Veteran multi-instrumentalist/musical archivist Ry Cooder follows up his concept album Chavez Ravine (Nonesuch, 2005) with another narrative, My Name is Buddy. This time, with a similarly large cast of players, he suggests joining "...Buddy the Cat, Lefty Mouse and Reverend Tom Toad as they journey through time and space in the days of labor, big bosses, farm failures, strikes, company cops, sundown towns, hobos, and trains...the America of yesteryear." What makes My Name is Buddy so compelling is how so much has changed since that America of yesterday... while so much remains the same.
Fans of earlier Cooder albums including Into the Purple Valley (Reprise, 1972) and Chicken Skin Music (Reprise, 1976) will be happy to find a number of familiar faces and musical styles. But unlike the majority of Cooder's 1970s and 1980s output, where he interpreted material ranging from Woody Guthrie and traditional Depression-era music to Elvis Presley and Burt Bacharach, the majority of the music here is his own. Still, he's integrated the myriad of musical sources he's explored over nearly four decades to create a work that's stylistically diverse, yet holds together as an integrated whole.
"Suitcase in My Hand" finds the link between bluegrass and Celtic music, with The Chieftains' Paddy Maloney blending whistle and uilleann pipes with American folk legend Mike Seeger's banjo and fiddle. The Tex-Mex of "Footprints in the Snow" reunites Cooder with long-time musical friends Flaco Jiminéz (accordion) and Van Dyke Parks (piano), tackling the subject of unions with the smallest of sticks that makes its message all the more powerful. "Sundown" is a buoyantly soulful piece that brings back vocalists Terry King and Bobby Evanssurely two of the most simpatico voices aroundalongside drummer Jim Keltner for a message about racism that, again, delivers its message without proselytizing.
"Green Dog" examines Cooder's jazz interests, his warm guitar and Lenny Breau-like vocal delivery a setup for an allusion to Erroll Garner's classic "Misty," featuring Juliette Commagere's soft vocal delivery and guest appearances by vibraphonist/marimbaist Stefon Harris and pianist Jacky Terrason. "Red Cat Till I Die" sounds pulled straight from the 1930s, again broaching the subject of unions. "Three Chords and the Truth" teams Cooder's layered guitars, bass and vocals with Keltner, reminiscent of their work in the 1990s collaborative band Little Village. "One Cat, One Vote, One Beer" addresses the election process with an atmospheric guest spot by trumpeter Jon Hassell, while "Cardboard Avenue" deals with the plight of the homeless, crossing stylistic boundaries by blending whistle, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and string bass.
It's hard to separate the music from the message on an album like My Name is Buddy, but that's its ultimate charm and importance. It's an album that's a fine summation of Cooder's multifaceted musical career to date, but goes a step further by speaking more loudly than ever with his own voice. Some albums need time to become classic, but for Cooder My Name is Buddy is an instant masterpiece.
Track Listing: Suitcase in My Hand; Cat and Mouse; Strike!; J. Edgar; Footprints in the Snow; Sundown Town; Green Dog; The Dying Truck Driver; Christmas in Southgate; Hank Williams; Red Cat Till I Die; Three Chords and the Truth; My Name is Buddy; One Cat, One Vote, One Beer; Cardboard Avenue; Farm Girl; There's a Bright Side Somewhere.
Personnel: Ry Cooder: guitars, vocal, bajo sexto (5, 9), bass (6, 12, 13), mandola (13), keyboard (13), banjo (15); Roland White: vocal (1, 8), mandolin (5, 8, 9, 15, 16); Joachim Cooder: drums (1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13), keyboards (14), percussion (14, 15); Paddy Maloney: whistle (1, 15, 17), uilleann pipes (1); Mike Seeger: banjo (1, 4), fiddle (3, 5, 9, 15-17), harmonica (3, 8), jaw harp (3); Van Dyke Parks: piano (2, 9, 17); Pete Seeger: banjo (4); Ren