About Me. 2.
Photo by Susan Titelman, 1980.
The Long Riders
Many people have asked me about my involvement with Ry Cooder's famous soundtrack for "The Long Riders," back in 1980 and, since it was such an enjoyable experience, I don't mind telling the story one more time. And since this is on my nickel, I don't have to cut it short.
Many years ago, prompted by an unexpected name mentioned by a new girlfriend, I made a chart of relationships between us. I took a large sheet of paper, made a small circle with my initials in it, one with hers in it, and started mapping the connections. I used solid lines for close relations, dashed and dotted lines for more tenuous ones and, before I was through, there were 40-50 people on the map--all for this woman I had only recently met. I have since realized this is not at all uncommon. "The Long Riders" is one of these stories.
In 1979, I heard an announcement that there would be a repeat of a Saturday Night Live episode featuring "Flaco" Jimenez and Ry Cooder. I was not a late night anynight TV watcher and had only seen a few SNL shows in my life. But I liked Flaco and had heard of Ry Cooder as a powerhouse guitarist since the 1960s. I had always assumed he was much older than I and figured I'd better catch him while I still could, so I stayed up to watch the show. I think I imagined him like BB King, Chet Atkins, and Les Paul, whom I had seen since the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I saw the show: "He's MY age!" I thoroughly enjoyed the show and had a good night's sleep.
The next day, Sunday, around noon, the phone rang. A voice said,"Hello, Curt? This is Ry Cooder." [My immediate thought was, "Did I tell anyone about this whole experience? Someone is putting me on."] "Yes...," I answered, warily, waiting for the gotcha! He continued, "David Lindley gave me your name and said you played hammered dulcimer." "Yes...," I replied, still hesitant. "Well, I'm putting together the soundtrack for a sort of Western movie about the James Gang...etc.," He gave more details and mentioned Tom Sauber's name and, eventually, said, "I'd like to get together with you to see whether you'ld be interested in working with us." We set a time in a couple of days and hung up.
[I had met David Lindley and Tom Sauber at some of the Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contests some ten years previous but wasn't sure they would have remembered me.]
The whole time we were talking I was still unsure whether it was real or not. Besides, I had done a few movie soundtracks before and there were usually forces working at cross purposes. My dulcimer playing was self-taught and very idiosyncratic, and I played tunes in all the "wrong" keys, since they only fit on my diatonic instrument in a couple of places. Most other instrumentalists couldn't or didn't want to accommodate my peculiarities. But I figured I would see in a few days whether he was real or not and whether it would work or not.
He came to where I worked, at the Green Tiger Press, in downtown San Diego, in a large warehouse and we went to a distant corner, followed by several interested friends. I set up my dulcimer, he set up a cassette. "This is just to give you an idea of what Tom and David and I are thinking about to start with," and he pushed "play." The first sound out of the speakers was "Seneca Square Dance."
[I had been playing "Seneca" for ten years and had worked up what I thought was a good set of variations, but most players I knew didn't know the tune, and those who did, played it in a different key. I had learned it from a travelling string band that had played several times at the Heritage Coffee House, owned by my best friend, Bob Webb. Bob was from LA and also knew Dave and Tom. (My wife later ran off with the band.)]
I touched a string or two on my dulcimer to check the tuning and started playing on the second phrase of "Seneca." They were in My key and we were exactly in tune. [Since I didn't have a tuner, and seldom played with anyone else, I only tuned my dulcimer to itself. The fact that we were in tune is still, to me, a miracle of Biblical proportions.]
Ry looked at me and grinned, "I think we're going to get along just fine." And that, as they say in the movies, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The entire process was very enjoyable and even easy. Ry would give us the piece or the idea of what we were going to play, everyone would noodle a little, and we would play through it once for "take one." Then Ry would say, "That's just right, let's do it." Or, he'd decide, "I think I'd rather play the bajo sexto on this one," and we would do it that way. I don't remember ever doing more than three, maybe four takes. He knew exactly what he wanted and, what is more remarkable, he knew precisely how to get it. Everyone got along famously and it was a model of productivity. I was mightily impressed.
We improvised as we went along. I had brought a carload of my instruments to the studio and at one point I was messing around, singing into the back of my Frank Proffitt banjo, when Ry said,"That's exactly what we need for the get-away scene." So we did it. Tom Sauber used the Proffitt to play for another, solo banjo, scene. Toward the end, Ry wanted to try something a little different for the credits. He had a cut of "Jesse James" and decided to add a fife and drum version of "Rally 'Round the Flag" when he heard me playing around with a penny whistle. So he picked up a beautiful African style double-headed drum and we launched into it after about a 5 minute rehearsal.
Much later, when the film was finally released, I went with some friends to see it in a local San Diego theater. We stayed until the very end and, when the credits rolled there was even a list of all the musicians (an unusual occurrence, I am told). When my name came up, all my friends stood and clapped and cheered. I would have been embarrassed if the theater hadn't been empty except for us.
In the following months, my name popped up in reviews of the film in such disparate sources as the Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Occasionally I find references to the film or the music which mention the hammered dulcimer or "the perky tin flute of Curt Bouterse," or some such. And recently, I found a mention by Paul Hostetter in banjo-l where I supposedly played the banjo while Stu Brotman played the hammered dulcimer. Well, the dulcimer probably would have sounded a lot better if Stu had played it but I definitely wouldn't have picked up a banjo with Tom Sauber around. I'm also supposed to have taken Paul's daughter to "the premiere." Must have been some other Curt Bouterse: I never got invited to the premiere, and I don't think I've even met Paul Hostetter, let alone his daughter. You never know how these stories get started: they're like the Folk Process, lost in the Mists of Ambiguity.