TVD Live: Ry Cooder, Sharon White, and
Ricky Skaggs at the Birchmere, 4/6

Cooder-White-Skaggs sounds like a legal firm or at the least a group of CPAs. Instead, it’s a grand musical merger of two storied families—country star Ricky Skaggs, who married into the White family 35 years ago and went largely bluegrass as a result; and Ry Cooder, the singular guitarist whose work spans genres and cultures, with his son and frequent accompanist Joachim Cooder, who is nearly as thoughtful and musical in his approach on drums (on bass is Mark Fain, who comes courtesy Skagg’s Kentucky Thunder band).

Each aspect of the aggregation would be worth going out to hear individually; together, it’s remarkable in its riches. Having already sold out two shows at the Birchmere in their initial tour last fall, they returned for a pair of springtime encore performances as the storied club marks its 50th anniversary.

Once more they are playing almost entirely old timey songs, largely gospel, that could have been lost in the dustbins but were instead revived on YouTube, as Cooder explained. When they wanted to perform a particular song, one would shoot an email with a YouTube link to another and they’d commence learning it. The black and white videos tended to be the better ones, Cooder opined, though when they started to be recorded in color, he opted for the early to mid-color periods.

Not surprisingly, the song list owes to previous vocal harmony and string outfits that had family ties, from the Stanleys and Louvins to the Delmores. And the point of their touring seems to go back to the days before recording, to simply perform them together live—there is no Cooder-White-Skaggs album they’ve recorded to promote; there doesn’t seem to be one in the works either.

Skaggs, largely switching between mandolin and fiddle (though he acquitted himself nicely on an electric guitar late in the show), is also largely the affable host of the show. But it is The Whites who are at its core, a family band from out of Arkansas who had a few Nashville hits in the early ’70s and have become Grand Ole Opry mainstays since then, largely by sticking to the basics while others went for the frills.

The remarkable Buck White, at 85, is still a part of the action, with terrific honky-tonk piano flourishes whenever he’s given the signal. Sisters Sharon White, who is married to Skaggs, and her sister Cheryl have a sincere sisterly harmony in which Skaggs has inserted himself quite naturally.

For all of Cooder’s guitar prowess—having played on recordings from Captain Beefheart to the Rolling Stones (he played both the mandolin on “Love in Vain” and slide guitar on “Sister Morphine”) as well as issuing a passel of great solo albums and organizing the Buena Vista Social Club long before Obama calmed relations with Cuba—one forgets about the power of the musician’s voice.

Dry as the desert near his Santa Monica hometown and expressive as the dustbowl oracles like Woody Guthrie whose songs he often covered, he actually adds a gritty authenticity to these old rough-hewn songs. Still, one can hear that he really put effort in becoming a baritone, to lay the bottom to these four piece harmonies.

If diehard Cooder fans might have been miffed that not a single song from his catalog was included, at least his version of “You Must Unload” by Blind Alfred Reed that began the encore had some resonance. Cooder recorded Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” on his first solo album 46 years ago.

The show did afford fans the chance to see what Skaggs accurately called Cooder’s “vintage music store,” from his famously jerryrigged Coodercaster to an electric bouzouki that proved itself a solid bluegrass instrument, to the sturdy Martin D-18 once owned by a blind gospel musician from Indiana named Ralph Trotto, whose name is lavishly painted on the front.

The first time Cooder picked up a banjo in the show, he played it slow enough to make one think he was still learning it. But banjo was actually his first instrument. There’s a story he once played it as part of a pickup trio in the early ’60s with Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, who told him he wasn’t ready. Cooder then applied his stylings to guitar.

He increased velocity on the banjo in subsequent songs though his high point may have been in helming a gorgeous largely instrumental version of “The Tennessee Waltz.” Using almost the same setlist as the fall shows, the group was playing just hours after news of the death of country great Merle Haggard. Would the group have the flexibility to do one of his songs in tribute? The first Merle that came up, though, was Travis, whose “Sweet Temptation” was played early.

Then Skaggs paused to remember someone who passed, and some clapped in anticipation of Haggard’s name, only to find he was talking about Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, of all people, who was apparently such a fan of the band at the Birchmere, Skaggs pointed out where his usual seat was. To him, he dedicated the solemn Flatt & Scruggs bluegrass number, “Gone Home.”

It was soon after, though, came Cooder’s intonations of Haggard’s classic “The Fugitive,” which was done in tribute to the country icon who died on his 79th birthday. The comprehensive dive into the very roots of American country and gospel was a satisfying one. Funny to think that such an investigation into its simple roots would require the technology of a new century to bring it to the fore.

But please, there should be some recordings of this. Or at least some YouTube videos.

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  • Crystal Longdon

    There is talk of doing a live recording from their performances, which was told to me by Ry Cooder himself, as they have recorded a number of these shows. He told me at the merchandise table that they may indeed pick the best of these for an album when the tour is over. I sure hope so. I’ve been to 4 of their performances and cannot seem to get enough!

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