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Ry Cooder Keeps L.A. Sound Alive

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Albums recall long-lost city of juke joints and honky-tonks
LOS ANGELES - It was more than 50 years ago but Ry Cooder remembers it like it could have been last week; he was 8 years old and Johnny Cash came on the radio singing “Hey Porter." A third-grader with a guitar was hooked.

Cooder knew he had to head up to “Big River" himself. Or over to Folsom Prison or down to Jackson, Miss., or anywhere else Cash was singing about. But his parents balked at even taking him across town so he could hear people like steel guitar great Speedy West or Spade Cooley, the original king of Western swing.

I'd ask my dad, 'What's that? Where is that?' 'Oh, you don't want to go there,' he'd say. 'Oh yeah, I do. They play that stuff there. Where is this place?' It turns out it was just down the road, essentially.
--Ry Cooder

It was the L.A. of the 61-year-old musician's childhood, a city of East Side Pachuco juke joints filled with Hispanic hipsters, of hillbilly honky-tonks scattered throughout the city's white working-class pockets and of jazz and R&B resonating from the black neighborhoods. It was an L.A. in many ways not unlike what exists today in those same general geographic regions. But one that has all but disappeared from overall public view during a time in which Cooder says “American Idol" has become “the ultimate expression of popular entertainment."

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