(To commemorate the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame's 40th Anniversary in 2013, GRAMMY.com has launched GRAMMY Hall Of Fame Inspirations. The ongoing series will feature conversations with various GRAMMY winners who will identify GRAMMY Hall Of Fame recordings that have influenced them and helped shape their careers.)
"When I was little, 4 or 5 years old, the first guitar I had was given to me by a blacklisted violinist — a lefty, commie guy, pinko man."
And so begins Ry Cooder's musical tale. He tells it in a rush of scenes and stories, details from decades ago as vivid as those from yesterday. There were the Folkways 78 RPM Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly records that his neighbor and family had. There was the influence of the "Okies" and immigrants who worked down the street at the Douglas Aircraft plant near his childhood home. And there was the music those folks listened to, on KXLA-FM in Pasadena, Calif., then the records he bought or was given by music collector friends, the secrets unlocked by trips to the Ash Grove and other folk/blues clubs, and then his own entry into the recording world as a teen bottle-neck guitar prodigy — including some sessions with the Rolling Stones.
And his story weaves through his wide-ranging career as a leading interpreter/enthusiast of folk, blues, jazz, rock, and world music. It ties together his cherished solo albums, innovative movie scores (Paris, Texas to name just one), groundbreaking world music explorations with artists such as Malian guitarist Ali "Farka" Touré, collaborations with artists such as Mavis Staples, and his recent series of albums, including 2005's Chávez Ravine: A Record By Ry Cooder and 2012's GRAMMY-nominated Election Special.
Through it all, the thread is an enchantment from, and with, recordings.
"Thanks to records, which are the keystones and building blocks to your emotional life, for me like the bricks in the Yellow Brick Road," says Cooder. "[It] didn't occur to me that these records are not real life. Then the people came and played and I said, 'They don't sound like the records!' That's what records do, represent a compressed, heightened version of the sound. Because of the compression of the tubes and microphones and the wax, it's magic!"
He continues, noting that "Records don't tell the whole story. They keep their secrets. I was lucky enough to meet many of these masters face to face, if not play with them then meet them and say, 'hello'. The people have the secrets."
But the recordings tell a lot of his story, with the colorful tales he illustrates with his five selections from the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame.
"The Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl tunes were really fascinating. These were where I first heard and first got thinking about someone who was not from Santa Monica — another way of life. What I didn't think about at the time was up the street was Douglas Aircraft and a lot of people who worked there were transplanted Okies too. There was a radio station, KXLA, in Pasadena. They played all that music. Not folk, but country and western. And these people listened to it and the station existed because of those plant workers. I discovered it at 7 years old. [I] used to figure out ways to stay home from school, which I hated, to listen to that.
"You would hear Flatt and Scruggs, and mostly honkytonk. 'Crazy Arms' by Ray Price — that was one of my favorites. I loved that voice, the remorseful sound of reflection, and the songs were beautiful.
"I declared then I wanted to be in Ray Price's band. I was playing guitar and knew they came out here to record at Capitol. I remember saying, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to play that way.' My dad said, 'They're a bunch of low-class rednecks and you don’t want to do that.' He hated those people. But KXLA showed the way."
"I'm Movin' On"
RCA Victor (1950)
"Listening to the radio, we didn't have the records and there wasn't a social milieu I would have been born into that would have these. But Hank Snow was a mainstay at KXLA and I loved the ballads that he sang. Elvis recorded one of his ballads. And I know Hank was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, so he had the fiddle, electric steel.
"But I think it was his singing that was very touching. You can play as good as you want and many have. But the singing is where the microphone magic really comes. The certain range, the conduit for these feelings. You might say, 'How mundane, how corny, how stupid.' But when someone sings them right, you get that feeling. At 7 or 8 I didn't know half of what they were singing about. But you get it from listening."
"Dark Was The Night — Cold Was The Ground"
Blind Willie Johnson
"Somewhere along the line, I had some collector friends and one laid Blind Willie Johnson on me, 'Dark Was The Night,' a transcending musical statement. [I] didn't know at first what it was. [I] got to know [fingerstyle guitarist] John Fahey when I was in high school. He would be around, then go to the south and collect records. He always wanted to show me Polaroid pictures he took of pigs in barnyards. Once I asked him, 'What is going on with this Blind Willie Johnson.' [Imitating Fahey's round, succinct speaking voice] 'It's this bottle neck.' 'What?' He would take the neck off a bottle and play, tune the guitar to an open tuning. I didn't know that. So he showed me."
John Lee Hooker
"Then I started knowing John Lee Hooker better. [I] found he was king of the same chords from one of [his first records on] Modern [that] I got at the drug store downtown. Sometimes he was tuned regular and then others I couldn't say, until I got to know G tuning, either from Fahey or from playing five-string banjo. [I] couldn't play like him, but was aware of what kind of guitar, microphone and such, and how he played with his strange hands. But the notes were right. That set me on a guitar path with open tunings and utilizing the guitar in that way. I could see there were people in standard tuning who were so far ahead of me and I found it awkward. Once I saw Clarence White, who was just a year older than me — I was 15, and I put the flat pick down. He would play and I would say, 'Stop right there! What were you doing?'"
The Staple Singers
"Everything about this, Pops Staples' tremolo guitar and Mavis, everything about this — when I saw them do it live at the Ash Grove I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Mavis. That girl back then, [she was] 16 when she sang this. Oh, Lordy! And I got to record with her. Life is wonderful!
"If I hadn't been doing this, you would have found me sacking groceries in Pacoima, [Calif.]. I didn't have any hope in hell of being of any use in life."
(Six-time GRAMMY winner Ry Cooder won his most recent GRAMMY in 2003 for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album for Buenos Hermanos. He is currently nominated for Best Folk Album for 2012's Election Special.)
(Steve Hochman has been covering the music world since 1985. He can be heard regularly discussing new music releases on KPCC-FM's "Take Two" and the KQED-FM-produced show "The California Report," and he is also a regular contributor to the former station's arts blog "Without A Net." For 25 years he was a mainstay of the pop music team at the Los Angeles Times and his work has appeared in many other publications.)
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