There was a time—around six decades ago, during the 1950s/’60s folk and blues explosion—when budding teenage musicians Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal figuratively (and sometimes literally) sat at the feet of various venerated elders, absorbing their soul, spirit, and techniques. Cooder and Taj Mahal, 75 and 80, respectively, are now revered as legends themselves, and they’ve chosen this moment to time-travel back to honor two of their early heroes, the duo of harmonica ace Sonny Terry and guitarist Brownie McGhee. The title, funky cover design, and three of the 11 tunes on Cooder and Taj Mahal’s marvelous new album are derived from a 1952 Folkways record by Terry and McGhee, with Taj in the Sonny seat (he also plays piano on one tune) and Cooder in Brownie’s chair. Cooder’s son, Joachim, adds earthy percussion and bass touches.
The album has the vibe of a loose, fun, live-in-your-living-room jam, but there’s actually some judicious layering of vocal and instrumental parts that gives the overall sound a nice textural depth. Cooder mostly plays acoustic guitar—a 1946 Martin D-18 and a circa 1900 Adams Brothers parlor—as well as some mandolin (Gibson F-4) and a bit of scratchy electric (or at least electrified) guitar. His playing is never flashy but always appropriate for the folk feel of the music—and there are a few piercing slide guitar moments that stand out and remind you why Cooder is regarded an absolute master of that style. All in all, it’s a joyful tribute to a bygone era.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.