My first experience of Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music was apocalyptic. The 1976 album expanded my musical horizon by unveiling the splendour of musical genres that I had not previously been open to. Chicken Skin Music is a cosmopolitan album that explores diverse musical styles, including Blues, Folk, Minstrel, Appalachian, Country, Hawaiian, Gospel, and Tex-Mex. Cooder is often described as an anthropologist in his approach to exploring different musical genres; however, the music on this album is not merely an archive of representative cultures and styles. It is an artistic interpretation and interweaving of traditional music in a way that creates a brand new expression, albeit a somewhat eccentric one. It is potent. The phrase “chicken skin music” is a Hawaiian colloquialism for music that gives you goosebumps, and the album’s moniker is precisely what Cooder achieves with every song.
Cooder is a master guitar player of several styles in his own right, but it is his uncanny ability to generously share his gift and learn from other master players that makes the songs on this album so profound. The superb Tejano accordionist Leonardo “Flaco” Jiménez contributes his flavour of the Tex-Mex style which arose from combination of German polka and Mexican mariachi music in Southern Texas. Hawaiian legends Charles “Gabby” Pahinui and Leland “Atta” Isaacs bring their popular Hawaiian guitar styles, lapsteel and slack-key guitar respectively, to the album. Cooder’s unique arrangements of these disparate sounds allow for these traditional voices to find a new potential that generates a special mood and occasion for the album.
The album begins with a version of Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues” where Cooder plays all the instruments with the exception of percussion. This seems to contradict the point that Cooder is a generous player, but I think this is his way of expressing thanks to the musicians he is playing with by showing sensitivity and care with what he has learned from them. This is especially evident in his French accordion playing as he clearly displays Jiménez’s guidance and influence. The simple arrangement that is expressed with bajo sexto, mandola, and bottleneck slide guitar create a musical amuse-bouche that hints at what is about to unfold. The theme of Cooder’s musical scholarship continues in his playing on “I got Mine” and “Always Life Him Up”. The Hawaiian gospel song, “Kanaka Wai Wai,” accents the instrumental section of “Always Lift Him Up”. Cooder plays slack-key guitar, interpreting Isaacs’ Hawaiian style, but the connection to Alfred Reed’s Appalachian tune is not some kind of musical experiment for the sake of it. It is a spiritual connection to a notion of caring for those who are hurting.
Jiménez first appears on Joe and Audrey Allison’s “He’ll Have to Go”, originally popularized in 1959 with Jim Reeves’ Nashville recording. Jiménez’s Quicksilver button accordion provides an energetic Tex-Mex accent to Cooder’s rearrangement of the country hit with Brazilian baion rhythms. The expression of the familiar song with the perfect Mariachi harmonization of accordion and saxophone opened my ears to Tex-Mex music, but it was only years later when I was visiting Texas that I learned how diverse the genre really is. This Tex-Mex style is also reflected in a gospel version of Lieber and Stoller’s “Stand by Me” and bouncy-waltz interpretation of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”.
Cooder visited Honolulu specifically to play with Pahinui and Isaacs. The recording sessions provided the album with a Hawaiian versions of the Hank Snow hit “Yellow Roses” and a Western Swing instrumental of Charles N. Daniels’ popular “Chloe (Song of the Swamp)”. Cooder joins Isaacs on slack-key guitar with great sympathetic effect on “Yellow Roses”, again demonstrating his desire to share and express new sounds and ways of playing music. The Hawaiian guitar sounds are familiar from the traditional Hawaiian music that started to become popular in the United States in the early 20th century and continued with the popularity of Tiki culture in the 1930s. The blend of Hawaiian and American Country roots music is exhilarating here because the relaxed pace, although quite familiar, is also strange. The joining of the genres arises in such a natural way that it creates a whole new sound. It is smooth and sweet.
The centrepiece of the album is, obviously, a rendition of Charles Calhoun’s R&B song “Smack Dab in the Middle” that Cooder performs in his characteristic blues style with slide and electric guitar accompaniment. Bobby King, who sings on many of the songs on the album, provides upbeat R&B vocals to complement the syncopated rhythms. The song’s representative style makes it the gravitational centre of the album, allowing the songs that proceed and follow to spiral around as opposed to arise as some kind of progression. In this orbital sense, “Smack Dab in the Middle” stands out from the rest of the album as its demonstration of sublime blues guitar playing seems to be in contrast to the more relaxed, long notes expressed on the rest of the album.
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the erotic album cover. The front cover depicts a Kenny Price painting of a skeleton wearing a sombrero having sex with a voluptuous, presumably fecund woman in the middle of the street of a seemingly deserted Mexica pueblo. The back of the cover depicts the two lovers having sex in a country landscape. The Mexican folk art style of the painting expresses the notion of life and death that is fundamental to pre-Hispanic Mexican notions of duality of existence. Furthermore, the Mexican notion that the dead retain their identities and visit people, especially on the Day of the Dead, is expressed in the image of the skeleton. By keeping the memory of ancestors alive in the images of skeletons, an ancestor will find a familiar place upon his or her spiritual return. The skeleton on the album cover represents the past directing his eros toward a young, beautiful women presumably with the intention of impregnating her and creating potential for the future. It is the past, present, and future arising in the occasion of a special moment that can be found in the musically induced goosebumps that inevitably arise from this profound album.