Over the past couple of decades, guitarist, singer, and songwriter Ry Cooder has largely subjugated his own musical identity in order to produce and promote an incredible array of artists and styles from around the world. Most notable perhaps is the Buena Vista Social Club, whose excellent 1997 self-titled album resurrected the careers of many classic Cuban musicians. He’s also paired with blues master Taj Mahal, Indian virtuoso Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, and Malian great Ali Farka Touré, in addition to gathering together a diverse crew of Los Angeleno Latinos for 2005’s Chavez Ravine, about the culture of a neighborhood bulldozed over in order to build Dodger Stadium in the 1950s. Cooder has roamed far and wide for the records he’s worked on, absorbing new sounds and finding musical compatriots around the world. On his latest, My Name Is Buddy, Ry Cooder is influenced by another great and important artist: himself.
While he’s contributed to many superb albums in recent years and ameliorated our interest in world music in general, I’m sure I’m not alone in wondering if Ry Cooder would ever get around to just being Ry Cooder again. Sure, his career as a rock singer-songwriter flagged considerably during the ’80s, but his albums from the decade before were mostly great. He created a subtle and easily digestible blend out of seemingly disparate styles, infusing his laid-back tunes with folk, blues, Hawaiian guitar, soul, country, whatever.
On My Name Is Buddy, early 20th century folk music is at the fore. Although applying just one genre to the album offers a narrow perspective, the anti-union music of Woody Guthrie is foundational here, both sonically and lyrically. This, you see, is a concept album. The title character, Buddy Red Cat, is the principle narrator of this tale of the 1930s Dust Bowl days. And, yeah, he’s actually a cat. Lefty Mouse and Reverend Toad are also along for the wild ride, as Cooder constructs a story arc around these hard-livin’ critters that would make for a pretty strange animated Disney film. But the soundtrack would be great!
Although this is a solo album, I wouldn’t want to give the impression that Cooder recorded it all on his own. He rounded up plenty of friends for the occasion, including Guthrie’s legendary cohort Pete Seeger (and brother Mike) for “J. Edgar”; the Chieftain’s Paddy Maloney blowing tin whistle on the Irish-tinged opener “Suitcase in My Hand”; killer tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez on “Christmas in Southgate”; and other high caliber players like veteran session drummer Jim Keltner and arranger Van Dyke Parks. Despite the presence of these greats, for which even the term “all-star cast” feels woefully inadequate, Ry Cooder stands at the fore on My Name Is Buddy. His songs are straightforward, but wrought from Ry’s deep heart.
During the album’s first half, if one fault were to be found, it could be that the whole affair is just a little too agreeable. The cuts are good and the stories, when paying close attention, fun. But a little spark is missing. Thankfully, the sounds start getting a little weirder midway through, balancing out the cheerier material that came before. On “Red Cat Till I Die”, a very old ghost from Cooder’s past crops up: Captain Beefheart. Sure, you could look further back to Charley Patton or quite easily land on Tom Waits, but the off-kilter white boy blues of Beefheart’s 1967 Safe as Milk LP, on which a young Cooder played guitar, goes straight to the source. Along with “Red Cat”, the title track and the quite catchy “Three Chords and the Truth” are all just gritty enough to imbue the album with a strutting badness (appropriate for a story of an alley-wizened tom).
And “One Cat, One Vote, One Beer” floats by in a narcotic haze, like someone might’ve slipped Buddy a Mickey. But the album finishes on a sweet note, with the gentle “Farm Girl” and the bittersweet optimism of closing tack “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere”, which brings back Maloney and Jimenez, whose intercontinental tones work surprisingly well together.
As great as Chavez Ravine was, My Name Is Buddy is more thoroughly successful, possessing a stronger musical identity and top-notch songwriting throughout. It’s likely his finest album since the mid-1970s, and the first since 1980’s Borderline to truly sound like a Ry Cooder record. His excursions into film soundtracks and world music have been highly enjoyable, but it’s gratifying to hear Ry being Ry again: writing good songs, mixing up styles, and playing it all with a soulful ease. We don’t know where Cooder will wander off to for his next project, but his excellent adventures with Buddy will live on for a good long while.