Exclusive: Megafaun’s Phil Cook to lead all-star tribute to Ry Cooder in May
In today’s world of independent music Ry Cooder might not have the prominence of an act like Big Star, but that isn’t stopping one Triangle musician from paying tribute to his folk-rock idol. Taking cues from Chris Stamey, who began organizing all-star tributes to Big Star back in 2010, Phil Cook is spearheading a concert honoring Cooder’s influence. The Megafaun member and crafty solo picker will lead a group dubbed Phil Cook & The Guitarheels in recreating 1972′s Boomer’s Story, an early Cooder gem. The performance (poster below) will take place on May 10 at Saxapahaw’s Haw River Ballroom. Tickets are available now. Cook’s core band will feature Hiss Golden Messenger‘s Terry Lonergan on drums and Mount Moriah‘s James Wallace on keys. His younger brother and fellow Megafaun member Brad Cook will play bass, while Mandolin Orange‘s Andrew Marlin will round out the ensemble on guitar and mandolin. A selection of guests will pitch in as well, including The Tender Fruit‘s gorgeously piped Christy Smith. Shuffle‘s Jordan Lawrence caught up with Cook to find out what inspired him to organize his tribute.
Shuffle: How did you come up with the idea for this event?
Phil Cook: I think it started with that Big Star event that Chris Stamey put together, when I saw how elaborate he made it. It wasn’t just a tribute band show. It was really quite a celebration. It was a really cool thing. I got to thinking about it, and it kind of solidified more when I was talking with the Chatham County Line guys one day and realized that our favorite record was Boomer’s Story by Ry Cooder. We all shared that. The more I met other Triangle musicians, it kind of kept coming up that a lot of people share that same appreciation. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. Why don’t we just get together and put on a really kick-ass show of this really great record of music that people here already love?’
Shuffle: When did you first hear Boomer’s Story? Why is it so important to you?
PC: I have a lot of Ry Cooder albums of my dad’s. I grew up listening to them. Boomer’s Story just slowly crept up to the top as my favorite. I think it’s my favorite because of the song selection and the tunes and the arrangements of the tunes that are on there and the players that are playing it and how they play together and how the music comes together. It’s quite something. It creates a perfect blend of everything that I love about playing with other musicians and also just what I love about American music. It’s got some dirt and grit. It swings. It haunts. It’s just got some really soulful playing, but the people are really interacting a lot and they’re also dancing around each other. You can tell that everyone on the record knows each other real well. It’s all played live because that’s how they did it back then. You played that shit live in the studio, and it was just kick-ass as opposed to putting tracks together now. It’s a real testament to a studio band.
It was an early record in his career. He played with the Stones, and he was playing with Captain Beefheart and he had a band with Taj Mahal, all in the ’60s. He had established himself as such a guitar player by the late ’60s. His first five records, especially the first two, he was still really figuring it out. I think Boomer’s Story is the first one where he really got it right. He came into it, and then he really took off after that. I think everyone knows his next record, Paradise and Lunch, and it sold a lot more. But Boomer’s Story was, I think for a lot of people, the one where the chemistry just clicked, and it was like ‘ah ha.’ That ‘ah ha’ moment is what I think we’re going to try and celebrate.
Shuffle: Boomer’s Story is not as well-known as the Big Star material Stamey was paying tribute to. How did that effect your decision to honor it in this way?
PC: The songs themselves, you can find them in the catalog of American music, like “Crow Black Chicken” and “Rally Round the Flag” and a lot of these other songs. They’re not obscure now, but I think Ry was a real musicologist. He has been for his whole life. He can tell you the story of this music in general. I think the song selection of it is really incredible.
I’m just following the lead of all the people I’m talking to. I think that it wouldn’t have really occurred to me to do this if I hadn’t met so many people from this particular area who are so influenced by that particular record. I think that it was less of a decision than I just woke up and went, ‘Oh, this is the one.”
Shuffle: What influences would you say you draw from Ry? How are you exploring that with the arrangements you’re preparing for this event?
PC: I think it’s really important in a big way because the record and the playing and Ry’s guitar playing in particular is just on such a transcendent level that as I’m awakening — and I’m very much waking up to my voice as a guitar player. I would say I haven’t even touched on it with the last couple records. I’ve kind of just started to figure a couple of directions out, and I’m trying to figure out the path that I’m on: What do I want to do? What do I want to say? The record’s coming out to me. I can identify what I love about it, but I can also identify what I haven’t achieved yet as a guitar player, as a musician. It’s basically put a challenge out to me to go forth in my mission. Some of the things that I want to accomplish musically are some of the same things that happen on that record, not the specific things, just the general concepts about the whole record and how you approach music as a player and as a participant in a group, in a recording studio and live, all of that.
On a technical level, having to learn these tunes is kicking my ass. Ry is such a good guitar player. The thing is there’s no way I’m going to be able to play these songs like Ry or with the idiosyncrasies that he has because he developed those for decades. For me, it’s more about really learning the tunes themselves. We’re going to kind of play with them a little bit like he played with the songs when he got ‘em. We’re going to do the same thing. We’re going to do some songs that are more an homage to the album itself. Some things we’re just going to kind of mess around with. We’re going to come up with what we would do as musicians.