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Live Review: Ry Cooder with Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs @ Thalia Hall

| January 21, 2016

C-S-W - 1web

Saturday, January 29, 2016
Thalia Hall,
Chicago, IL

After a visit in July 2015, Cooder-White-Skaggs returned to Thalia Hall for a wintry encore. It was the trio’s first night back together, after a string of hot shows last summer. Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White both told the crowd how special that run was, and how much they’d missed the music and companionship of Ry Cooder and his son Joachim. Ry Cooder praised the charms of the old theater, saying, “If this had been in Santa Monica, they’d have torn it down and put up three Starbucks.”

The group performed a generous set of Gospel and bluegrass music, bringing life to favorites from the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s ranging from “Cold Jordan” and Bill Monroe’s “Walkin’ in Jerusalem” to instrumental showcase “Tennessee Waltz.” Skaggs said, “The only thing in the set newer than 1965 are the boys,” referring to the band’s rhythm section including a longtime collaborator on bass and Joachim Cooder on drums. Sharon White took a stunning lead vocal on Leon Payne’s heartbroken “No One Will Never Know.” “Every good country set has to have a train song,” she said later, before leading the charge on the Delmore Brothers’ “Pan American Boogie.” Skaggs dazzled on every instrument he touched, including mandolin and violin. He lashed into his Fender Telecaster guitar on Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ “No Doubt About It.”

Cooder produced an array of enviable and exotic stringed instruments including guitars, mango-guitar and banjo, earning a particularly big ovation for a stretch of howling, jazz-infused bottleneck blues on Jimmy Martin’s “Hold What You Got.” The song selection included favorites from the repertoires of the Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Hank Williams and Sharon’s family band The Whites. Sharon’s 85-year-old father Buck White was a highlight of the show on piano, raising a storm of notes infused with both the church hall and the dance hall. Cooder paid tribute to heroes including Merle Travis with “Kinfolks in Carolina” and Hank Snow with “A Fool Such as I.”

Review and photos by Jeff Elbel



Ry Cooder has run the extremes of popular music from around the world. Many know the multi-instrumentalist from his influential session work as guitarist, helping no less than the Rolling Stones to find the sound on albums including Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Among many others, Cooder has worked with Neil Young, Van Morrison, Ali Farka Toure and even the Monkees.

Cooder’s multiple Grammy awards include 1998’s Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album for Buena Vista Social Club, which brought hidden musical treasures to American audiences while giving fresh acclaim to masterful Cuban artists including vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo, and pianist Rubén González. In 2003, Cooder won the Best Pop Instrumental album trophy for Mambo Sinuendo with Manuel Galban.

Cooder’s solo career produced a string of enduring albums including the ‘70s-era releases Into the Purple Valley, Chicken Skin Music and Bop Till You Drop. These records explored styles including blues, folk, Hawaiian slack key guitar, and R&B. More recent fare including Chávez Ravine, My Name is Buddy, Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down and Election Special found Cooder’s music increasingly politicized, criticizing social and economic disparity, and championing the working class. “Mutt Romney Blues” was sung from the perspective of former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s maligned dog. “No Banker Left Behind” offered wry commentary on Wall Street bailouts.

Thalia Hall will host a Chicago appearance by Cooder Friday (January 29), and the Cooder-White-Skaggs date draws firepower from his collaboration with revered bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs and vocalist Sharon White of country-gospel act The Whites. Supported by a band including Cooder’s son Joachim on drums and White’s father Buck on piano, the show promises a special evening with top-flight talent.

Cooder spoke with IE about transitioning from political music and delving into the uniquely American styles of gospel, country and bluegrass.

IE: You’ve said that in your early career, you had a notion to bring politically-activated dust bowl and Depression-era songs to modern audiences. Your last several solo records feature your own compositions, and they seem like they might be in tune with what Woody Guthrie would do in these times.

Ry: The political material is what I learned to do by listening to the political songs of the past. I said, “I can probably apply these same things to some of today’s horrible problems.” I don’t know any other kind of song to write. I’m not going to go out and write love songs or “I gotta be me” songs. But after spending all these years listening to Charlie Poole or Dave Macon or Woody [Guthrie] or whoever it is, you kind of know how to do it. “No Banker Left Behind” was pretty easy to do, and fun.

IE: It seems like it could be fun sometimes, but also very intense.

Ry: I ended up getting so wrapped up in it that I started hurting myself. I got too angry, and I got a Chinese acupuncture doctor who said, “You’ve got to stop now.” I said, “What am I supposed to do? It’s all I know how to do.” She was very hardcore. She said, “Politics, no good for you. Leave it alone.” So I thought she was right and said, “All right, I will.” It helped my back not to stay in that mode. So, I made a few records like that, and I like the songs. They’re interesting and funny, about the Koch brothers and so on. But to do that you have to immerse yourself in things that are happening, and it’s just too hard after a while. You get older like me, and you have to watch it.

IE: Hopefully, Tom Morello knows a good acupuncturist.

Ry: Ha ha! Well, he’s built differently than me. He’s built for combat. He’s like a Navy seal, but I’m not that kind of person. So, my son Joachim said, “What are you going to do? You can’t just sit here.” Then I came across the Skaggs-Whites on YouTube from 1970, and I thought, “Man, that’s the deal. Listen to them sing these gospel songs! Now, you know those songs. Let’s go sing ’em with them.” It took about three years to bring it into focus. It turns out that it’s a much better idea than I thought. The gas in the tank is Buck White on piano, who is absolutely fantastic. The lost art of dancehall piano is right there, alive and well.

IE: That’s Sharon’s father, right?

Ry: It is. Sharon and Cheryl, their dad, and their mom who passed were a family band – still are. They sing all the songs that we’re doing, but Buck came up on piano in the dancehall scene of West Texas. sometimes it’s startling what he plays, especially on the ballads. Sometimes he sounds like Nat Cole. He puts these jazz cluster chords together, and it’s breathtaking. Then, the next tune is like sheets ripping. He’s banging away like Moon Mullican or somebody. That’s something people are going to be amazed to hear. It makes the whole thing sound like a great big dance band. Some people have been dancing in the audience. When you see that happening, you know you’re right, because the rhythm’s good and the tempos are right.

IE: Would you still sing a light-hearted protest song like “Mutt Romney Blues,” or does that not fit?

Ry: We’re looking for songs where three or four-part voices do well. We looked at the Louvin repertoire, because it’s built that way. The gospel songs are built that way, where the lead sings and the choir answers back. Ricky and the Whites all know that stuff forwards and backwards. We pick songs that would be fun to play, but “Mutt Romney Blues” wouldn’t fit. I want to do “No Banker Left Behind,” though, because it’s more of a Dave Macon type song in my mind. And the sentiment is nothing new; it’s the same problem we have now as in the ’30s or the ’20s or the late 19th century. The very thing that’s been a problem for poor people in the past is still a problem for people. I’m hoping that tune will work.

I take it upon myself to sing a Hank Snow tune. I wouldn’t do it, except they told me it was good. I said, “Do you think I could get away with this?” They said, “You have to do it.” It’s “A Fool Such as I” – the most beautiful song. It’s my favorite Hank Snow tune. He has always fascinated me since I was a tiny kid, with the sound of remembrance and reflection in his voice. It’s a perfect voice on record. When I first heard it, I must have been three or four years old and I thought, “What is this? This is something really good.”

IE: It sounds like a big variety is built into the show.

Ry: We’ve got some Hank Snow music, some gospel music, and some beautiful ballads. Sharon sings a Leon Payne song, “No One Will Ever Know,” and that’s the showstopper. It’s so gripping. If you were to ask me what’s the most perfect country song – that’s it. Someone asked Harlan Howard, “What’s country music to you,” and he said, “three chords and the truth.” I wrote a song called “Three Chords and the Truth” for Harlan’s sake, but beyond that is Leon Payne. It’s so far beyond trying to be clever or catchy for the radio. We’re playing it on stage, and I’m thinking, “This is it. This is American music, par excellence.” People are listening, and you could hear a pin drop.

– Jeff Elbel

(Interview reprinted/reposted from July 2015)

Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White appear January 29 (8:30pm)
Thalia Hall, 1807 S Allport, Chicago
Tickets $39-$100
(312) 526-3851

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Category: Stage Buzz, Weekly

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  1. Gary Fruland says:

    I was there standing in the standing room only section with my wife and just loved the show and the theater. My first time to see these wonderful performers and this fabulous concert hall. Truly an amazing place with a great staff.