Ry Cooder is off on a rant. "I cannot understand how records have fallen so down," grumbles the legendary guitarist, calling from his home in Santa Monica, Calif. "The perfect thing is the record. It's your days of your life, your emotions, your experiences, in a three-minute song. You say you love this, and now you don't listen? I can't even give my records away to my own friends: 'I got a new one. It's good. Would you like to have it?' 'Well, I'm kind of busy now.' 'Busy doing what?' 'Well, I'm on the computer a lot.' Jesus H. Christ."
Cooder has a reputation for crankiness, especially when it comes to how things are versus how they used to be. But that'll happen when you spend your life immersed in the musical traditions of yesteryear.
Cooder, 69, is currently on the road with mandolinist Ricky Skaggs and singer Sharon White, performing a night of country, folk and bluegrass numbers from the 1960s and earlier. When they hit Tampa's David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, they'll dive deep into the history of American roots music — Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, the Louvin Brothers, the Delmore Brothers — and try to recapture for a modern audience exactly what makes it so magical.
"That's hit music of the time," he says. "The Delmore Brothers is hit music — very, very popular — and it still retains that rural flavor and simplicity. I always think of it as family music, really, because families sang it. They could sing it. You didn't have to be a genius."
Preserving the values and traditions of roots music might be Cooder's lasting legacy. A renowned rock guitarist and songwriter — he's played and recorded with the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, Eric Clapton and Randy Newman, among many others — he's just as influential as a global musicologist, having worked closely with folk musicians ranging from Irish band the Chieftains to Malian singer Ali Farka Toure.
Most famously, Cooder orchestrated and produced Buena Vista Social Club, a 1997 album of performances by veteran Cuban musicians captured in the Wim Wenders documentary of the same name. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, and the album became a cultural phenomenon.
"It's paid for everything," he admits. "It's nice; otherwise, we'd be out in some sort of double-wide out in Pacoima somewhere. The other stuff didn't make any money but it did, so it's nice when you can get a buck, you know? Harder to do, though, nowadays."
This tour came about in part because Cooder was looking for an excuse to get back on the road. He doesn't tour much these days; he can't even remember the last time he came to Tampa Bay. ("Was it in the early '70s with Arlo Guthrie?" he wonders. "That's the only possible memory I have.")
After watching a video of Skaggs and the Whites — Sharon's family band, with sister Cheryl and father Buck — on YouTube, Cooder reached out about a collaboration. They picked songs that suited their mission, classic country tunes with good harmonies and space for instrumental solos. They rehearsed for a year in Nashville, with Cooder and son/drummer Joachim flying in for practice, before booking live shows last summer.
Cooder is ecstatic about the chance to tour with Skaggs: "I've heard all the mandolin players. I'm gonna tell you right now, I don't care who you say, this is the best. He plays some dog s--- up there that is just amazing." And he calls Buck White "as deep a character as I've ever met. … He's a source guy. He's the best."
And he's excited about sharing some good old-time music with the world. Some of the songs in their set date back to the Bristol Sessions, the 1927 recordings considered the genesis of popular country music.
"The tunes took hold and they stayed with people, and they sang them in their homes or in church, if it was religious," he says. "That was the way the music grew up, and took hold of people's consciousness or minds. It became a big part of their lives."
There's no comparing that intense regional and personal connection to what we now know as modern country music, Cooder says.
"It became so polished and so professional and so corporate," he says. "This is obvious criticism that people make, not just me, but you lose the feeling of the people themselves, the inner person. I know it's true, because I can see the effect of these simpler songs. I'm not saying that people were better or smarter back then; obviously not. But there was this flavor for their content — the language itself, the language of people."
So far, it's connecting with crowds. Cooder expects the trio will record a live album at some point during this tour; there's so much excitement in the house that it would be a shame not to try to capture it.
"I know the audience is liking it," he says. "I see it in their faces. You listen to them tell us how great we are and how much they love it. I know it's true. They're not faking it. It's not because we're famous or rich or wearing fancy clothes, by any means. It's not like some d--- product convention for heaven's sake, like a drone show in Vegas. We're 100 million miles away from such things."
But that's a rant for another day.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.