Ryland Cooder is a musicians' musician. Not only has he been playing in bands since he was 16, he has been in demand as a session musician for almost as long. Accomplished in both guitar and mandolin, Cooder's slide guitar sound is almost instantly recognizeable. Keith Richard admits to ripping Ry off with his opening riff to 'Honky Tonk Women'1, and indeed, Ry Cooder was a session musician in the recording of the Stones' Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers albums. Cooder has also played with Captain Beefheart, Little Feat, Gordon Lightfoot and Taj Mahal, among others.
Speaking in an interview at addict.com, he says:
I grew up in the folk era, and the main thing then was interacting. That's how I learned music, and most of the opportunities I've created for myself just have to do with being curious. To stand up on stage with people and play music when you have no idea what they're going to do next, it's just a rush. It's like surfing; you just sort of try and hang in there. And if there's an audience, they sort of get to hang in there too. It's exciting.
Born in Los Angeles, California on 15 March, 1947, Ry lost an eye at the age of four in an accident with a knife. One can speculate that growing up with one glass eye might have made him self-conscious and shy as a boy; to this day, it is virtually impossible to find any details about his private life and background. At any rate, when he came on the music scene at about age 16, he was already a polished musician. At first, in 1966, he had a band, the Rising Sons (see discography below), but he soon found himself with plenty of session work.
Ry Cooder began recording his own albums in 1970. His first few albums all share a folk-blues acoustic sound, with his dazzling slide guitar and mandolin work. His voice is a bit rough, but it suits his style, which seems casual on the surface but always reveals immaculate musicianship. Also notable is that his selection of songs form a re-creation and rediscovery of early forms of American music and historically significant songs.
Subsequent albums reclaimed the Tex-Mex sound, and then he began incorporating more electric and rock sounds into his own work. From there his curiosity led him to branch into different kinds of world music. In 1993 he recorded A Meeting by the River with Indian musician VM Bhatt, and in 1994 he recorded Talking Timbuktu with Ali Farka Touré. Both albums were critically acclaimed, and Talking Timbuktu went on to win a Grammy Award for Best World Music, after spending an unprecedented 25 weeks at number one on the World Music chart.
Cooder's most recent accomplishment has been the Grammy Award-winning Buena Vista Social Club, which is also a film directed by Wim Wenders. He went to Cuba, looked up such legendary musicians as Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez, and organized recording sessions. Thanks to his intervention, Cuban music and its best representatives have been retrieved from obscurity.
Ry Cooder has also been involved in movie soundtracks since about 1980. He has said of his works - in an interview with NPR in 1995 - that he seems to wind up working with movies which hardly make it at the box office, but whose themes lend themselves to Cooder's unique musical style.
Ry Cooder Reprise 1970
Into the Purple Valley Reprise 1971
Boomer's Story Reprise 1972
Paradise and Lunch Reprise 1974
Showtime Warner Bros. 1976
Chicken Skin Music Reprise 1976. A watershed album, Chicken Skin Music brought traditional Tex-Mex music out of obscurity and with it such stellar Hispanic musicians as Flaco Jiminez.
Jazz Warner Bros. 1978. This album is practically of historic value in its renditions of early jazz and blues songs in the original playing style.
Bop Till You Drop Warner Bros 1979. Another watershed: the first 'pop' album to be digitally recorded and mixed. Hugely popular, this album was Cooder's most accessible to date.
Long Riders Warner Bros 1980 (soundtrack)
Borderline Warner Bros 1980. Another Tex-Mex celebration.
The Slide Area Warner Bros 1982. More electrified funky traditional songs.
Ry Cooder Live Warner Bros 1982
Paris, Texas Warner Bros 1984 (soundtrack)
Why Don't You Try Me Tonight: Best of Ry Cooder Warner Bros 1985.
Alamo Bay Slash 1985 (soundtrack)
Get Rhythm Warner Bros 1987. Another superbly listenable collection of songs, featuring Jim Keltner on drums.
Pecos Bill Windham Hill 1988. Narrated by Robin Williams with music by Ry Cooder, these tall tales are meant for children, but adults also enjoy the album.
Johnny Handsome Warner Bros 1989 (soundtrack)
Trespass Warner Bros 1992
Little Village 1992. A rock album! Cooder joined with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner to form the group Little Village.
Meeting by the River Waterlily 1993. Ry and Joachim Cooder (Ry's son), jamming with VM Bhatt.
Words+Music Warner Bros 1994.
Music by Ry Cooder Warner Bros 1995. A compendium of soundtrack music.
Talking Timbuktu Warner Bros 1995. Jamming with Ali Farka Touré Grammy Award Winner
Buena Vista Social Club 1998. Grammy Award Winner
Jammin With Edward. Out of the Rolling Stone vaults, these loose and rather forgettable tracks commemorate a few late nights during the recording of Let It Bleed.
Rising Sons Columbia 1992. Actually recorded in 1966, this album was recorded by Ry's first rock band, another member of which was Taj Mahal.