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Published: 2007/03/21
by Randy Ray

My Name is Buddy – Ry Cooder

Nonesuch 79961

As themes for concept albums go, this one is a doozy: “it arrived by way of U.S. Mail addressed in an old friend's recognizable scrawl he found a familiar image of the great bluesman, Leadbellyphoto-shopped in place of his face was that of a red cat; an inscrutable, seen-it-all expression hovering in his eyes. He found little else, except a web address and this note:'"You'll know what to do with this.'"

Yep, you guessed it: a “dying American working man” travelogue with the lead character being none other than that darn cat. His road is his home; his suitcase is his RV, trailer or uh, mobile kitty litter box. Traveling metaphysicallynot just geographically, digthrough the modern American workscape, Cooder does a fine job of reaching into his international bag of tricks to conjure a late second millennium betwixt Tom Waits' drunken eccentricity, David Byrne's lucid tapestry and Johnny Cash's innocent wanderlust.

Cooder gathers together a rather impressive guest list of musicians including his son, Joachim Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Mike and Pete Seeger (recorded in the great folksman’s living room), mandolin player Roland White, Chieftains’ frontman Paddy Maloney, veteran session drummer Jim Keltner, Flaco Jimenez, Mike Elizondo and jazz musicians Jacky Terrasson and Stefon Harris. However, Cooder’s POV is almost always present with nary an out-of-focus master shotthere are melodic problems and hookless songs, to be sure, but overall, his driving theme that moves through cataclysmic terrain illuminates multiple accurate tales about the de-evolving American workplace.

Switching between an impressive litany of musical subcultures from folk to railroad bum to bluegrass to jazz to dance hall hootenanny to Mexican pop to salsa and back to ancient po' folk wailings, Cooder weaves a modern tale about a centuries-old problem. What happens when the republic no longer serves its masses; instead, leading as an example of corrupted power fornicating with fear and might to propagate a limited agenda? What happens to the common folk who are attempting to serve their jobs, towns and families while staying true to a country that has ignored and dispensed with their needs? These are a few of the many questions that Cooder circles around in his current study of the long, slow implosion of the American democratic ideal.

When the overarching theme works — as on “Strike!” with a nod to 19th century economic hardship, on "Hank Williams," with its take on really hard life on the road, and “Farm Girl,” with the protagonist in a no-win situation — Cooder displays a Walt Whitman mysticism with a Mark Twain bite. When the work lands with a clunky thud as on “Three Chords and the Truth” and the horrendous “One Cat, One Vote, One Beer,” one forgives with a mere mention of “Check, pleasethis cat is done.” As a bookend to his previous work Chavis Ravineneighborhoods lost through timeCooder has crafted a carefully-drawn study of America with a few loose ends thrown in for good measure.

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