On Over That Road I’m Bound, Joachim Cooder perpetuates the legacy of one of American music’s great characters and founding fathers. Uncle Dave Macon was the archetype. Certainly, in the realm of country music, where he stood out as the genre’s first major star thanks to his accessible wit and vaudevillian nature, Uncle Dave was a true phenomenon. The native Tennessean began his recording career in 1924, earning a regular spot on the WSM Barn Dance before naturally assuming the role of the Grand Ole Opry’s biggest attraction. From there, Uncle Dave formed a touring machine that allowed him to reach a wider audience than possibly any other artist before him. He was a savvy songsmith who was always listening for the next hook, and when he hefted a banjo and began stomping the floorboards, he commanded every ear and eye available. Joachim, an accomplished percussionist, composer, and producer, was enchanted by Uncle Dave’s music as a boy. His father, the legendary Ry Cooder, would entertain him with tunes from his vast repertoire, delivering tales from other eras that may as well have been from different planets. When Joachim’s own daughter discovered Macon for herself, it created a unique bonding experience between generations– and an opportunity to bring Uncle Dave into the 21st Century.
AI- How has your pandemic been? Have you been able to work? What’s it been like tryin’ to get this album released and promoted?
JC- It’s been interesting. We’re very lucky in a way, because our daughter, who’s five and a half, she goes to this all-outdoor kindergarten. Basically, we take them to this trailhead and they walk to a mountain and they just spend the whole day outside. The fact that she gets to be with kids has been really great because when we didn’t have that, and we were all jammed up in the house, it was really hard to get anything done. Because sometimes they want me to do these Instagram live shows, which I guess I just have to do. It’s been definitely hard, but then also going on tour is hard too. So I don’t know which is harder or easier (laughs)!
Well, let’s talk about the new album. Uncle Dave Macon. I live in Macon, Georgia, and of course, Uncle Dave, no relation to Macon*, but I could walk out on the street right now and say that name, and, honestly, it’s probably 70/30 on whether anybody would know who I was talking about! You’ve just done an album of interpretations of Uncle Dave’s music. And that goes back to your childhood when you fell in love with that cat’s music, right?
That’s right. My dad, he played a lot of banjo when I was little, just sitting in his chair and going from song to song. And one of the songs that I remember really being fixated on was this one of Uncle Dave’s called, “Morning Blues”. I didn’t know anything about Uncle Dave. [My dad] probably just was going from song to song, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I brought my kids to visit my parents and I heard him playing the song again. I said, “What is that?” And he said, “‘Morning Blues’, Uncle Dave Macon!” It was just something about hearing it again and seeing my daughter watching him and her loving the song and I just thought, “Let me grab my huge electric mbira,” which is always not too far away!
I grabbed it and I started playing along with him and seeing how I could throw in a chord here and there that Uncle Dave wouldn’t have done and began this right there. I thought, “I can start learning these!” And my daughter, of course, it was the only thing we could play in the house! Just Uncle Dave, Uncle Dave, Uncle Dave! Nonstop. And because she wanted to hear it so much, I couldn’t help but to learn song after song. Pretty soon I could play all these, so I just started recording them.
You’re a percussionist. At its root, the banjo or banjo based tunes, really, they’re very percussive. The rhythms, the applications– did you find yourself arranging those songs around that as much as melody?
It’s so true. ‘Cause the banjo plays these patterns– the little (singing) doodle-liddle, doodle-liddle-liddle, those things, that kind of rhythm. What my fingers do on the mbira just naturally, in a way, is its own version of a banjo part. And I didn’t plan on that or think to myself, “I will do this because of this!” It’s what I do anyway when I write my own songs on the mbira. It happened to just have this kind of cosmic thing because, like you said, the banjo’s percussive, the mbira’s percussive– and for some reason, it just works so well. I think also just his songs are so likable and they’re so catchy and they just get stuck in my head. There’s something about playing them on the mbira that is very inviting. Everybody can’t help but just, “I love that song!” But it does something! I don’t know what it is… It’s his music, it’s his songs. That’s what it is! It’s a testament to his songs at the end of the day.
I’ve read where you’ve described him as a song collector, much like your father has been– and a preservationist when it comes to music and style. Do you feel like that’s a mantle you’ve picked up as well? And how important is it with these songs to continue to add to them?
I think it is really important and when I started doing it, I didn’t realize it. It was another very personal thing because I was changing lyrics almost like a little game with my daughter. We were reading a children’s book at the time that I was doing one song and in an abstract way, I was telling the story of the children’s book. I was just throwing in new lines or I would tell a little story about her, like when we went and took a steam train in Northern California. And so it just became, with Uncle Dave, like these little sentences. Two lines here, two lines there– they didn’t always necessarily connect. I was just putting in these little stories that she would know. I’d be like, “You know what we’re doing here? This is your story.” And then she would like knowing that she was the only one who knew what I was singing about! But then when I looked back on the whole thing, I realized that, yes, I’m doing with this record what he was doing with the music around him at the time– taking some stuff from medicine show style music or minstrel, blues, all these things that he was doing– and taking lines from other people. But again, it was another thing that was not at all planned.
You talk about having your daughter involved in the process. I have a four-year-old daughter myself, and music is a huge thing in our household. We have a vinyl collection. We listen to a lot of stuff and we sit and dissect. She’s very much into the songwriting process herself now– taking bits and pieces of what she likes from other songs and adding her own pieces. I think one of the most amazing things about all of it is that she doesn’t distinguish between music that’s old or new. Whether it’s classic or contemporary. And I think that’s one of the coolest things about sharing music with her. There’s no sense of time– and that’s something that I think that you’ve been able to transcend with Over That Road I’m Bound. Those songs could be then and those songs could be now.
I love that. It’s so true because in [my daughter’s] mind, Uncle Dave, when he would come on, when we play his songs, he’s like living character in her mind right there. I don’t know if I’ve ever really made clear [that] he was born in the late 1800s. He’s from over a hundred years ago! (Laughs) He’s long gone! That whole concept is… I don’t know how much… Her grandfather died a couple of years ago and I know that she’s grappled with when different people have their way of explaining that. But it’s still a very abstract concept. So then to be like, “Here’s Uncle Dave!” It’s so vibrant and he’s so alive and making her laugh– but he’s from a whole other time! It’s a crazy thing!
That’s actually been something recently that I’ve had to deal with with my daughter. We’ll be listening to something and she’ll want to know when so-and-so is coming to town. “When’s Ray Wylie Hubbard comin’ to town?” “Well, I don’t know honey, but as soon as he does, we’ll make a point to go and see him.” “When’s Bo Diddley comin’ to town?” “Well, baby, he’s not.” We’ve explained the idea of passing away and dying and now the latest thing has been when bands break up or bands are no longer together. We were talkin’ about the Velvet Underground and I said, “That band’s not together anymore.” She goes, “How can they be playing if they’re not together anymore?” It’s like, “Well, this was recorded a long, long time ago.” So now she’s startin’ to form the idea of, I think, past and present when it comes to music. But it’s all still very immediate for her.
I love the idea of the first thing she asks is, “When are they coming into town?” That’s a cool thing!
Tell me about the mbira, because I don’t know that I ever heard of that instrument before I started reading about you and your album. Maybe I’ve heard it before and I didn’t know, but why is that your instrument? Why was that the one for you?
It’s like this gateway. My dad bought this thing he called the floor slide, and it’s basically a table with strings. It’s like a long piece of wood with strings on either side. And he uses it. It’s all tuned to one note, to the same note, and he strums it and then brings a slide, like a big flower vase, up the strings. He used it on film scores. Once we met that guy who makes that, we started meeting other kinds of odd instrument builders. It’s like you go into this network and you start learning about other people and through the floor slide guy, we met Bill Wesley, who calls it the array mbira. It’s his creation.
It was probably like 25 years ago that we got this hollow body acoustic, almost prototype of it. And I started playing it. It’s like a really big box, and I would play it on some film scores and records, and just around the house all the time. It goes up in fifths and then it goes down in octaves. That’s why he calls it an array– ’cause it’s laid out in this array. And about six years ago, I find out he’s made a solid body electric version of it. Once I was able to plug it into a guitar amp and get a little bit of a distorted broken-up sound, which is so beautiful for the mbira, it took off! Like all of a sudden, I started writing songs and singing– and I hadn’t ever done that!
I’d never sang or written anything ’cause I was always a drummer and an accompanist. It really did something in my brain and this whole thing started happening. We are familiar with kalimbas and the little African thumb pianos that you hold in your hand and play with your thumb, but this is like a spaceship version of that. That’s how I always think of it. If the little one is like a scooter, this is like a spaceship (laughs)!
One of my favorite things to do is discover chains of songs, like listening to a Carter Family tune and then suddenly realizing how it’s traveled over the years through other songs. I imagine that you have done and do the exact same thing. Digging into all these Uncle Dave songs, have you been able to see a linear progression over a hundred years of how that music has evolved into this point?
I think so. ‘Cause I hear, I pick out lines and I think, “I know he’s probably not the first person to say, ‘If you don’t like my peaches, don’t shake my tree.'” That’s probably something he borrowed from somewhere else. You hear him do it and that gets sung later by the Steve Miller Band or somethin’! It keeps popping up throughout popular music– and I know he was not the first one. I think that’s something he got from blues from somewhere. So that’s just something that is so interesting to think about. And then also melodically, when I hear stuff in his songs, I keep thinking, “I know this from somewhere else,” and you realize so much started with him, or was popularized by him for then all this country music to come from. It’s like a seed that was planted. It’s really fascinating. And it’s all in retrospect because I didn’t start thinking about what I had done until I was finished with it! And then I took a step back and started talking to people– journalists and musicians, people know what they’re talking about. I’m so not a purist, and I never know who’s on what record. I always rely on other people to be like, “Here’s what you just did.” And I think, “Oh, I see!”
Uncle Dave was making records nearly a hundred years ago. And in a lot of ways you can look around and wonder, “Have we really come that far?” What do you think he’d make it today and the way music is produced and consumed?
Oh my God! He seemed pretty crafty and I bet he would be probably right there…
Exactly! He’d have his banjo, like shaking it back and forth and turning that into 20 second loops! He seemed like a good self-promoter. I read somewhere that he painted his name across the front of his house, so people knew when they were going through town, Uncle Dave lives here! That’s also something in country music that I always love– how they’re so good at self-promoting. But not in a bad way, just in a way that always makes me smile. I don’t know what it is!
You’ve been doing some live streams, particularly when you first released the album. With Uncle Dave Macon, there was definitely a visual component to what he did, vaudeville, a stage act. When you do have the opportunity to get out, will you try to incorporate anything like that into your show?
That’s a really interesting idea. I hadn’t taken it that far yet, conceptually. I always think about Mark Fain, who is a bass player. He toured with Ricky Skaggs and The Whites and then he also came on tour for my dad’s record that he put out a couple of years ago. His wife dances that clog dancing at the Grand Ole Opry. The sound I get on Over That Road I’m Bound, the percussion is this like clickety clack sound that always makes me think of those kinds of dancers. So I do keep thinking about if I could ever play the show at the Opry, I would have those dancers play along as the percussion. I don’t know if it’s quite what you were talking about, but that’s the only thing that keeps popping in my head. How cool that would be! But that’s kind of like a one-time thing. You can’t tour with them, I don’t think.
I don’t know? You might could!
(Laughs) I don’t know what that budget would be!