"Ry Cooder is at his musicological best in this conceptual song-cycle inspired by old-left politics and a musical palette encompassing strains of old-time Appalachian music, blues, country, Tex-Mex, bluegrass, gospel and jazz. The songs are based on three anthropomorphic characters: Buddy Red Cat, Lefty Mouse and the Reverend Tom Toad. They're a trio of fellow-travelers who overcome their differences and bond in ways that previous generations of cats, mice and toads wouldn't understand or accept as they ride the rails and observe an American society whose ideals and realities are still far apart. The Great Depression of the 1930s is the backdrop for many of these songs but Cooder freely makes historical and musical references that freely draw on the entire 20th century while subtly offering lessons for our own times.
The songs are all quite wonderful as they describe scenes that could have come out of books like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Woody Guthrie's Bound For Glory. We hear about riding the rails, labor strikes, the meaning of solidarity and the animals' encounters with such iconic figures from folk music history as Joe Hill, Hank Williams, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger. While some of the events referenced in the songs may be fictionalized, and while Cooder doesn't use a factual timeline, we also hear about real labor and civil rights struggles and such historic events as the Peekskill riots.
Cooder is a master musician and he surrounds himself with such collaborators as Mike Seeger on fiddle and banjo, legendary accordionist Flaco Jimenez and mandolinist Roland White. Pete Seeger's presence often seems to be felt in these songs and Pete himself sits playing banjo on one song. This is one of the greatest folk albums of recent years." (reviewed by Mike Regenstreif for Sing Out!)