Ry Cooder and Ricky Skaggs have known each other for more than a decade, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that they started talking about working on a project together.
“It has been about three years in the making,” said Cooder of the Songs for the Good People Tour that he, Skaggs and Skaggs’ wife, Sharon White, launched in June. “It took some time for the idea to congeal into something.”
That idea was to perform old-time country, gospel and bluegrass songs, most of which have deep roots in the tradition of the Whites, a traditional country trio from Texas that has been recording since the 1980s. They’re also on the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack.
“All the music we’re doing on this tour, my daddy played when I was a girl,” Sharon White said. “That current country, bluegrass and gospel and rockabilly. All that. It’s what has most influenced me. We’re doing a Delmore Brothers song that my dad listened to as a kid. And he’s 84.”
Those songs are performed by a band that features Cooder on guitars, Skaggs on fiddle, mandolin and guitar and White on vocals. The trio gets assists from White’s sister, Cheryl, on vocals; their father, Buck, on piano; Cooder’s son Joachim on drums; and Mark Fain on bass. Ry Cooder said the band was going for a “hybrid thing.”
“I think one particular model for our sound is the Louvin Brothers tunes that Chet Atkins produced except with drums, bass, electric guitar,” Cooder said.
Rehearsals for the tour started in earnest in 2014.
“I’d go down to Nashville with Joachim a couple times a month,” Cooder said. “Ricky has a fine recording studio there. We’d get together, go through the repertoire and we came up with about 35 songs all together and worked out the vocal arrangements and who plays what, when.”
White and Skaggs, who have been married for 34 years, have performed and recorded together often. Cooder has collaborated with dozens of other musicians, but not in a project like this, featuring this kind of music and vocal arrangements with three- and four-part harmonies. It took a few rehearsals for the group to find its center and its groove.
“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” Skaggs said.
“You’ve really got to pay attention,” Cooder said. “It’s what (the Whites) do as a family, and it’s perfect. You’ve got to stay in your lane or you’ll mess up.”
“Everyone feels the beat or the groove a little differently,” White said. “I think we all had to adjust to each other.”
Skaggs and Cooder deliver the instrumental heft, but Cooder said that the White’s patriarch is the foundation of the band.
“The kicker is Buck White on piano,” he said. “He takes it to a dance hall groove that’s real fine, very uplifting and makes a whole other thing happen. He’s so real, having come up in the dance halls of West Texas. That’s a lost art. It really moves things along, that’s for sure.”
“My dad’s amazing,” Sharon White said. “He’s very expressive and he plays so much from his heart. That’s what Ry likes about him.”
“He wears out the piano,” Skaggs said. “He’s become the rock star of the show.”
Cooder and Skaggs met in 2003, but Skaggs was a fan of Cooder’s long before that.
“I got turned on to Ry through his ‘Bop Till You Drop’ album that came out in the late 1970s,” he said, “back when I was in Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band. I had a Sony Walkman player and I listened to that cassette all through Europe, every day for about six weeks. I loved his playing and had a real desire to maybe play with that guy.”
They met at a Grammy Awards show, where Skaggs discovered Cooder was a fan of his as well. A few years later, his wish was fulfilled. They started emailing each other and then playing together.
“There was a benefit in Nashville for Tony Rice, a great bluegrass guitarist, and Ry contacted me and said he wanted to go with his wife and his son,” Skaggs said.
“I asked him if he wanted to play a few things with my band, Kentucky Thunder. He said yes. We ran through some songs and he did them spot-on.”
Cooder also played on the Skaggs-White album of duets, “Hearts Like Ours,” released in 2014.
“I had a song that I really wanted some slide guitar on and it seemed appropriate to call Ry and ask,” Skaggs said.
“He said he’d love to. He came by and did it so quick, after maybe two run throughs, he said, ‘Is there anything else?’ I found another song I hadn’t quite finished and he played on that one, too.”
By then the wheels were already turning for the Good People Tour, which opened in Salt Lake City on June 16. It stops at the Uptown Theater on Tuesday.
White, who spoke to The Star after the tour’s fifth stop, in Denver, said their performances gained polish with each show.
“We’ve changed a few things, some intros and the order of who takes a solo when, things like that,” she said.
“It was loose the first couple of nights. Our voices blend very well. I’m honored to be part of this trio.”
For Skaggs, the tour is more than a chance to play with someone he’s admired for more than 35 years. It’s also an opportunity to showcase music he has loved all his life.
“I love that we’re doing old country songs, sharing the songs of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Kitty Wells and all the great masters whose shoulders we’re standing on,” he said.
“I love educating people and telling people about the history of this music and talking about the artists we loved and learned from. And then getting to sing those songs.”
Ry Cooder, Sharon White and Ricky Skaggs perform at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Tickets are $25 to $85 through Ticketmaster.