I’d like to introduce Jacob Templin’s video of the legendary guitarist Ry Cooder playing music with a brilliant, but largely unknown fiddle and banjo player named Dan Gellert in Dayton on Day 13 of my road trip, with what used to be called a few liner notes:
Ry Cooder has provided much of the sound track of my life–and that was especially true back in the late 1970s, when I was writing my first book, a biography of Woody Guthrie. Ry is not only a great musician, once ranked by Rolling Stone as the eighth best guitar player ever, but he has been an avid music historian, digging out lost gems of down-home American music from Hawaii to the Delta. His version of Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” is one of the best Woody covers I’ve ever heard. He has expanded his musical explorations internationally over time, finding and playing with the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba; and before that, the magisterial Tex-Mex accordion player, Flaco Jimenez. He’s been writing political songs in recent years, and unlike most in that often-too-obvious genre, each is musically exquisite. His new album, Election Special, will be released just in time for the GOP national convention.
So I was thrilled when Ry agreed to come along with me for a couple of days on the road. And even more thrilled when he told me that he’d recently found a fellow named Dan Gellert–a retired meter reader in Dayton, Ohio–who just might be the best fiddle and banjo player that Ry had heard. He had never played a set with Dan and wanted to give it a try. But he was a bit nervous: “I imagine that trying to play with Dan will be like running to catch a train that’s leaving the station.”
He wasn’t talking about Gellert’s picking speed, but his creativity. This was going to be the musical equivalent of a conversation between two astro-physicists. I speak music some, but not on the level of subtlety that Ry and Dan operate. I could sense them testing each other out in the first few songs–Ry carefully and humbly following Dan’s lead–then sensed them growing easy with each other and, finally, reaching the joyous fluency of finishing each other’s sentences (most of which were sly twists on sentences and phrases that have come down through generations of country players).
It was a memorable evening and great getting to know Ry, who is an utter purist when it comes to music–I think he was appalled by the stuff on my iPod, and not-very-impressed by his own work in the past, which I kept on citing, somewhat to his embarrassment.