lonely tombs talk to you. Old Ali Farka Touré once told me when he played music, he could sense the ‘elders’ arrayed in semicircular rows behind and just above his head. When he was playing good, that is. If not, they weren’t summoned.”
“I think any creative artist has to have a sense of a truth or force beyond the visible,” I said. “Everybody deals with it in their own way. I can listen to Dorothy Love Coates or the Swan Silvertones or Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. and feel the truth of what’s being laid down, even though I might not believe in the literal, factual dimension of it.”
“I think a sense of loss is an inevitable ingredient,” he said. “The day my daughter-in-law Juliette’s dad, Robert, died, I went to see him and then went on to my engineer, Martin Pradler’s, house to record like I had planned. I felt weak and empty, but then ‘Jesus and Woody’ came into my mind. The unfinished lyric was all I had. So, I told Martin, ‘I’ll just improvise the tune.’ Halfway through, I choked up thinking about Robert, and felt like I might not make it, but the voice said, ‘Come on, get with it. One take, no mas.’”
“Woody had his own song about Jesus,” I said.
“To the tune of ‘Jesse James,’” Ry said.
“Both outside the law,” I said. “Both betrayed by friends, too.”
“Hey, by the way,” he said, “you know there’s many old songs where folks have put their words and thoughts into the mouths of God and Jesus…Very useful idea, very practical.”
“There are a lot of references to heaven in your songs,” I said. “Sometimes it’s playful, like ‘Steel Guitar Heaven,’ sometimes it’s bitter, like the one about Jesse James settling scores on Wall Street… But what about hell? Consequences and judgment? The way you do Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’ here… it’s even scarier than the original, if that’s possible. That eerie sound… The track has a mood of dread, of fear of damnation because of mortal error. Where did that come from?”
“Joachim had this strange tone-cluster track he thought I could use,” he said. “It baffled me until I heard that the scale, the mode might suit ‘Nobody’s Fault.’ Blind Willie preferred Gibsons to Martin guitars. Ladder-braced, they give you something in the mid-range, good for so-called ‘slide.’ Later in life, I learned Willie played slide flat, not upright like I had assumed from the photograph. Then I felt better; it explained why I couldn’t match his vibrato. Blind Willie’s music is pure trance, it’s not 12-bar blues or any suchlike. Joachim’s Orwellian march of the doomed showed the way. Who would have figured it? In steel guitar heaven, I felt Willie looked down and saw that was good.”
“Well… that’s the music part,” I said. “But there’s a big specter of justice, or retribution, hanging over that song.”
“Justice…” he began, looking down at the floor. “I think history shows there never was or will be any. All governments are bad, all institutional religions are self-serving, all economic systems are doomed. I find the idea of solidarity very moving, as per Buddy Red Cat…”
“My Name Is Buddy is one of my favorite records,” I said.
“…but we can’t seem to find it any more, thanks to ‘individualism’ and consumer fascism. Buddy couldn’t locate solidarity and settled for some kind of family feeling in the end. I do connect the political/economic dimensions with the inner life of people, since people are at risk and oppressed on all sides. But socialist communes of the 19th century failed, democracy has been corrupted, elected officials are minions of Satan… In heaven, will there be ‘Restricted’ signs? Selected clientele?”
I caught a glimpse of some motion up at the front of the church, a little guy, like a hobo, stepping quickly past the altar, didn’t say anything. Wiry, real short, curly hair, looked like he had a guitar slung over his back. Before I even got a good look at him he was gone out the side door.
“Did you see that?” I said.
“I saw him.”
“So… the record is called ‘Prodigal Son.’ What about the ‘Prodigal Son’?”
“Well, it’s The Prodigal Son, not just ‘Prodigal Son,’ which could be tequila or a new line of gym clothing. The prodigal son is a story, the legend of history. Therefore, a nice simple context for the songs, which seem to be about a search, a quest. And on the cover, there’s the little guy in the cheap suit and hat, on his way somewhere in the morning light, through downtown L.A., circa 1928.”
“There’s been a lot of songs about him,” I said. “Who is he to you? What does he mean?”
“Well,” he began, “when the Prodigal finally returned, what did he find? In Los Angeles, if you go for a drive at 9 in the morning and come back at 6 in the evening, there will be whole streets you can’t recognize. From the very beginning, the developers have run this town according to their liking. Used to be called ‘Progress,’ now we call it ‘Gentrification.’ When a developer wants to build a high rise, he calls up the Federal Reserve, and says, ‘Print me up about a billion dollars. Actually… better make it two billion. Or three, say, just to be sure.’ Right then, a little guy in a tract house in some L.A. suburb gets a call from a real estate lady, telling him his 1950’s 2-bedroom, 1-bath just went into crazy potential. He looks outside and sees the Range Rovers pulling up in front. The real estate lady greets the young couples – ball-cap dads, worked-out moms – and says, ‘Mid-century! Charter school! No indigenous population!’ There went the neighborhood. The erasure of memory? Can’t do business along those lines. Everyone’s expendable except Jesus, and even he can be replaced…”
“Sounds a little like Chavez Ravine,” I said. “Same thing happening all over, though. Parts of New Orleans are turning into a petrified forest of Airbnbs. Always hard when it’s the place you know and love.”
“I hate change,” he said. “It’s bound to be wrong, and it’s always sad.” He was quiet for a minute. I could hear traffic sounds outside on the street. I didn’t remember hearing traffic before. He went on talking. “I asked myself, should a guy from south Santa Monica record this music, or what? All issues of presentations of self aside, what was the right thing to do? Now, post Skaggs/White tour, I sort of said, ‘hell with it, I’m going to sing what I want.’ I tried to open up these old tunes in the little way like I used to do on earlier records, you see, so ‘you-the-public’ will possibly hear them in an appealing new-ish context. Most folks can’t relate to antique emotions and thought, vis-a-vis Alfred Reed or the Pilgrim Travelers or, certainly, Blind Willie. Engineer Martin got me a good vocal sound. Joachim’s ethereal settings really showed the way, got me pointed in the right direction. Plus, the two of us have a real ball in the studio, just wailing. One take, live vocals, etc. I wouldn’t even try without him.”
“Music is a consolation,” I said
“The guitar made music and emotions more manageable for me, which really saved me from having to withdraw completely. I’m fairly certain that if the blacklisted violinist friend of my parents hadn’t given me the guitar at age 4, I would be sacking groceries in El Segundo today, or pin-striping hot rods in Pacoima.”
Through the windows you could tell that it was still light but that the sun was getting low down in the sky. Time, probably, to head back on the road.
We got up – I was a little stiff in the joints; those church pews aren’t the most comfortable seats in the world – and stepped out the front door. Somehow in the little time we had been inside the entire landscape had changed. There was a Starbucks next door; the road was now a four-lane. Wendy’s was right across the street, next to Ruby Tuesday, Wal-Mart…
“Whoa,” I said. “What happened?”
“Faster than usual,” Ry said, looking around.
I didn’t feel like getting back on the interstate yet. There was probably a little downtown nearby that had been bypassed by the commercial strip, some interesting little roads… “You hungry?” I said.
He shook his head. “Not really. Wanna see if we can find a record store someplace?”
“It’s worth a shot,” I said. Doubtful, but worth a shot. There was always a chance that something good was nearby, if you reached out your hand and had a little faith.
Tom Piazza is the author of twelve books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novels A Free State and City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and the essay collection Devil Sent The Rain. He was a principal writer for the acclaimed HBO drama series TREME, and a GRAMMY Award winner for his album notes to Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. He lives in New Orleans.