Ry Cooder tours with friends

Gui­tarist plays his fa­vorite songs with great artists

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - MUSIC - By Ben Crandell

A revered gui­tarist and lead­ing ar­chi­tect of the mu­si­cal move­ment that has come to be known as Amer­i­cana, Ry Cooder knew he was onto some­thing spe­cial with his new group the first time he heard 85-year-old Buck White play pi­ano.

“He’s like the Ruben Gon­za­lez of West Texas dance­hall pi­ano. That grade of cat, you know?” Cooder says, de­scrib­ing an early re­hearsal. “And I said to my­self, ‘Well, this is un­be­liev­able.’ ”

Speak­ing from his home in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia on Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s first morn­ing in Ha­vana, Cooder’s in­vo­ca­tion of the famed Cuban artist seems less an al­lu­sion to his own cul­ture-chang­ing trip to the is­land, cap­tured in the 1997 al­bum and Os­car-nom­i­nated doc­u­men­tary “Buena Vista So­cial Club,” than an ex­pres­sion of the ela­tion he feels at again dis­cov­er­ing and shar­ing some­thing new to him.

The Cooder-WhiteSk­aggs Tour that brings Cooder, Ricky Sk­aggs, Sharon White and her kin to the Parker Play­house on April 1 not only en­ables him to per­form some of the old coun­try, blue­grass and gospel songs he has long dreamed of play­ing and singing, he’s do­ing it with artists that leave Cooder, who has col­lab­o­rated with Bill Mon­roe, Neil Young, Eric Clap­ton and the Rolling Stones, noth­ing less that awed.

“Th­ese peo­ple are top of the line, world-class, and I have to re­ally con­cen­trate now. I’ve never sung in this way be­fore, with this pre­ci­sion, blend­ing to­gether,” he says. “It’s a chal­lenge, and that’s what makes it so in­ter­est­ing for me.”

White, Sk­aggs’ wife of more than three decades, also is a mem­ber of the Grammy-win­ning vo­cal group the Whites, with pa­tri­arch Buck and sis­ter Ch­eryl, both of whom are on the tour. Cooder’s son, Joachim, plays drums.

Cooder grew up in Santa Mon­ica lis­ten­ing to “juke­box” mu­sic on a small ra­dio sta­tion that catered to peo­ple who had moved from the South to work in the de­fense in­dus­try, fill­ing his young ears with songs by Hank Snow, Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, as a new West Coast coun­try-mu­sic scene was aroused.

“I was fas­ci­nated by ev­ery­thing, the way they talked, the way they sang,” Cooder, 69, says. “But I got busy do­ing other things. And here I am get­ting older, and think­ing, ‘Will I slide off into my golden years with­out ever hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to sing this mu­sic?’ ”

The Cooder-WhiteSk­aggs col­lab­o­ra­tion was in­spired, like most great ideas, by “Hee Haw.” About five years ago, Cooder stum­bled upon a YouTube video of Sk­aggs and the Whites on the old coun­try va­ri­ety show per­form­ing the gospel-mu­sic sta­ple “If I Be Lifted Up.” He was in­stantly en­tranced by the seam­less union of their voices.

“The key thing with mu­sic like this has to do with the singing. We can play as good as we want, and that’s fine, but you have to be able to sing it,” says Cooder, ref­er­enc­ing greats such as Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, long gone. “I showed Susie, my wife. I said, ‘Lis­ten to th­ese peo­ple. Th­ese are liv­ing peo­ple. They’re younger than me. This is the best I’ve ever heard this song done.’ ”

Sk­aggs, t he 14- t i me Grammy-win­ning blue­grass mu­si­cian, was a ca­sual ac­quain­tance, and re­cep­tive to Cooder’s sug­ges­tion of some in­for­mal jam­ming on some of the old fa­vorites they shared. Over the course of sev­eral years, with Cooder and his son fly­ing to Sk­aggs’ Nashville stu­dio, the hours of laid-back mu­sic­mak­ing and har­mo­niz­ing got se­ri­ous, and the Cood­erWhite-Sk­aggs Tour hit the road last June.

Cooder says the tour has en­dured be­cause the mu­sic is “fan­tas­ti­cally good,” ac­cord­ing to what he’s been told by fans crowded around the mer­chan­dise ta­ble, where he signs au­to­graphs af­ter ev­ery show.

The set list sur­veys mu­sic from the greats of blue­grass, blues, gospel and coun­try mu­sic all the way back to the 1920s, in­clud­ing the Lou­vin Brothers (“The Fam­ily Who Prays” and “Wait a Lit­tle Longer, Please Je­sus”), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs (“Take Me in Your Lifeboat”), Jimmy Martin (“Hold Watcha Got”) and Blind Al­fred Reed (“You Must Un­load”).

Cooder sings the bass lines and plays sev­eral elec­tric gui­tars, an elec­tric man­dola and a banjo once owned by Mike Seeger. Play­ing the banjo next to Sk­aggs is just one of many chal­lenges, Cooder says.

“I had never played th­ese songs on­stage. Never. I had the idea to do it, take the Jimmy Martin tune ‘Hold Watcha Got’ and rev it up, re­ally make it stomp. I could hear that in my head. I knew it was a good idea. I just hadn’t had the op­por­tu­nity,” he says. “For me, work­ing my way into th­ese songs is very cathar­tic.”

Ry Cooder, Sharon White and Ricky Sk­aggs will per­form 8 p.m. April 1 at the Parker Play­house, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Laud­erdale. Tick­ets cost $ 37. 50 - $ 77. 50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to Park­erPlay­house.com.

AB­SO­LUTE PUB­LIC­ITY/COUR­TESY

Ricky Sk­aggs, Sharon White and Ry Cooder will bring the Cooder-White-Sk­aggs Tour to Parker Play­house in Fort Laud­erdale on April 1.

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