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With 'The Prodigal Son,' Ry Cooder Puts His Own Touch On Gospel Music

<em>The Prodigal Son </em>is Ry Cooder's first solo album in six years. On it, Cooder makes more traditional American gospel music his own.
Beth Gwinn
Getty Images for Americana Music
The Prodigal Son is Ry Cooder's first solo album in six years. On it, Cooder makes more traditional American gospel music his own.

Ry Cooder has been described as a singer-songwriter, slide guitar hero, session musician to so many other artists, producer, musicologist and historian, a man beholden to no single style, a champion of Cuban and international roots music, and a composer of film soundtracks.

Yet, now a half-century into his prolific career, Cooder continues to carve out new trades for himself.

Six years since he revived protest music with Election Special, Cooder has a new solo album out. The Prodigal Son features a mix of original compositions as well as some beautiful obscurities unearthed from the American country, gospel and blues catalogs.

It was Cooder's son Joachim who planted the idea that his father turn his passion for gospel music into a full album.

"We had been singing a lot of gospel music together and that's something that I love so much, always have," Cooder says. "I'd never considered doing a whole record of it though because ... if you're going to sing it, you gotta nail it. You gotta really bring it when you come."

But after that talk, Cooder says he found himself going back and looking for songs that he thought he could sing and then looking at how best to make the songs his own.

That's evident on the album's title track, "The Prodigal Son."

While it comes right from the New Testament, the song also name checks the great pedal steel guitar player Ralph Mooney.

Cooder says Joachim had the underlying track from years before and when he found it said, "Here's a good one. It grooves nice. You can play and sing over it."

"The Prodigal Son," Cooder agreed, would fit well on top of the track's rhythm, but there was one problem: The song was too short.

"The original was a song The Heavenly Gospel Singers recorded ... and the prodigal son left home and then he came back — and end of song," Cooder says. "But what happened in the meantime when he was out there searching and traveling around? I didn't know — the Bible doesn't say."

The answer to that missing chapter came, Cooder says, as he sat in the studio.

"He wanders into the Hub Cafe in Bakersfield, say 1960, and up on stage he's going to see Wynn Stewart and Ralph Mooney, which you would've seen if you'd have been there then," he says. "And that's it. He says 'Here I shall stand. Here I shall stay. I'll become a servant. Let me empty your ash tray Mr. Mooney. Let me help you if I can.' "

While many of the songs on The Prodigal Son are gospel, others like "Gentrification" put listeners in the middle of a hotbed political issue.

"We live in Los Angeles, you see, and this is something we see all around us all the time," Cooder says. "This kind of unbridled, unchecked insanity of building and development and so forth — and so you hear about this and these situations with the rollback of rent control and affordable housing disappearing every minute."

Throughout the song, he references some of the issues that arise as tech giants come into markets, often pushing others in the community from their homes.

As "Gentrification" and "The Prodigal Son" offer multidimensional and layered tracks, others including "You Must Unload," are strikingly simple.

Cooder says he has always loved songs by Blind Alfred Reed, and that this one by the hillbilly fiddler and singer-songwriter is a "sensational song" that still holds up today.

Many of the songs on The Prodigal Son speak to religion and spirituality, but Cooder has said before that he isn't a religious person.

"There's something about these songs, however you see the world, you can feel the depth of them," Cooder says. "The thing I always found about the gospel music was that it reached further into your being if you like, your mind. It takes hold of you — especially if you sing it and play it."

Janaya Williams and Natalie Winston produced and edited this story for broadcast. Wynne Davis adapted it for Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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