Son of a viola maker and player, Zé Coco do Riachão became internationally acknowledged as a master of viola, guitar, cavaquinho, and fiddle, instruments that he also built. In spite of his wide recognition as a man of the people who enriched the popular tradition of the caipira (hillbilly) music of Minas Gerais with classical elements while maintaining its characteristics, (he was praised in a film about cantigas de vaqueiro, or cowboy songs, produced by Dr. Ralf for the 1st Channel of Baden Baden, Germany), do Riachão lived and died in poverty, having recorded only three albums. Almost anonymously, do Riachão spent his life building and repairing instruments; in his free time, he played at balls and religious parties, along with composing melodies, many of which were lost. He was also illiterate, so he didn't know how to write music.
At 20, he took over his father's instrument factory. From a very religious family, do Riachão was initiated in music following his parents at the processions known as folia de reis. His two earliest albums, Brasil Puro (1980) and Zé Coco do Riachão (1981), which were sponsored by journalist Carlos Felipe, brought to do Riachão immediate recognition by the critics as a master of popular culture on his own style of soloing/comping. In 1986, he participated in the documentary Viola Caipira, produced by Brasília State University (UnB), together with the violeiros (viola players) Paulo Freire and Roberto Corrêa. His third release came in 1987, Vôo das Garças; its CD reissue, ten years later, had the addition of three unedited songs: "Minha Viola e Eu," "Moda pra João de Irene," and "Amanhecendo." In 1980, he performed at the Francisco Nunes Theater with Téo Azevedo and the Grupo Agreste. He also participated on one track on the CD Violeiros do Brasil, the launching of which was done at a show at the Sesc Pompéia Theater (São Paulo) in the same year of his passing. Zé Coco do Riachão left many disciples throughout Brazil, such as Paulo Freire, Marimbondo Chapéu, Chico Lobo, Roberto Corrêa, and Sinval de Gameleira.