The place where the river flows

Chicken Skin Music

Chicken Skin Music

There is such a thing as a flow of discovery. I once read a review of Ry Cooder’s Chicken Skin Music, a review that plucked the record out of the henhouse of obscurity and dusted it off for me to rediscover. As with all Cooder discs he had interesting guests, this time including the Tex-Mex musician Flaco Jiminez and the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar legend Gabby Pahinui. I enjoyed the LP very much, and it spurred me into one of my slightly predictable retail plunges. I bought Chicken Skin Music. Then I bought his first and second releases, Ry Cooder and Into the Valley. Then I bought Paradise & Lunch, which is an all-time great in desperate need of a reissue. When I stopped sucking up the Cooder I re-listened to Chicken Skin Music. This time Gabby Pahinui really caught my ear, so I did some research and discovered that Cooder played on Pahinui’s LP The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Volume 1. I bought it and fell in love with it. This opened the floodgates and I began absorbing Hawaiian music like it was air. I also pumped up the Hawaiian music section in the store where I worked. I must have had the largest Hawiian section west of Maui.

The flow that my river of discovery took was totally natural, it worked around every obstacle, and most importantly, it was totally up to me to find new things and trust that what I heard once would continue to appeal to me with greater exposure. I have always likened my desire for new music to the life of a shark: If I stop moving it dies, so I always move, and I always want more and more and more. Maybe I just have an addictive personality, but what really appeals to me is the intensely personal process of discovery that comes from digging just under the surface of an LP.

Is it possible, in the age of the Internet, to continue to discover these facts, these sounds on our own? On my shelf at home, I have a two-volume set of facts and information on global music. Two books. With the Internet I can type in an artist’s name and get pages and pages of information. Is this the same thing? Is the end result any different given the sources we use in our hunt for discovery? I think that it is, but it could be just me.

Ry Cooder

Ry Cooder

Consider Ry Cooder, born in 1947 and growing up hearing only the music in his immediate surroundings. Imagine the revelation that must have come from hearing the new sounds in the air in Los Angeles in the 50s and early 60s. Imagine how that would have combined with his talent to create a hunger for more and more new sounds. How could he not explore? And how could a listener not want to explore as well? Through Cooder’s music one gets the feeling of following a musical Johnny Appleseed, who gives us new sounds to pick up and plant in our ears in the hope that something new will grow. By sharing Cooder’s process of curiosity and discovery we are changed forever. The process involves work but the reward feels greater for it.

This is where the death of the modern record store enters the picture. You can sit at a computer and type and watch the screen flick and flitter. But does it resonate? Do new sounds stick with you in today’s blink-and-you-miss-it-culture? Or is there something about someone working behind a counter that encourages discovery by allowing you to experience someone else’s enthusiasm? Is there something about that exchange that makes discovery more palpable, more personal, more real?

Maybe that is what Cooder was doing all those years ago—sharing his discoveries so that we could make them our own. Maybe he’s still doing it now. But who’s still listening and who’s still seeking? How do we find these people if there’s no place to go?


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