Looking back on 50 years of a debut that put the spotlight on an American guitar icon
After spending the early part of his career as a notable on call guitarist for hire, Ry Cooder embarked on a solo career at the dawn of the ‘70s.
The fact that he counted among his credits work with the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Taj Mahal and the Rising Sons, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Randy Newman, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and Linda Ronstadt, among many others, helped elevate his reputation as superior session player, although his wider recognition had to wait until he began recording under own auspices.
Cooder’s eponymous debut, released in December 1970, did little to expand his public persona, but with his sophomore set, Into the Purple Valley, issued just over a year later, in January 1972, he attracted a bigger buzz, at least by comparison to what he had attained before. While the album tended to eschew commercial concerns, it still managed to win raves by extolling sounds of a vintage variety, one that relied primarily on Cooder’s picking and plucking on bottleneck guitar and a decidedly down home vocal to boot. Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man,” the Led Belly original “On a Monday” and a Johnny Cash seminal standard, “Hey Porter,” stood among the standouts and helped enhance the archival ambiance that colored the album overall.
And while Cooder didn’t compose any of the album’s offerings, his easy arrangements underscore the ambiance and intent. The ragtime regalia shared in “Denomination Blues” and the instrumental approach taken on “Great Dream from Heaven” affirm that sense of authenticity, but more than that, it’s Cooder’s unassuming style that makes the most immediate impact. He sounds like he’s literally taken a trip back in time, bereft on any modern musical influences and wholly dependent on his own interest and devices.
At the time, there were those who were surprised that Cooder would opt to take such an approach, especially given the fact that the music he made with others had imbued him with a decided contemporary credence. Yet, at the same time, the music posses a decided charm that effectively puts gives it cohesive context while allowing for a personal perspective. Songs such as “FDR in Trinidad,” “Billy the Kid,” “Taxes on the Farmer Feeds Us All,” and, naturally, the aforementioned “Vigilante Man” share an aura of authenticity, a reflection of the era in which they originated. They’re flush with historical references and acute observations, made all the more incisive by Cooder’s plainspoken approach.
Cooder would vary his palette in the years to come, broadening his boundaries by ventures into film scores, world music, blues, Tejano, country, and gospel. For the time being, however, Into the Purple Valley provided a substantive way forward.
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