On his Nonesuch debut, Over That Road I’m Bound, Joachim Cooder uses the plain-spoken songs of country-music progenitor Uncle Dave Macon as the jumping-off point for an album that feels more like a compellingly soulful reverie than a scholarly excavation. Family is at the heart of the project—as an impetus and as a theme. Cooder enlists family members to join him as he explores and expands upon tunes that his father had played for him and that Cooder now sings to his young children. He tinkers with lyrics and reworks banjo melodies for his own chosen instrument, an electric mbira, a variation on the African thumb piano. Culling material from a vast catalog, Cooder locates a gentleness and a plaintive quality in these songs; the novel arrangements he fashions often owe more to ambient or world music than to country. It’s an unexpected —and utterly original—take on the music Macon had performed.
“When I started the project, I didn’t know much of the derivation of Uncle Dave’s songs,” Cooder admits. “But I realized he was a collector of the music and songs he heard around him, like an Alan Lomax, repurposing and reinterpreting them for a new audience. And that was what I was doing with these songs without realizing it—reimagining and rewriting them. I realized we were doing a similar thing in a way.”
Although David Harrison Macon is a seminal figure in the evolution of American music, as noted in Ken Burns’ recent PBS documentary series, Country Music, he’s better known to working musicians and cultural historians than to contemporary listeners. In the early 1900s, however, the Tennessee native was a wildly popular entertainer, the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. He spent twenty-six years with the show and enjoyed success as a touring artist until the very end of his life. Born in 1870, Macon built a repertoire of songs from the latter part of the 1800s and attuned it for early twentieth century ears: minstrel show and vaudeville tunes, folk melodies, gospel numbers, gleaned from fellow travelers both Black and white. Though he was playing for white audiences, Macon, no doubt unwittingly, helped to preserve a trove of music bearing African roots that he’d heard in his travels. These songs became an unacknowledged but foundational part of country music, a legacy that’s been explored in depth by contemporary roots-music artists like Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Cooder was a child when he first heard some of the songs Macon had recorded. His father Ry would play them for him on the banjo: “My dad would play the banjo a lot and he would sing a couple of these tunes. I gathered from him he had heard Pete Seeger play them and that Seeger was a big proponent of Uncle Dave’s music. There was one song in particular, ‘Morning Blues,’ that I remember being drawn to as a little boy.”
That song remained a tucked-away memory until Cooder himself became a father for the first time. (He and his wife, singer Juliette Commagere, are now the parents of two.) After his first child was born, says Cooder, “I would bring my daughter over to my parents’ house and my dad would play the banjo, and that’s when I heard ‘Morning Blues’ again. I said, ‘Wait, what is that song?’ By this point, I had been playing the electric mbira for a long time. There was something very modal about how my dad was playing that one song—or about banjo music in general—so I picked up the mbira and just started playing with him. There was a vague otherworldly quality to it. I thought, ‘I want to play these songs this way.’ I’m not a banjo player so I couldn’t come at it from a purist standpoint. I just started listening every morning; it became a tradition. I would put on an Uncle Dave box set and my daughter and I would listen to it. She, in a way, was the director of this project. She insisted upon certain songs and we would listen to the same ones over and over again, learning the songs. Then I started changing the lyrics around with her in mind.”
Tunes like the title track and “Rabbit in the Pea Patch” are indeed perfect for a kids’ sing-along while others, like “All In Down and Out” and “Tell Her To Come Back Home” couch adult drama in deceptively simple rhymes. “Come Along Buddy” and “When the Train Comes Along” contain undercurrents of melancholy in settings that are otherwise as comforting as lullabies. “Oh Lovin’ Babe” and “Morning Blues” showcase Cooder’s light but steady touch as a percussionist.
Embarking on this album project was initially about the sound Cooder envisioned for these songs; he would learn more and more about Macon’s legacy along the way. In many respects, the two artists couldn’t be more different. Macon was apparently a rambunctious performer, a natural comedian and constant showman, regaling audiences with jokes and banjo tricks as well as songs. He was an enthusiastic amateur until he turned 50 and only then began to perform professionally. Cooder, on the other hand, took up the drums as a child and has been performing professionally since his teens. He first learned of the mbira as a boy and the true inspiration came when he found a VHS tape sent to his dad of an mbira player named Juju Doxy: “I would go to my parents’ room and put in the VHS tape. I watched it all the time, I showed it to everybody. Those things stuck with me growing up.”
The soft-spoken artist has been a sought-after percussionist for two decades now. He performed on the now-legendary sessions in Havana that produced Buena Vista Social Club and has worked with many of its players on their subsequent solo discs. He’s recorded with a wide range of other performers, including Mavis Staples, Jon Hassell, Dr. John, and Ali Farka Touré, who further fueled his passion for the mbira. He’s produced albums for fellow artists including Commagere and singer-songwriter Carly Ritter; composed for film; and collaborated with choreographer Daniel Ezralow on music for dance. On his own, he’s released two albums, Love on a Real Train (2015) and Fuchsia Machu Picchu (2018), and an EP of haunting instrumentals, We Can Talk from Different Waters (2020).
Pairing the evocative sound of the mbira with this early American repertoire was an instinctive match of instrument and song, not a deliberate statement. Yet the album does point in a specific direction, serving as a subtle and poetic retracing of this music back to Africa, which, after all, is also where the banjo itself originated. For Cooder, whose career has often been about crossing borders and blending cultures, embarking on such a project as this feels like second nature. As he notes: “It’s a happy coincidence, to hear that music on the mbira. The banjo, the guitar, all these instruments we love, we all recognize them. I love the mbira, especially the one I use,”—called an Array Mbira—“because it’s the creation of one maker, Bill Wesley. I love to play it so much because it puts me in another place entirely. When people hear me play it, it puts them in another place as well, though maybe not the same place as me. They’ll say, ‘This sounds Irish,’ or, ‘This sounds African.’ Taking the Uncle Dave songs out of the strict banjo box, it takes the song out of that mind set, whatever one thinks of when hearing a banjo. Because of the nature of the instrument, whenever I sit down to play it, I get into this very dreamy state. In doing these songs, I found myself being in a very lullaby-ish state. I never wanted to get out of that, to get too jangly or too rambunctious. I wanted to keep this feeling the whole way through. Also, because the beginnings were tied in with my daughter, doing these songs for her in a way, there is a true lullaby aspect to these songs. I sing them to both of my kids now as we walk through the neighborhood, like a little internal meditation.”
As he worked on the melodies, Cooder began to incorporate his own words, often lyrics he had written to entertain his daughter: “I found that a lot of Uncle Dave’s lyrics were sort of like little bits that he took from other places. And I started doing the same thing.” He contacted his friend Rayna Gellert, a Nashville-based fiddler, told her what he was working on, and invited her to play on it. In another serendipitous moment, Gelhart “said that was something she’d always wanted to do too, and she started sending me all these Uncle Dave songs I had not heard. So it was this very organic process that took about a year and a half. Especially with raising kids, it had to be piece by piece.”
At the time, Cooder, Commagere, and their two children were living at his parents’ home on the west side of Los Angeles, so their daughter could attend a school nearby. Cooder set up a rig in his parents’ studio with the help of his good friend, the engineer and mixer Martin Pradler. Each day, after dropping his daughter off, he’d work with Pradler until the school day was finished. It was, he admits, “the only way to be present and help out while trying to make a record. When Juliette would record her parts, I would go and be with the kids. It was an ideal little situation.”
He gradually brought in other players, all friends and family: “My dad—since we were in his house—added little banjo parts, guitar, and mandolin here and there. Raina flew in from Nashville to play fiddle, Juliette sang all the harmonies, [fellow Nonesuch artist] Sam Gendel came in to play the bass-guitar hybrid instrument he uses. Everyone just felt very much in the zone of what the record was and played their lovely parts. I never had to say anything. I knew it would take the shape I’d imagined.”
For the haunting final track, “When The Train Comes Along,” he took a more experimental approach: “I was doing some shows with my dad and Rosanne Cash, playing the songs of Johnny Cash. During sound check, I would go to the pianist Glenn Patscha and say, ‘Glenn, just play some stuff.’ With my iPad, I would write on piano. Glenn would do interesting little things, like some prepared piano. I got back from the shows and started putting all of his stuff together, not sure where it was going. And that’s when I learned ‘When The Train Comes Along’ and I started singing it over the top of Glenn’s piano. That was done completely with little pieces of Glenn at soundchecks. I knew instantly it should be the end of the record, to go off with a train in the distance.”
Concluding Over That Road I’m Bound w ith a track that’s a veritable trip to dreamland seems especially fitting. As Cooder says, “I’m not intentional with my music. Everything for me has to come almost from my subconscious, without knowing I’m doing it, and then I go with that. I’ve never been able to choose what I’m going to do, other than play this one instrument. Sometimes when I listen back to this record, I wonder—how was this done? I was there, but I almost don’t remember.”