Ry Cooder Combines Music and Politics on Grammy-Nominated Election Special

Credit: Joachim Cooder

Ry Cooder calls himself a “benchwarmer” and “hobbyist” — modest words from a guy who’s won six Grammys and worked with some of the most creative forces in music while fearlessly embracing diverse tangents in his solo career.

“Benchwarmer” is his reaction to getting another Grammy nomination this year. And with the many financial and business changes within the music industry since the release of his first solo album in 1970, Cooder also says he now considers himself “a hobbyist” who finds satisfaction in making albums on his own terms.

At Sunday’s (Feb. 10) Grammy Awards, he’s up for folk album of the year for Election Special, easily the most political project in the category that also includes the Carolina Chocolate DropsLeaving Eden, Luther Dickinson’s Hambone’s Meditations, Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile’s The Goat Rodeo Sessions and the all-star compilation This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark.

Released in August, prior to the Republican National Convention, Election Special gained international media attention from “Mutt Romney Blues,” a song written from the point of view of presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dog. Other tracks include “Kool-Aid” (written from the standpoint of a blue-collar worker who votes against his own self-interests) and “Brother Is Gone” (about the Koch brothers and the perceived danger of big business making large contributions to conservative causes).

In “Brother Is Gone,” Cooder draws from mythology surrounding Robert Johnson and the alleged bargain with the devil at the crossroads that allowed the late bluesman to become a masterful musician.

“I was thinking about how to explain the Koch brothers,” Cooder said during a recent interview with CMT Edge. “Then I thought about the crossroads. Satan’s price is that he’ll come for one of the Koch brothers and take him back down, but he won’t say when or which one it will be.”

Cooder’s music began taking a stronger political turn with 2007’s My Name Is Buddy and 2011’s Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down.

But long before Americana was used to describe a style of music, Cooder was already exploring roots music, including his involvement in the Rising Sons, a band he formed in 1965 with Taj Mahal. As the years progressed, he became one of the most sought-after session guitarists, appearing on the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers and other projects by artists as diverse as Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, Aaron Neville, Little Feat, Van Dyke Parks and Captain Beefheart.

And in the midst of recording and releasing a series of acclaimed solo albums, he also delved into composing and performing music for film soundtracks, including Paris, Texas, Alamo Bay and Blue City. His work on John Hiatt’s Bring the Family album led to Little Village, a short-lived supergroup featuring Cooder, Hiatt, Nick Lowe and drummer Jim Keltner. His musical adventures have also veered toward world music on projects with Indian musician V.M. Bhatt and African guitarist Ali Farka Toure. His interest in Cuban music led to his Grammy-winning work with the Buena Vista Social Club and guitarist Manuel Galban.

Regardless of whether Cooder continue to infuse his music with overt political messages, it’s clear that he’s a musician — not a politician — at heart. Asked about his continuing desire to work on projects with other musicians, he had a simple explanation.

“Playing with other people — that’s what makes you better”

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