POP MUSIC : Hey, Let's Start a Band : For the fortysomething group of Ry Cooder, John Hiatt, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner, the road to Little Village wasn't the natural one

In rock 'n' roll, it's supposed to work the other way around.

From the Beatles to the recently late Replacements, the story usually unfolds the same way: Rambunctious youngsters get together, form a band and make it big. Then tempers flare, egos expand and solo careers blossom. Everyone knows that group tricks are for kids and solo careers are synonymous with middle age.

The four members of the recently incorporated Little Village, though, somehow got this flight plan backward.

Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Nick Lowe are three iconoclastic singer-songwriter-journeymen, age range 39 to 45, who would have seemed by this late date to be confirmed bachelors, musically speaking.

Ditto for Jim Keltner, perhaps the most renowned of all rock session drummers, until now always a bridesmaid (sideman) and never a bride (full-on member), mostly by his own choice.

None of these tried-and-true solo acts were likely candidates for submersion in a mid-life musical democracy.

"Me, I haven't been in bands since I was 11 years old," says Hiatt, one of rock's premier song craftsmen and most expressive vocalists, sharing a Warner Bros. Records conference room with his three bandmates on the eve of their debut album release.

"I'm the original (loner). I got sent home from kindergarten. The teacher said, 'Mrs. Hiatt, he doesn't work well with the other kids.' . . . 'He scares the children' pretty well set the tone for my solo career."

Respected separately and together as musicians' musicians, these four worked together as a quartet for the first time five years ago, when the other three assembled to back Hiatt on his breakthrough solo album "Bring the Family." There was talk then of the quartet going on the road, but one live show to promote Hiatt's record was all that came of it.

Still, the fleeting glory of the collaborative spontaneity whetted the appetites of Cooder and Keltner, who've worked together on various projects over a 20-year period, to put an actual group together.

For pretty much the first time.

"I've never been in bands either, although I've wanted to," says Cooder (apparently not remembering to count his mid-'60s participation in the Rising Sons with Taj Mahal and Jesse Ed Davis).

A genius of slide guitar seemingly versed in every ethnic idiom as well as quintessentially greasy rock, Cooder worked as a session player behind acts from the Rolling Stones to Gordon Lightfoot before beginning his own diversified solo career in 1970.

"There are bands I would have enjoyed being in and wasn't," he notes, not naming names. "Then me and Keltner would think about it and talk about it after 'Bring the Family.' We said, 'Could this happen? Shouldn't this happen? Why doesn't this happen?' Then we'd hang up the phone and wander off."

Idle speculation was likely where it would have stayed without the instigation of Warner Bros. Records President Lenny Waronker.

Five years ago, Waronker was coming off the high of the Traveling Wilburys' first album and saw how it reinvigorated not just the careers but the artistry of such participants as Tom Petty and Roy Orbison.

He began to wonder if some of his personal favorites that were down a rung or two on the commercial success ladder might also benefit from being thrown together.

High on Waronker's list: Cooder and Lowe. He expected that Englishman Lowe--who'd had some experience with this sort of thing as a member of the short-lived Rockpile--might be agreeable, and he was right.

But he had some trepidation about approaching Cooder, who is known for not suffering fools or foolish ideas gladly.

"I must say, I couched the first conversation by saying, 'Ry, I want to talk to you. Don't yell,' " recalled Waronker in a separate interview, alluding to Cooder's temperamental streak.

"I said, 'We're going through this with the Wilburys. It's not really a supergroup. What would happen if we did the same thing? It'll be private, nobody has to know if it doesn't work, and if sparks do fly, it'll be great.' And he bought into it. The guy I thought would be hardest to convince was the guy who really did want it most."

Keltner was an obvious pick for drummer. Waronker says he would have been satisfied at the time with that trio, but Cooder insisted on making it a quartet, and turned down some of Waronker's suggestions for a fourth member.

They were stymied for a while, until word of the band-in-the-making leaked to Hiatt's manager and, according to Waronker, the singer sent back word that "if you guys are starting a band, I'm gonna be pissed off."

Little Village would have come to fruition four years ago, but Hiatt, who had the most visible solo career at the time, owed his own record label, A&M;, a follow-up album to "Bring the Family." He finally went to work on it, and the burgeoning band was aborted.

But when Hiatt became available again and Waronker nervously re-approached the others, all parties were eager to pick up where they'd left off.

Waronker's involvement in starting and seeing through this project is ironic, given how distrustful some of these veteran musicians are of corporate meddling in the creative process.

Cooder even overlaid the album's last song, "Don't Bug Me While I'm Working," with portions of an infamous tape of a studio argument between bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson and executive Leonard Chess over a mere song title--for the song that gave the group Little Village its name. ("You can name it yo' mammy, just let me finish," barks Williamson.)

"Little Village," just out in stores, is predictably full of roots influence but far from a standard recollection of familiar riffs. (See review on Page 68.)

Hiatt's vocals, which take the lead on six of the 11 tracks, add the expected dose of white soul to the album; Cooder's slide-guitar genius brings virtually every number into some kind of close proximity with the blues, and Lowe's penchant for mixing rockabilly and power-pop is in full evidence.

In addition to this comes the most unpredictable element--grooves from another planet, i.e., Planet Keltner.

"These guys, being such songwriters, to them it's fresh when they hear something as weird as my stuff," says the drummer, who has rarely shared in writing credits before.

The rough tracks Keltner contributed as foundations for several rhythmically unusual numbers held odd time signatures and bar structures. "I'm always afraid that somebody's gonna say, 'Look, let's straighten it out,' " he says. " They won't let me straighten anything out! So it's a dream come true for me, really. I'm in perfect company. I'm understood in this band."

That Little Village came together to complete an album is surprising not only in light of three of the members' ongoing solo careers but in light of the participants' penchant for being temperamental at times.

Not that the process is a love feast, nor that egos were checked at the door by any means. A certain shared orneriness ensures the band stays a democracy, they claim.

"Everyone's kind of prickly at times," Lowe notes. "That's what makes it work, really, that we're all on our toes."

You sense the group is still on collective eggshells when it comes to future plans, which are being laid down one step at a time, with only a short European tour confirmed so far. American dates are expected to follow in the spring, and further albums will probably ensue as well, but no guarantees are being made by this prickly bunch.

"There's something about this music that I get the sense we all feel kind of protective of it and want to keep special," Hiatt says.

"Dead right," Lowe agrees. "On the one hand you don't want to sort of suck the thing dry, and none of us want to go on the road for a month-after-month Dire Straits-style world global thing. But there's a real charge to playing. So we're just trying to find a way that we can do our live thing, because I know sure as hell we'll cheer some people up."

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