Guitarist Ry Cooder

The celebrated guitarist shares the inspiration behind his latest project, “Election Special,” and assesses the future of sociopolitical music.

Known for his notable slide guitar skills, Ry Cooder has an eclectic discography, ranging from the blues and soul to Tex-Mex and rock. The multiple Grammy winner has been a session player, solo artist and soundtrack composer and has collaborated with musicians from many countries. He's also on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Cooder began playing guitar as a young child, after losing an eye in an accident, and began his career in a blues band. He produced, plays mandolin, guitar and bass and wrote all of the songs on his latest project, the sociopolitical "Election Special."


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Ry Cooder to this program. The legendary guitarist and Grammy winner, known for his unique style of roots music, is out now with a new project timed for the political convention season. The disc is called “Election Special,” and I am proud to say it features a song, I’m told, inspired by an interview heard on a radio show that I’m a part of.

Before we get to that and much more, here’s some of the video for another song on the disc, “Mutt Romney Blues.”


Tavis: (Laughter) You’re out there, Ry Cooder. So what goes through an artist’s head that gives him the mind to write something like “Mutt Romney Blues?”

Ry Cooder: Well, just a blues statement. I thought, now, I have to talk some about Mitt. Now how am I going to do that? How do you take a guy like this, a kind of colorless, odorless, unknown character and write about him? I tried first to write a Mormon song. Didn’t make it through. It was too complicated, too historical.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)

Cooder: Then I hit upon the idea of the dog needing to tell his story, and of course, being a whistleblower. We know how dangerous it is to blow whistles sometimes, but the dog will do anything, just cut me down, he says.

So I thought, oh, I know, I can do this. Then I told my son, Joachim, I said, “Just follow me on this one take, let’s just do this.” We sketched it out, nothing too fancy.

Tavis: I want to just while we’re at it just go through some of the song titles on this new project. I’m jumping around here, given the timing of the release of the project. Track six is called “Going to Tampa.”

Cooder: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about it.

Cooder: Well there again, “Going to Tampa” would be a guy, a delegate, let’s say. Imagine that character, and he’s got his credentials, he’s got his overalls on, he’s all ready to go. The main thing he wants to do is meet Sarah Palin, though. He’s hoping to catch her in the hallway down by the ice machine, see, and strike (laughter) up a conversation. That’s really what he’s down there for.

Also, he’s asked his wife, “Don’t forget my bed sheet,” so he’s got that packed, because I think we’re going to see some of these kind of people down there. I expect that there will be some of those people down there. Also, the whole thing about the Willie Horton campaign back in Daddy Bush time.

I thought to myself, they should find that guy who invented the Willie Horton ad and hire him, and let him do something for Mitt. I wrote this song about the delegate is going to go to Tampa and this is his suggestion, this is his contribution – let’s bring back Willie Horton.

Two weeks later, after I’d recorded this tune, they did. They hired that fella, I forget his name, who invented Willie Horton. He’s on the team. Yes.

Tavis: Track number nine is called “Take Your Hands Off It.”

Cooder: Yes. It’s a kind of an Occupy, I would think, anthemic song. Take your hands off the Constitution, stop monkeying around with the Bill of Rights, leave my voting rights alone. This is the one that got me going, because if we keep – if they let them bit by bit erode and chisel and chip away at the Voting Rights Act and the other civil rights legislation, pretty soon before you know it that all crumbles and falls down.

Then what are we going to do? Stand there and say, “Well, how’d that happen?” After the fact. I just can’t understand why there hasn’t been this massive outcry and opposition to this kind of stuff. I know you and Cornel West talk about this on your radio program, which is where I get a lot of my good information about (unintelligible).

Tavis: You are too kind.

Cooder: Oh, no, I never miss it.

Tavis: No, speaking of which, I heard about this track –

Cooder: “Kool-Aid.”

Tavis: I couldn’t wait to hear “Kool-Aid,” number seven, yeah.

Cooder: Oh, yeah. Well, I was driving home from the gym, and it was in time for the radio show. Marsha Coleman was on. She was talking about her book and how she’d been a whistleblower and she’d worked for Clinton and she tried to help out in Africa and these things and watch the oil companies and the polluters down there, but she got in some terrible trouble.

I think it was you that said well, you’re a real player, you’re a real team supporter and a worker, and she said, oh, yes, I drank the Kool-Aid. I went, “Whoa, let’s go home fast.” (Makes noise) (Laughter) I’m heading down Ocean Avenue, said, “Get home before you lose it.”

Now, by the time I got home, 10 minutes, I had that song all mapped out, from the point of view of one of these Republican drone poor white type of guys who says, “I did everything. I got a gun, like you said. I went and stood my ground like George Zimmerman in Florida. You turned me against Black, Brown, Yellow and Tan, which I did. I drank the Kool-Aid.”

Now look at me. I’m broke, this didn’t work out right. Instead of being delivered up to a good job and a secure future, I have nothing now. I’m losing my home and my job. There’s my little wife asleep over there; here I am, smoking Kool-Aids out of nervousness. I drank the Kool-Aid and look what happened to me.

So this is why, because I’m so befuddled by people who would vote against and even campaign and believe against their own self-interests. That’s in your book, of course, your “The Rich and the Rest of Us” book, which is a great book, by the way.

Tavis: Thank you.

Cooder: You learn a lot. So when I get that idea, sometimes it might be from your radio show or something I’ve heard or read. If I’m lucky, I can crank it into a song that’ll last four minutes, which you have to distill it down and render it down into some kind of song language, since it’s not a book or a speech or something.

Tavis: I’ve been telling everybody I know, and for that matter, people I don’t know – you know I’m – Ry Cooder listens to my radio show.

Cooder: Oh, yes, absolutely.

Tavis: And you know he did a song called “Kool-Aid -”

Cooder: You bet.

Tavis: – about something he heard on the show. I was just honored. When I first heard that story I was blown away, to know that you even listened to the show, much less that something on the show was an inspiration for a song on this project.

Obviously, there’s no risk – at least if there is a risk, you don’t care about the risk – in being as outspoken as you are. I don’t want to just – outspoken is the wrong word. Ry is outspoken. It’s more than outspoken. Being as truthful as you are, because truth is a rare commodity these days. But obviously, whatever the risk is to you, you long ago just –

Cooder: Well.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cooder: Yeah. I feel that if you can do this – Martin Luther King, I remember in a speech he said, “If you can do something, do it,” in times of crisis, which this is. If you can write a speech, write a book, sing a song, anything, do it. Don’t just sit there.

I really believe that’s right. It’s also what I know how to do. I don’t really know how to do anything else. I have on other interests or hobbies. I don’t collect stamps or play golf and so forth. (Laughter) So I sit there with the instruments in hand, and I think and I listen and try to work out the problems and wait for an idea to come, like “Mutt Romney Blues,” the dog talking.

Well, that’s perfect, I thought to myself. I know how to write that. Some things you can’t so easily translate into song form, but I feel that it’s an opportunity to make a point by showing at atmosphere or showing a character that can give you another point of view on things.

Books do one kind of job and a program like you have does another kind of a job. So these little songs, that’s my contribution to the conversation that we all should be having, I guess.

Tavis: Yeah. That’s why I love artists, man. Artists find a way to say things that the rest of us can’t say, don’t know how to say. Whether you’re talking roots music or folk music or by any other name message music, it seems to me that that is as necessary now as ever before –

Cooder: Absolutely.

Tavis: – given the state and condition of the world, given the suffering of so much of humanity. That music is more relevant now than ever before, and yet there’s so little of it as compared to before. Why is that?

Cooder: Well, record companies, we watched the record company idea grow into a big corporate entity less and less likely to want to present this kind of message, you see? More and more likely to want to present a lifestyle message or a commercial message of some kind.

So I think whereas in the ’30s, in the Depression era, there was a lot of social music made by just folks from Jimmie Rodgers on down, Woody Guthrie, of course, and it was popular. The Weavers, Pete Seeger’s group, in the ’50s were on the top 10. Unbelievable today.

Tavis: But that’s my point, though. That’s where we are now.

Cooder: Yeah.

Tavis: These are Depressed-era-like conditions now.

Cooder: That’s absolutely right.

Tavis: Poverty has run amok in this country.

Cooder: Well, the media then, are they going to show you this kind of music? I strongly feel, and I’m assuming that people are out there writing songs, thinking about songs with their instruments. There’s more people than ever before in this kind of trouble, like in the Occupy and all this.

They’re bound to be doing it, but how are we going to hear this? It’d be harder to get to. Be harder to find out about.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact – and again, I’m not asking this question out of any naïveté – but to your point about the media, what do you make of the fact that to play something like this from you, or there are other folk, obviously, with different points of view who are writing their music, telling their story about the way they see this country headed.

What do you make of the fact that it would get – that the media or that radio and other media outlets couldn’t play this kind of stuff for fear of being labeled politically incorrect just to play it. You follow me?

Cooder: Yes, of course.

Tavis: That the culture has changed so much now that the ’30s, the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, they put that stuff out and people ate it up. Nowadays, if you did that, if somebody – trust me, somebody’s going to send me – I’m going to get some email.

Cooder: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: About just playing the part of Mutt Romney.

Cooder: Of course.

Tavis: I’m going to get some flak for just playing that bit. If I just played pieces of this project every night, the mail into PBS would come fast and furious about me being politically incorrect just for playing this stuff.

Cooder: Sure. Yes, I understand. Well, you’ve got to remember also the public airwaves aren’t public. There’s so much monopolistic in radio, for instance. It’s all centralized, and the more centralized and monopolistic it is, it’s so much easier to control. Then I don’t know if it’s right to say on your show, but I have to say you ask me do I worry.

I don’t worry about me personally, but I do worry about the fact that there’s so much aggression and organized aggression and organized even hatred that can be mobilized with one click. Go after Tavis Smiley. You hear what he said? Now go get him. They will set on you like dogs.

Tavis: Oh, don’t I know. (Laughter)

Cooder: Yeah, I know you must know it.

Tavis: Don’t I know. (Laughter)

Cooder: Yeah, mm.

Tavis: Yeah. Since you raised it, I’m happy to go there. What do you make of the fact that when you say “push that button,” another name of that would be called cyber-hate, or cyber-bullying?

Cooder: Sure.

Tavis: The Internet and technology is used so much these days – again, don’t I know – to bully people, to demean people, to lie about people.

Cooder: Yes, right.

Tavis: That stuff circulates around the world so fast you can spend the rest of your life, every living and waking moment, trying to deny and tell the truth about what was said about you, and you ain’t got a shot.

Cooder: And all they did is corner you right there.

Tavis: Exactly.

Cooder: Yeah, (unintelligible).

Tavis: You ain’t got a shot against technology, against that kind of –

Cooder: You really don’t.

Tavis: – that cyber-force.

Cooder: I think it’s tough to have a shot against it. It’s big.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cooder: It’s big and it’s fast. It’s deadly. Yeah, it’s not good in a society, either. See, this is the thing that’s worrisome, right? We’re supposed to have a society here. Well, what the hell? It’s like a minefield, for crying out loud. I don’t like it.

What we want is solidarity and unity. How are we going to get that? How are we going to maintain it? There was a time when the labor union movement was very powerful in bringing people together, and they did good. It was educational and it raised standard of living and did good things and protected people.

What protection now? What safety net? So what does this mean? That’s why people think, some people I know really do believe that the Occupy movement is a chance, just because people start to talk to each other.

Tavis: There are some who believe, and I’ve seen polls that bear this out, that America’s best days as a nation are behind it. Are you one of those persons?

Cooder: Well, it would be a shame to say it. It would be a shame to – I can’t see – when they say “Let’s take this country back,” if I were to say that, I would say, as I said, unity and solidarity. The government needs to act for the people. We can’t have folks telling us that the government is evil and hate the government so that they can dismantle the government, so that they can run it themselves for profit.

Privatizing everything from schools and prisons to God knows what. All of these things, if you look at all of these things, your head starts to spin. But one thing that everybody used to recognize, and it was the basis of unionism from the (unintelligible) on down – there’s more of us than them.

Now, of course, if you have your politician 24/7 or your right-wing media saying there are people who are dangerous to you, and shoot them on sight, and that’s a message 24/7, now, that is – and I know you’ve been out in the country – it’s different from Los Angeles.

Oh, I’m telling you, in Florida, I’m thinking, of course, of Zimmerman and this most terrible thing. Now what are we going to do about that? How do laws like that get passed, this stand-your-ground business? How in the hell did that happen?

So we have to do something. “We.” It’s easy to sit here and say in the TV studio we have to do something about this. I don’t know what to suggest. I was hoping you’d have a suggestion.

Tavis: That’s why I invited you on. (Laughter) We’re in a world of trouble if you’re looking to me. So you’ve been around a little bit longer than I’ve been around and accomplished a great deal more, so you’re the elder who I respect, and I’m delighted to have you on. So how do you maintain your hope? How do you sustain?

Cooder: Well, I sit there in my house with my family and I play my instruments. I spend a lot of time, more than ever before, more and more, doing that, wanting to make the music. I know I have it. I’ve been playing all my life. My son, Joachim, he plays. He’s done this all his life.

So we know who we are, and we know that music is good, and it’s positive and it’s helpful, and there’s all kinds of good uses to put it to. But we really have to work on the bubble that you want to live in.

I don’t mean isolationist bubble, but the bubble of creativity or the bubble of peace and quiet and regard for other people and the feeling of community. You just have to keep believing in it or you’ll go insane. I’ll spend all my time at the acupuncturist, getting treatments for nerves. (Laughter) See, I’m practically there right now.

Tavis: Is it just the machine – and I recognize these things are not that disconnected – but is it just the music machine that has shut down on any kind of message music, or have the artists – this is an impolitic question; let me ask anyway – have the artists just kind of sold out a little bit?

Cooder: I think the machine – well, the machine – calling it the record business, let’s say machine, was scuttled, as of 2006. If you believe as I do that it started in 1906 when Caruso sold a million, by 2006, that’s a hundred years later, the thing was basically, had imploded. I’m sorry to say I couldn’t believe it when I saw this coming.

You mean to say that the record business, the music of your life at a price you can afford for everybody, beautiful sounds, the emotional storage medium, if you like, and all this kind of talk, and everything that I had always wanted to do. Now what? Now how are we going to do this now?

What will the companies do? We can’t all just do “American Idol.” There’s more to it than that. So I keep trying by doing this. It’s what I like to do, and by the way, it’s fun, I enjoy it. So I don’t think that the artists have changed as human beings, because the impulse is always the same – creativity, self-expression. It’s always the same impulse we’ve always had. It’s human nature.

But what outlet do you have then? What the hell are you going to do? I might end up standing on the corner giving these things to passersby, but I don’t know quite what to put this out, sort of an act of blind faith. Is anybody going to hear it? I hope they get to it. I think they’d like it if they heard it, but I don’t know where radio’s gone.

Tavis: I saw “The New York Times” did a nice piece about it the other day.

Cooder: Yes, they did.

Tavis: I saw that.

Cooder: Yeah, that’ll be helpful.

Tavis: Nice piece in “The New York Times.”

Cooder: That’s very helpful. But then, of course, you don’t have stores to go out and buy it in. See, it would be like having shoes, nice shoes, no shoe stores. What the hell? What are you (unintelligible)? (Laughter)

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that God chose you, the creator chose you as a vessel for this stuff to come through? You could have been directed in a thousand different paths.

Cooder: That’s right. Or no path.

Tavis: Or no path. But given that, again, I think that artists are just – I have such great regard for artists. But what do you make of the fact that this is what you were called to do; this is your vocation, your profession?

Cooder: Well, I always have felt lucky, because somebody gave me a guitar when I was four. They knew I liked music and the man was a blacklisted violinist in Los Angeles with the L.A. Philharmonic and was blacklisted in McCarthy time and couldn’t work anymore.

They were friends of my parents. But he brought this guitar over and I was lying in bed and he put it on my stomach and he strummed a chord. I said, “What’s that?” You can feel the vibration and all this. It was sleep time. “That’s a guitar.” That’s it. Well, that’s lucky, see. The opportunity of growing up in Los Angeles, where the record business was starting to really get steam up and a lot of musicians were coming here, so that by the time I was a teenager, there were opportunities.

You could make a buck. Turned out you could support yourself. Gas didn’t cost as much to get to the gig as it does now, see. Every kind of person lives in Los Angeles, so you can hear every kind of music. I love Latin music and blues and jazz and all these things. So there again, luck was with me there, and –

Tavis: It’s a little bit of luck, but you’ve got a lot of talent too, though, Ry.

Cooder: Well, now –

Tavis: You got a lot of talent.

Cooder: Well –

Tavis: And who haven’t you played with over the years? From the Stones to –

Cooder: Well, thank you, but you know, talent is good if you have enough desire. A friend of mine, Dan Geller, said it’s mostly desire. Wanting to do it, and to push yourself and really mean it. I intend to do this now.

I’m going to learn this song or learn this thing on the guitar, for instance, and figure out how some guy in the mountains of Appalachia or somebody down South plays this, and then maybe even get a chance to ask him in person, which I did. It’s harder to do now.

I would say to Mississippi John, “What was that funny chord you just played?” “Well, you just put your hands here.” Okay, that’s a whole new chapter. Oh, my gosh. So that’s luck, and the desire to do it. Then if there’s talent floating around, then just make it work.

Tavis: I don’t know that you do, but if you had an iPod or had an iPod, what’s in yours? What do you like to listen to? Who do you like to listen to?

Cooder: Well at home, I like to hear the good, French, classical composers. You’ve got Ravel; you’ve got Debussy, guys like that. It’s so spatial, and to me, what it is is a sonic portrait or nature. So there’s water, there’s trees, and of course nature to them in the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century was pretty vibrant. It was right there.

They just went outside of Paris and they were in the countryside. So that’s a natural world that was very real to them, and they were very good at depicting this in their music. So expansive after a nervous day on the 405 or the 10. (Laughter)

So get me out of here, get me off these freeways. I’m going to put a little Ravel on. Beautiful. Takes you to so many places. But you don’t have to think about it, and it has nothing to do with your lifestyle. I don’t feel then I need to go drink or eat or text people. So that’s out, that’s good. That’s good therapy.

Also I love jazz, be-bop, and swing music. It’s so wonderful. The rhythm, the singing. Nat King Cole. I don’t need too much more than Nat King Cole right there.

Tavis: Yeah.

Cooder: Then I’m going to want to hear Mexican norteno, the north Mexican, the beautiful trio music, and all the Cuban stuff, you see, because it’s so vital, and the chord changes are so great and they play these things on the piano. It just takes you away. I wanted to be a piano player first and foremost. Never got around to it.

Tavis: There’s still time.

Cooder: Well, it’s tough when you’re older to get going on a new instrument. I’d have to abandon everything else. Sometimes I don’t mind that idea, but I’m probably not. Probably going to sit in that chair that’s just about like this chair, (laughter) and try to figure out some more tunes.

But the oldest classic music is the beauty of records. If it hadn’t have been for records we wouldn’t have popular music. We wouldn’t have Cole Porter or Jimmy Van Heusen or whoever you want, and Johnny Hartman and guys like this. You have a society when you can produce a Johnny Hartman or a Nat King Cole. You have a society to me.

You have a country. Look what this country produced in terms of music. Then we could talk about and all that that means.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad it produced one Ry Cooder.

Cooder: Well, I’m glad you’re here too.

Tavis: I’m glad it produced him and I’m glad he’s still doing what he does so well. The new project from Ry Cooder is called “Election Special.” There’s some good stuff on here. I didn’t get to all the stuff – “Guantanamo” and “The Wall Street Part of Town.” (Laughter) It’s good stuff.

Cooder: Thank you.

Tavis: “The New York Times” said so the other day, and I say so tonight. So that should be all you need to know to go out and get it. Ry, good to have you here.

Cooder: Thank you so much.

Tavis: I’m honored to have you on this program.

Cooder: All right, man. Me too.

Tavis: Thank you so much. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 1, 2012 at 1:33 pm