Ry Cooder got religion — of a sort — recently, which led to The Prodigal Son, his first new solo album in six years, whose title track video is premiering exclusively below.
The veteran musical adventurer, along with his son and frequent collaborator Joachim Cooder, were invited to join Ricky Skaggs & the Whites on tour during 2015, playing a repertoire laced with country gospel songs. Cooder expected to be accompanying the troupe on guitar and was surprised when Skaggs tapped him to sing a couple of songs during the show. “It's a heavy thing to sing. It's special,” Cooder tells Billboard. “I always loved country gospel from back when I was a teenager in high school and started listening to bluegrass quite a lot. You can play as good as you want, but it's a whole other thing to actually sing them. It's daunting. But I got in there and sang the bass parts, and Ricky, being an expert, helped me if I had the wrong notes or something.
“And I had such a good time singing these songs. It was a fantastic experience, very satisfying. By the end of the year I began to think about it in a different way.”
It was Joachim Cooder who suggested that his father make an album of spiritual songs. “He said, 'It's time to make a record. You saw how people reacted when you sang those songs. That's the thing for you to do',” Cooder recalls. “I used to sneak gospel tunes into my old records, just as kind of a personal thing. It certainly was part of the live shows I used to do. But a whole record? Damn… That's daunting.”
Built on arrangements created by Joachim and fleshed out by Ry, The Prodigal Son features three originals, including the politically tinged “Gentrification,” and eight renditions of favorites such as the Pilgrim Travelers' “Straight Street,” Blind Willie Johnson's “Everybody Ought To Treat A Stranger Right” and “Nobody's Fault But Mine,” Carter Stanley's “Harbor Of Love” and more — including the Cooders' arrangement of the title track, whose video features an extended take on the song that will delight fans of Ry's slide guitar playing. “I wasn't going to be imitating or trying to imitate classic records or classic performances,” Cooder says. “I didn't push myself trying to do something I can’t do. I found a new way of doing (the songs) but inspired by (the originals). Then it has something you can sink your teeth into. Once we got going we said, 'This is really gonna work…'”
The Prodigal Son is also taking Cooder on the road for his first extensive tour since 2009. He'll be accompanied by the vocal trio the Hamiltones — suggested by his onetime backup singer Arnold McCuller — and plans both a healthy dose of the new album's material as well as favorites from a nearly 50-year catalog of recordings. “It's been a helluva deal to assemble this,” Cooder says with a laugh. “Who does this, at age 71, try to put a tour together from scratch? I have to say it's scary at times. But I like a challenge 'cause it keeps you on your toes. You might come up with something real fascinating. I think that's going to happen.”