Reclusive virtuoso, two bluegrass blue bloods go honky tonkin’

Ricky Skaggs, left, Sharon White and Ry Cooder will play Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on June 19 and the Denver Botanic Gardens on June 22.  (Absolute Publicity / Courtesy photo)
Ricky Skaggs, left, Sharon White and Ry Cooder will play Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder on June 19 and the Denver Botanic Gardens on June 22. (Absolute Publicity / Courtesy photo)

By John Lehndorff

Ry Cooder might be the greatest musician of our era that almost nobody knows.

Guitar geeks do know of Cooder’s slide guitar virtuosity and his spot on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists” list. Filmgoers love his spine-tingling score for Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas.” Music nerds know Cooder for creating the opening riff to The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” in 1969.

If the name rings any manstream bells, it’s because of 1997’s “Buena Vista Social Club.” The best-selling album and Oscar-nominated documentary introduced the U.S. to Cuban music and doctored a $25,000 fine.

The six-time Grammy winner has remained obscure because of his famous aversion to live performance. It has been decades since Cooder last performed in Colorado, so the news he would travel with Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White — and play shows in Aspen, Boulder, Telluride and Denver — sounded close to miraculous.

This rare public opportunity started in the sounds that flooded Cooder’s ears growing up in Southern California in the late 1940s and ’50s.

“It’s what you hear when you first start listening and that sets you up for life,” Cooder said, calling from his home in Santa Monica, Calif.

What the guitarist and producer heard on records and radio was the blues, Mexican music, swing, R&B and country music that stewed in his consciousness as he started performing professionally as a teenager. A prime ingredient was the harmonies of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

“I first heard the Foggy Mountain quartet singing when I was in junior high, and it was fantastic. It’s one of the greatest things ever sung in the English language,” Cooder said. “So you could say that a dream of my youth was to re-create that sound.”

The Cooder-Skaggs-White convergence started with a set of songs with a particular vintage sound.

“I had these tunes in my head and wondered who could sing them. I started to see Ricky and Sharon singing this stuff. I like to sing bass parts. I thought, ‘I can be the third or fourth voice.’ The question I start with is, ‘What might be conjured by this?’ ”

“Ricky” is silver-maned Ricky Skaggs, who started in country music, become a bluegrass stalwart and branched out with pianist Bruce Hornsby. In 1979, Emmylou Harris gave Skaggs a cassette of “Bop Till You Drop,” Cooder’s brilliant homage to R&B and early rock.

“I played it over and over again. I was really smitten. Ry’s guitar playing was amazing,” Skaggs said, calling from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn.

Skaggs’ wife, Sharon White, remembers that year, too.

“Me and Cheryl and Dad were on tour with Ricky, and we listened to Ry for a million miles. I really look up to him,” said Sharon White, also calling from Hendersonville.

“Me, Cheryl and Dad” are The Whites, a legendary bluegrass group that also had country hits in the ’80s, including “Pins And Needles.” Cheryl White joins the tour on harmonies, as well as Cooder’s son, drummer Joachim Cooder.

“Dad” is Buck White, the 84-year-old mandolin-playing patriarch of The Whites.

“My dad, bless his heart, played honky-tonk and rockabilly piano at the time that music started. We were in the studio, and Ry started singing ‘Hey, Good Lookin.’ It was a real rockin’ version, and Daddy took a hot ride on it and then stood up from the piano and gave Ry a two-thumbs-up.”

Don’t attend these concerts expecting a quiet acoustic evening, said Skaggs, who is breaking his red Telecaster out of mothballs.

“I’ve got coal dust in my DNA, but I also have rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, adding a cautionary note:

“I can play loud, but nobody can possibly be as loud as Ry.”

Audiences should not expect to hear familiar tunes from Cooder, The Whites or Skaggs. The band’s repertoire includes gospel, early country and dance hall chestnuts, including the Louvin Brothers’ “River of Jordan,” the Delmore Brothers’ “Pan-American Boogie” and “My Walkin’ Shoes Don’t Fit Me Anymore.”

“It’s cool because we each are lead vocalists on songs and the others harmonize,” Sharon White said.

Skaggs said he and Cooder are on the same wavelength.

“Me and Ry are like steak and good wine — well, maybe steak and sweet tea,” he said.

For his part, Cooder said he is prepared to hit the road again.

“It only takes a lifetime to learn how to do music. I’m just getting good.”

John Lehndorff has been trying to interview Ry Cooder and see him perform since he began writing about music for the Daily Camera in the early 1980s. Read his blog, which offers a Q&A with Cooder, at

If you go

What: Ry Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White

When: 8 p.m. Friday, June 19

Where: Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder

Tickets: $45-$75

Info: or 303-440-7666

Etc.: The musicians also play at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 22, Denver Botanic Gardens, 1007 York St., Denver. Tickets are $66-$71; or 877-987-6487

More about Ry

• He is No. 31 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists

• Has won six Grammy Awards

• His “Bop Till You Drop” in 1979 was the nation’s first digitally recorded popular music album

• Has recorded with the Rolling Stones, Ali Farka Toure, Neil Young, Randy Newman and Van Morrison

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