A revered guitarist and leading architect of the musical movement that has come to be known as Americana, Ry Cooder knew he was onto something special with his new group the first time he heard 85-year-old Buck White play piano.
"He's like the Ruben Gonzalez of West Texas dancehall piano. That grade of cat, you know?" Cooder says, describing an early rehearsal. "And I said to myself, 'Well, this is unbelievable.'"
Speaking from his home in Southern California on President Barack Obama's first morning in Havana, Cooder's invocation of the famed Cuban artist seems less an allusion to his own culture-changing trip to the island, captured in the 1997 album and Oscar-nominated documentary "Buena Vista Social Club," than an expression of the elation he feels at again discovering and sharing something new to him.
The Cooder-White-Skaggs Tour that brings Cooder, Ricky Skaggs, Sharon White and her kin to the Parker Playhouse on April 1 not only enables him to perform some of the old country, bluegrass and gospel songs he has long dreamed of playing and singing, he's doing it with artists that leave Cooder, who has collaborated with Bill Monroe, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, nothing less that awed.
"These people are top of the line, world-class, and I have to really concentrate now. I've never sung in this way before, with this precision, blending together," he says. "It's a challenge, and that's what makes it so interesting for me."
White, Skaggs' wife of more than three decades, also is a member of the Grammy-winning vocal group the Whites, with patriarch Buck and sister Cheryl, both of whom are on the tour. Cooder's son, Joachim, plays drums.
Cooder grew up in Santa Monica listening to "jukebox" music on a small radio station that catered to people who had moved from the South to work in the defense industry, filling his young ears with songs by Hank Snow, Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant, as a new West Coast country-music scene was aroused.
"I was fascinated by everything, the way they talked, the way they sang," Cooder, 69, says. "But I got busy doing other things. And here I am getting older, and thinking, 'Will I slide off into my golden years without ever having the opportunity to sing this music?'"
The Cooder-White-Skaggs collaboration was inspired, like most great ideas, by "Hee Haw." About five years ago, Cooder stumbled upon a YouTube video of Skaggs and the Whites on the old country variety show performing the gospel-music staple "If I Be Lifted Up." He was instantly entranced by the seamless union of their voices.
"The key thing with music like this has to do with the singing. We can play as good as we want, and that's fine, but you have to be able to sing it," says Cooder, referencing greats such as Lester Flatt and Jimmy Martin, long gone. "I showed Susie, my wife. I said, 'Listen to these people. These are living people. They're younger than me. This is the best I've ever heard this song done.'"
Skaggs, the 14-time Grammy-winning bluegrass musician, was a casual acquaintance, and receptive to Cooder's suggestion of some informal jamming on some of the old favorites they shared. Over the course of several years, with Cooder and his son flying to Skaggs' Nashville studio, the hours of laid-back musicmaking and harmonizing got serious, and the Cooder-White-Skaggs Tour hit the road last June.
Cooder says the tour has endured because the music is "fantastically good," according to what he's been told by fans crowded around the merchandise table, where he signs autographs after every show.
The set list surveys music from the greats of bluegrass, blues, gospel and country music all the way back to the 1920s, including the Louvin Brothers ("The Family Who Prays" and "Wait a Little Longer, Please Jesus"), Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs ("Take Me in Your Lifeboat"), Jimmy Martin ("Hold Watcha Got") and Blind Alfred Reed ("You Must Unload").
Cooder sings the bass lines and plays several electric guitars, an electric mandola and a banjo once owned by Mike Seeger. Playing the banjo next to Skaggs is just one of many challenges, Cooder says.
"I had never played these songs onstage. Never. I had the idea to do it, take the Jimmy Martin tune 'Hold Watcha Got' and rev it up, really make it stomp. I could hear that in my head. I knew it was a good idea. I just hadn't had the opportunity," he says. "For me, working my way into these songs is very cathartic."
Ry Cooder, Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs will perform 8 p.m. Friday, April 1, at the Parker Playhouse, 707 NE Eighth St., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $37.50-$77.50. Call 954-462-0222 or go to ParkerPlayhouse.com.