‘Music by Ry Cooder’ was often an indicator that a film might be worth further investigation in the late 1970s through the 1980s in particular. One such was ‘The Border’, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Jack Nicholson supported by Harvey Keitel, Warren Oates and Valerie Perrine centred on a group of corrupt immigration officers around El Paso. The soundtrack is credited to Ry Cooder but the songs were written / performed by or with Jim Dickinson, John Hiatt and Sam ‘the Sham’ Samudio. ‘Across The Borderline’ is the second track on the soundtrack album and is a co-write between Cooder, Hiatt and Dickinson.
Freddy Fender takes the lead vocal on the soundtrack version and his plaintive vocal ekes out the tired desperation of the migrant in the face of the menace of the corrupt border guards. The backing track features the songwriters on guitars and piano, Tim Drummond (bass), Jim Keltner (drums), Samudio (organ and backing vocals) plus Willie Greene and Bobby King completing the choir. The musicians create a dusty atmosphere interwoven with an uncredited accordion. Fender’s lead singing contrasts with the soft gospely backing vocal in a way that creates a real sense of the exhaustion of the person reaching out for new opportunity while fearing either capture or disappointment.
Legendary Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez recorded ‘Across The Borderline’ with Hiatt on his ‘Versions’ collaboration album. Jimenez and Hiatt take the song from the harsh exterior to the corner of a cantina where Jimenez accordion conjures images of warmth and pathos. Hiatt’s vocal re-creates the song as a cautionary tale.
Willie Nelson is the last person ever to be under threat of deportation from Texas. So when Nelson performs the song on his tour of the modern American songbook named for the Cooder/Hiatt/ Dickinson song, his version is one of observation and empathy. The performance is a softly understated acoustic version punctuated with Reggie Young’s electric guitar. Robbie Turner’s mandolin co-leads while Kris Kristofferson and Danny Timms add a gentle backing vocal.
Gaby Moreno although based in Los Angeles for some time came originally from Guatemala. In 2019, Moreno and Van Dyke Parks issued ‘¡Spangled!’ a celebration of the migration of songs into the US. Backed by an impressive session crew marshalled by Parks, Moreno’s singing captures each of the different songs time and mood.
The opening track on the album is ‘Across The Borderline’ featuring a guest vocal spot from Jackson Browne and a guitar solo from co-author Cooder. Recorded in a different era where the violence, racism and corruption in the shadows of the world of 1982 have stepped into the light and entered government under Trump, Moreno’s performance brings out the fear and vulnerability of the migrant. The beauty of the music provides a blanket of sympathy but never outweighs the menace.
‘Across The Borderline’ has been covered by many artists live including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Jones, but I think the four versions here capture the essence of the song reflecting experience, empathy and proximity and confirm its status as an americana classic.