There are so many references to God, Jesus, sin, saviors, righteousness and judgment in veteran roots musician Ry Cooder’s forthcoming album “The Prodigal Son,” it’s fair to wonder whether the L.A.-based guitarist, singer and songwriter has recently found religion.
Actually, it’s “reverence” he seems most interested in, a topic he addresses in the liner notes for the new collection, due May 11, from which The Times is posting a lead-off track, “Shrinking Man.”
The word sprang up recently in a conversation he had with his granddaughter’s nursery school teacher, who is Kashmiri.
“She said, ‘We don’t want to teach religion, but instill reverence.’ I thought that was a good word for the effect of this music,” Cooder, 70, told writer Tom Piazza in the album notes. “I remember the first indication I had as a child. ‘He Shall Feed His Flock,’ sung by [gospel singer] Marian Anderson. I was maybe 4 at the time, and everything sort of stopped. Another good one was ‘I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,’ recorded by [jazz musician] Pee Wee Russell.”
That helps illuminate his choices for this album of vintage blues, gospel and bluegrass songs by the likes of Blind Willie Johnson, Alfred Reed, Carter Stanley and Blind Roosevelt Graves, which are by and large spiritually rooted. Several others were written on his own or in collaboration with his son, musician Joachim Cooder.
“Shrinking Man,” which he wrote himself, is an uptempo blues shuffle featuring scratchy bottleneck guitar work for a treatise on living more responsibly and respectfully.
“Sometimes I worry ’bout clothes,” he sings, “ ‘cause a shrinking man’s got to look good sometime / Don’t need no sweatshop child puttin’ shoes on my feet this time / Chained to a sewing machine, down in hell where the sun don’t shine.”
Cooder’s goal was to respect the facet of the creative process that connects him to a sense of something beyond himself and the particulars of a day-to-day existence.
“It would take a high-grade poet to say it right, but I might say it means being a conduit for the feelings and experiences by people from other times, like when you stand in an old church yard and let the lonely tombs talk to you,” Cooder said.
“Old Ali Farka Touré [the kora player from Mali] once told me when he played music, he could sense the ‘elders’ arrayed in semicircular rows behind and just above his head — when he was playing good, that is,” he said. “If not, they weren’t summoned.”
Cooder will undertake a spring-summer tour starting May 3 with a four-night residency at the San Francisco Jazz Center. So far no L.A. area dates have been scheduled.