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Ry Cooder's new LP, "The Prodigal Son," is hard-hitting and topical

Fantasy / Perro Verde
Ry Cooder's newest album is "The Prodigal Son."
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ALBUM REVIEW: Ry Cooder – The Prodigal Son (Fantasy / Perro Verde) 2018

Rewatching the 1986 film Crossroads, starring Ralph Macchio as a blues guitar prodigy with classical training who helps an old blues man win his soul back from the devil, I was quite taken with the blues and roots music used in the film and featured on the soundtrack.

Macchio’s character, Eugene, wants to find Robert Johnson’s lost “30th song,” which he believes would be the musical find of the century. Blues harp player Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), who., like his friend Robert Johnson, made a Faustian bargain with Ol’ Scratch at the crossroads, reluctantly helps Eugene in getting to Mississippi, and things take a decidedly interesting turn from there.

All the while, this well-done film is steeped in authentic blues/country-blues/folk/rock and led by the legendary Ry Cooder, a singer/songwriter/musician who has been a favorite in my family since I was a child, with me finding later enjoyment with The Rising Sons, a folk-blues-rock band Cooder was in with Taj Mahal (which I include in my book on the music of 1966 – Rock Catapult) and Cooder’s self-titled 1970 debut album, which features the drum work of former Turtles drummer Johny Barbata (who now lives in Ada, Oklahoma).  The Rising Sons featured amazing covers of blues standards like Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom” and Skip James’ vaguely sinister “The Devil’s Got My Woman.”

Ry Cooder features standard faves including Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” Arthur “Blind” Blake’s ragtime song “Ditty Wah Ditty” and Lead Belly’s “Pigmeat.” But most importantly, Cooder includes “Dark Is the Night,” an instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson bottleneck slide guitar blues song “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” considered the saddest, most soulful piece of music ever written and recorded. It is such an important song that it was included on Voyager 1’s “Golden Record” that was sent into the cosmos in 1977. How appropriate, eh?

One of my dad’s favorite albums was Cooder’s 1974 album Paradise and Lunch, with its mix of folk, blues and gospel, among others, with traditional songs like “Jesus on the Mainline,” the Shirley and Bobby Womack song “It’s All Over Now” (remade to great acclaim by the Rolling Stones in 1964), and the Burt Bacharach number “Mexican Divorce.”

Despite featuring old, traditional instrumentation and lyrical themes, the soulful authenticity in Cooder’s singing and rootsy arrangements, captured the zeitgeist of that era, as President Richard M. Nixon resigned in disgrace in the wake of Watergate, not unlike the gonzo writings of Hunter S. Thompson at that time, which eviscerated the 37th president. Cooder has been quite public about his liberal and populist sentiments over the years.

Cooder’s music was featured to vast acclaim in the 1980's as he scored film soundtracks, most notably 1984's Paris, Texas, the Wim Wenders film starring Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell and a film the late critic Roger Ebert called "true, deep and brilliant." And Nirvana/Foo Fighters musician Dave Grohl has said that Cooder's music on the Paris, Texas soundtrack is among his favorite of all time.

And having contributed to soundtracks ranging from 1968's Head (starring The Monkees) to contributing to Captain Beefheart and Neil Young albums (and the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed album) and soundtracks including Cocktail (1988) and Primary Colors (1998) and several studio albums in the early 21st century from the Hispanic-influenced Chávez Ravine on to 2010 San Patricio with The Chieftains and 2012's politically-charged Election Special, coming out shortly after the Occupy movement spread around the nation.

Fast-forward to 2018. The 71-year old Los Angeles native has a fantastic new roots music album out titled The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son is a largely spare-sounding record, with 11 songs written by Cooder and others, including one of the spookiest covers of Blind Willie Johnson's "Nobody's Fault But Mine," a hellhound blues number that Led Zeppelin brought to a new generation of music fans back in the mid-1970's on their Presence LP.

Cooder's version of the Blind Willie Johnson's song brought chillbumps to my skin and a spooky, Ralph Stanley vocal quality that reminded me of that man's version of "O Death" on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. With Cooder's religious overtures to the teachings of Christ and Buddha and some swampy blues guitar chords popping up here and there, his is by far the standout song on this remarkable collection of songs from Ry Cooder.

"Straight Street," the soulful, acoustic song that opens The Prodigal Son, where Cooder plays mandolin, sings of a man looking for redemption, since earlier in his life "Old Satan had me bound in chains and I had no liberty." Cooder's son, Joachim Cooder, plays drums here and over the course of the record, while his father plays other insturments including banjo, guitar, basss and keyboard. 

Reminding me of Bruce Springsteen's work last decade on those Seeger Sessions songs, "Shrinking Man" has a carnival, Mardi Gras-like groove and has Cooder wagging a finger at the greedheads and land-rapers who turn a blind eye to sweatshop slaves in Asia and the craven abuses committed by Trumpists and their ilk. 

Speaking of which, "You Must Unload," a hard-hitting hymn written by "Blind" Alfred Reed about the greedy, self-satisfied Christian hypocrites of his day, 90 years ago, where Cooder, subtly updating the original, by chastizing the "power-loving Christians in your fancy dining cars" and mirroring Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," where Cooder sees rich folks "drinking whiskey and smoking big cigars.

Yes, the preachiness continues on  the atmoshperic rootsy song "Gentrification," which is about just that and how the poor, down-n-outers are overwhelmed in our era of gentrification and the monied hipster class, while "Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right" asks the listener to do just that, in an era of government-sanctioned kidnapping of migrant children and the GOP-approved marginalization of those truly in need, including those who look to the Statue of Liberty as a beacon of hope and freedom.

A more straightforward roots-rock arrangement is incorporated on the title track, where the prodigal son sings, Warren Zevon-style, that he "searched for true religion" but could not find faith or peace until he "came to a little place called Bakersfield." Cooder's electric guitar shocks that buzz out like blasts from a Captain Kirk-styled phaser guns. I could easily see Trent Reznor smiling approvingly at what Cooder has done here.

The remaineder of The Prodigal Son is chock full of songs that would sound appropriate at a progressive potluck hootenanny or an anti-Trump protest rally - or a liberal church service, for that matter. "I'll Be Rested When the Roll is Called" is a confident, rousing folk number while Cooder's original "Jesus and Woody" should be required listening in every school in Oklahoma - or America, for that matter. Why? Because Cooder sings about a darkness falling over this land where those forces are "starting up their engine of hate." And yet Cooder, singing from the perspective of the Prince of Peace, reminds folks that "vengeance casts a false shadow of justice, which leads to destruction and pain" and that loving those who hate - like the example given by Gandhi and King - is the best path forward. This song really brought tears to my eyes.

Sings Cooder over a subdued "So sing me a song 'bout this land is your land / and fascists bound to lose / You were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too."

We can dream, right? Well, I highly recommend The Prodigal Son, probably my favorite album released in 2018. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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