On their current tour these virtuosos have taken on new roles: Master Gardeners charged with preserving and protecting American Roots Music. All their years of laboring in the vineyards of country, bluegrass, and gospel have produced a vintage sound that was on display at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA this week.
A set list that began with the Louvin Brothers’ The Family Who Prays and ended with the Stanley Brothers’ Over in Gloryland might have foreshadowed a fire and brimstone tent revival. And at one point Ricky looked across the stage and asked “Ry, when you were growing up in Santa Monica did you think you’d end up playing bass in a gospel quartet?” “Yes I did,” Cooder deadpanned.
But there was too much fun to be had on this trip down memory lane for anyone to feel pressured into baptism. As they played and sang, it became clear that the longing for love and the need for spiritual sustenance are only separated by a few chords and a chorus.
They moved from Merle Travis (Sweet Temptation) to Hank Williams (Mansion on the Hill) to Stanley Brothers (Cold Jordan) effortlessly as changing guitars.
At one point, Cooder picked up what he called “a 100 lb guitar” that he had never played on stage before. The result was a rollicking duet with Skaggs’ mandolin on Hold Whatcha Got with the audience singing along to the chorus:
Don’t sell the house, don’t wreck the car
Stay there, honey, right where you are
Hold whatcha got, I’m coming home to stay.
Cooder was similarly self-effacing when he strapped on a banjo that he said once belonged to Mike Seger and that he learned how to play it by watching You Tube videos.
Skaggs, his wife Sharon White, and Ry often suggested the audience turn to You Tube to hear the originals of the songwriters they were highlighting.
The legacies of Hank Snow (Now and Then There’s a Fool Such as I) and Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (Gone Home) are in good hands as these ‘young’ legends add their own lustrous versions to the country-gospel canon.
Rounding out the troupe was Sharon’s sister Cheryl on vocals, her father, 84-year-old Buck, on piano, Mark Fain on bass and Ry’s son, Joaquin Cooder, on drums.
When the road is called up yonder this band will be ready.
As for me, I heard the spirit listening to Ry Cooder’s solo intro to Tennessee Waltz. It is still ringing in my ears.