The great Ry Cooder — inveterate explorer of roots music in America and beyond, world-class instrumentalist — comes to the Wilbur Theatre Thursday on the heels of his magnificent new release, “The Prodigal Son.” It’s his 17th solo record and the first in six years, and represents a return of sorts to his early work in the way that it mines veins of American roots traditions — here, classic gospel from Blind Willie Johnson, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Stanley Brothers, and others — and brings a spirit of re-imagination to what is unearthed. Cooder weaves a few of his own songs in as well, but forgoes the overtly political fare of his last few albums (“Even my acupuncture doctor said ‘No more political songs, stop that!,’” Cooder notes with a chuckle); instead of polemics, he goes playful (“Shrinking Man,” which riffs off of novelist Richard Matheson’s 1950s sci-fi depiction to glance at consumerism and its consequences), and reflective (“Jesus and Woody,” which imagines a heavenly conversation between the two titular figures). We reached Cooder at his Santa Monica home to discuss the new record.
Q. This is the first record you’ve made since 2012. What were the circumstances that motivated you to make it?
A. I went on tour with Ricky
Skaggs and his wife, Sharon White, and the White Family in 2015. It was fantastic. They’re all the greatest singers of that country stuff, traditional country up into bluegrass. We did a lot of gospel songs with four-part harmony. I had a fantastic time, and after the tour my son Joachim said, “Well, you saw the audience, they’re all waiting for you to come and do something. Don’t you think you should make a record now, just play your guitar like you used to do and sing the old-time way?” I said, “Well, that’s fine, but what would I do?” In terms of songs, the question is always going to be that. He said, “You’ll think of something.” So I was sitting around and I began to think back over these gospel tunes. I used to sneak ’em in here and there, and I enjoyed it so much on the Skaggs tour, but I never would have considered a whole record of this music. But Ricky and Sharon said, “Sing that stuff; you sing it good.” I figured if they said that, maybe it’s so.
Q. There’s obviously a vast repertoire of gospel music out there. How did you decide on the songs that ended up on the record?
A. I wanted tunes that were in some way life-affirming, that had a feeling of optimism or hopefulness. I didn’t want tunes that preach heaven, you know, life on Earth is bad and heaven is the only hope we have. I don’t quite care for that. I mean, when people sing that stuff, it’s good when they do it, but I didn’t want to do it. And I have to have something that I can get in on, that I can do something with. The songs have to have some meaning now, some interest now.
Q. And how did you come up with your approach to or treatment of the songs?
A. It comes back to this old problem: How do you approach old material? It has to have a certain effect, especially gospel music, I think; it’s music that’s designed or created to have an impact of some kind. So, “Straight Street” by the Pilgrim Travelers, ’40s quartet-style music, I’m not going to do that. So how would I do it? And one day, Joachim was doing something in the studio with one of his sampled tracks. It’s sort of ambient and dreamy. Well, I listened to this track, and I thought, I can sing “Straight Street” over that. It would be a whole different deal, a whole different approach to the song. So that showed the way in. Once we got going on that, I thought we could have a gospel record or a record that is flavored in that way, that leans that way, and then you find yourself in a certain groove and one thing leads to another.
Q. The title track, “The Prodigal Son,” has deep gospel roots, but you add some lyrics that sort of revalue the basis of gospel music. You have the prodigal encounter with the great steel player Ralph Mooney in a Bakersfield bar, which leads him to a revelation copped from the chorus of a classic honky-tonk song: “Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music is the only kind of truth I’ll ever understand.” It’s a remarkable addition; how did you conjure that up?
A. It’s an old Heavenly Gospel Singers song: The prodigal son was a forward child and he left, then he comes back and his father sees him coming down the road, and he says, “Oh, it’s my son, he’s back.” Well, it’s too short. That’s all there is to it, and then the chorus. It’s only about two minutes long. They don’t say too much about what the son did when he was out there. And I remembered that I had these lyrics about Ralph Mooney on the laptop somewhere. So I thought, this will fit, it’s perfect. The prodigal tells his father, this is what happened. I wandered into this place, I heard this music, I offered myself as an acolyte, a novice, to Ralph Mooney. I’ll serve him, I’ll empty his ashtrays and keep the drunks away from him. Why not? Who’s to say no?
At the Wilbur Theatre, June 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $50-$65, 617-248-9700, www.thewilbur.comInterview has been edited and condensed. Stuart Munro can be reached at email@example.com.