"The Prodigal Son" brings classic gospel and blues tunes into the 21st century.
We raved about the title track of Ry Cooder’s new album when it was still just a preview. Now that the whole album has dropped we thought it deserved a second look.
The Prodigal Son gathers some gospel and blues standards by some of the most legendary artists in the genres: Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Roosevelt Graves, and the Stanley Brothers. These songs are almost unrecognizable, as Cooder has completely dismantled them and reworked them from the rhythm up to the overall tone. Just as impressive as his mastery of the blues guitar is the way Ry changes his voice to fit the mood of each track.
The album is absent the political commentary that Ry Cooder has been known for in the past. He explains in the above video that his son convinced him to leave behind the politics and focus on the music. The admiration Ry has for mid-20th-century blues and gospel music is evident from his energetic performances.
Ry produced the whole album with his son Joachim. Most of the music on the recorded album was performed by just the two of them, with Joachim handling the percussion and Ry on guitar and vocals. It seems fitting that the two should have worked so closely together on a project named after the most famous father/son parable.
The Prodigal Son
With a fuzzy guitar effect Ry turned “The Prodigal Son,” with its gospel flair, into a desperate blues tune that would feel perfectly at home in a late-night roadhouse. Ry sings this song in a gruff voice, with poor articulation, giving the impression of a man who has been on the move for a long time before deciding that he must go home.
Ry was inspired to cover The Pilgrim Travelers’ quartet style gospel song from the 50s after hearing his son mess around on an array mbira. The feel of this cover couldn’t be further from the original tune. Cooder uses expansive open chords to create an atmosphere of comfort, as if to say “Life is good now that I’m on the straight street.”
Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right
“Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right” is another excellent example of a complete rearrangement. Whereas Blind Willy Johnson’s original had a rhythm like a rolling train, Cooder’s carries an air of frustration. His quicker tempo and wild drum progression makes the tune sound more like a cautionary tale.