Americana is contemporary music that incorporates elements of various American roots music styles, including country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues, resulting in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.
This analysis happens to be a perfect description for nearly any record by Ry Cooder, including his second LP, Into the Purple Valley, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. It was released sometime in January 1972, though some sources cite 8 February 1972 as the official marker, so the exact day seems lost to history. Either way, we’re circling the album’s 50th anniversary, so now’s as good a time as any to celebrate Cooder’s work and his underrated contributions to the Americana genre.
Cooder had already been around the block a few times before putting out his self-titled debut solo album in December 1970. He briefly played banjo with Bill Monroe and Doc Watson and performed with both Taj Mahal‘s Rising Suns and Captain Beefheart‘s Magic Band. Session work included time spent with the Rolling Stones in 1968 and 1969, playing mandolin on “Love in Vain” (Let It Bleed) and slide guitar on “Sister Morphine” (Sticky Fingers), among other contributions.
Despite all of this activity, he wasn’t exactly a household name—well, except for maybe in the house where I lived. I’m not sure how my dad first heard Cooder, but he became Dad’s all-time favorite musician. Dad extolled the virtues of Cooder’s mastery of stringed instruments throughout his life, including mandolin and electric and acoustic guitars. The AMA concurred with Dad’s opinions, bestowing a Lifetime Achievement Award for Instrumentalist on Cooder in 2007.
Ry Cooder and Into the Purple Valley were mainstays on our living room record player, and they were among the very first albums I ever heard beginning-to-end. Of course, I was a kid and maybe not always consciously listening, but this music sunk in and has never left me.
Dad would have stacked the records on the turntable’s spindle so that we’d hear a side of one of the records, followed by the side of the other. Bob Dylan‘s Nashville Skyline may have been in the pile, too, and Mom may have even snuck in one of her beloved Mac Davis albums as well.
The way Mom told the story, those first two Ry Cooder collections weren’t easy to find. She claimed to have searched several stores, probably in center city Philadelphia and the 69th Street shopping district, just outside the city. I barely remember this, but I accompanied her on these jaunts (which were probably my first of a lifetime’s worth of subsequent record store visits).
I have no idea when Mom first picked up the Cooder albums, but I’d say by 1973, they’d already been thoroughly played, with many plays to follow. Ry Cooder and Into the Purple Valley were just as much a part of my childhood soundtrack as the Top 40 hits of the day that were pumping out of WFIL-AM as I got ready for school each morning.
Though I didn’t realize at the time, Into the Purple Valley wasn’t just educating me about the music of Ry Cooder. It also gave me a lesson in the breadth and depth of American music, though it was decades after I first heard the album that I began to understand that. Cooder draws on work by folk singers (such as Sis Cunningham’s “How Can You Keep on Movin'” and Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man”) and blues artists (such as Washington Phillips and Lead Belly). Likewise, he evokes country singers (such as Johnny Cash and Fiddlin’ John Carson) and R&B acts (such as the Drifters, Dickie Doo, and the Don’ts).
However, Cooder’s vision of Americana wasn’t limited to the United States. “F.D.R. in Trinidad”, a musical oddity commemorating a real 1936 trip the president made to the island, was written by Fritz McLean but popularized by calypso singer Atila the Hun (Raymond Quevedo). Meanwhile, Joseph Spence, a Bahamian guitarist and singer, wrote “Great Dream from Heaven”.
While compiling original or pre-Cooder recordings of all the songs that appear on Into the Purple Valley makes for a wildly diverse playlist, his vocals and playing provide a stylistic consistency to the album.
Along with intriguing song choices, Cooder surrounded himself with a unique group of talented players and singers on Into the Purple Valley. A deep dive into the album’s credits reveals the following participants and some of their accomplishments:
- Van Dyke Parks – keyboards. Parks has made his own music and collaborated with everyone from Brian Wilson to U2.
- Gloria Jones – vocals. Jones sang “Tainted Love” years before Soft Cell got to it.
- Jim Dickinson – piano. An important member of the Memphis music scene for decades, Dickinson produced Big Star’s classic Third, and sons Cody and Luther have further contributed to Americana with their North Mississippi Allstars.
- Donna Weiss – vocals. Weiss is a singer/songwriter who would eventually co-write “Bette Davis Eyes” with Jackie DeShannon.
- Chris Ethridge – bass. Bassist for the Flying Burrito Brothers.
- Milt Holland – percussion. Holland was a pioneering percussionist who brought African, South American, and Indian percussion styles to pop and jazz. He played with the likes of Bing Crosby, Gregg Allman, and Martha Reeves, among many others. If Wikipedia is to be believed, Holland was also responsible for suburban witch Samantha Stephens’ “nose tinkle” in the TV series Bewitched.
Beyond the music, Into the Purple Valley taught this young future record collector a few other things as well. At some point, I surely noticed the distinctive album cover, featuring a photo of a nervous Cooder and a female companion driving a 1939 Buick convertible through a driving rainstorm. Flip the cover over, though, and the back reveals the same scene, but the rain is gone, and the couple is all smiles. Opening the gatefold sleeve continues the story, with travelers reaching their destination and posing in front of the parked car on a city street.
The cover of Into the Purple Valley left enough of an impression that it placed at #12 on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Album Covers” list in 1991. These graphics were important enough that, when Warner Brothers released a generic but functional CD box set of Cooder’s solo discography from 1970 through 1987, the only frill included was a miniature replication of the album’s gatefold sleeve.
Dad’s original copy of Into the Purple Valley also includes a single-sided sheet of liner notes. It details musicians, production credits, and lyrics to some (but not all) of the songs.
At the time, I was a very young music fan, so all of these components—the actual music, the graphics, the liner notes—served to inform me about how such disparate elements could work together to form a singular artistic statement. Listening to Dad’s copy (plus gazing at its cover and reading its lyrics) now, 50 years later, I can see how clearly these lessons have stuck with me. A few years before I owned any LPs myself, Ry Cooder subconsciously educated me on what a record album was and what it could achieve.
Following his ’70s run, Cooder branched out considerably. For instance, he began creating movie scores (notably, Paris, Texas, directed by Wim Wenders and starred Harry Dean Stanton). He also undertook collaborations and production work with artists as varied as the Buena Vista Social Club, V.M. Bhatt, Ali Farka Toure, and the Chieftains.
Cooder put his solo career on hold in 1987 but revived it in 2005 (with the acclaimed Chávez Ravine). He issued six subsequent albums, ending with 2018’s The Prodigal Son. He will soon be returning with a new album with his long-ago collaborator, Taj Mahal, called Get on Board: The Songs of Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. It’s set for a 22 April 2022 release.
All of Ry Cooder’s music is worth exploring, both to hear his own songs and the songs he covers (and then to deep dive into the originals of his many interpretations). Newcomers will find that his debut album and Into the Purple Valley remain great places to start.