“I am not a blues singer, I am not a jazz singer, I am not a country and western singer. But, I am a singer that sings rhythm and blues, I am a singer that can sing country music, I am a singer that can sing jazz. There’s a big difference.”
-–Ray Charles, in a 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley
Brother Ray learnin’ us on e pluribus unum. From many musics, one man. But, today let’s focus on the country music portion of that equation because it’s the one superficially awkward alliance. Black people and country music seem inherently at odds because of duh racism. In the early 1960s, Ray Charles attacked racial expectations like a silky, funky Buddha of integration. He got into white people’s brains and butts and then reprogrammed the DNA. Ray Pluribus Unum taught us that black people and country music COULD go together like honky and tonk.
His 1962 albums, Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, Volume 1 and Volume 2 deservedly gets the lion’s share of credit for introducing a prominent black voice to the lily-white world of country. But, Ray tipped his hand earlier, when he covered Hank Snow‘s 1950 hit, “I’m Movin’ On.” The song appeared on his final Atlantic release, The Genius Sings The Blues (1961). In fact, Ray recorded the tune in 1959, but it wasn’t released until two years later. Put that in your bag of false construction and smoke it.
My favorite Ray Charles country song is this Buck Owens/Don Rich classic. Dig the harmonies. As Doug Sahm might say, that’s a country groove. “Don’t Let Her Know” appeared on Ray’s 1965 LP, alternately known as Together Again and Country And Western Meets Rhythm And Blues. Both titles work for me. The first is the Buck Owens tune that begins the album and In Buck We Trust. The second is a perfect description of today’s theme.
Together Again/Country And Western Meets Rhythm And Blues features four Buck covers and the other three were all #1 country hits for Owens, including “Together Again” (1964), “I Don’t Care” (1964), “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” (released in 1964, but went #1 in ’65, and then was turned into a swinging bossa nova or “swingova” by Ray).
“Jerry Wexler was saying, ‘OK, now we’ve signed you, now what do we do with you? You’re a preacher, and you don’t want to be classified as rhythm and blues. OK, what do we do with this meatball?’ So they gave me a couple of weeks to think about it, and they called me in and said, ‘We know exactly what we’re gonna do — give him four country and western songs. That’ll teach him, little smart butt.’ I came back and I sang the songs, and Jerry Wexler says, ‘OK, you’re still preaching, young man. You can’t preach in these songs — this is not gospel here. This is supposed to be rhythm and blues, and you’re taking country songs and you’re preaching.’ And Ahmet Ertegun says, ‘Hey, man, let the man sing. He wants to sing soul? Let him sing soul. I don’t care what it is — just sell the record.'”
—Solomon Burke to Derk Richardson, SF Gate, March 17, 2005
Solomon Burke – Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)
Solomon Burke – Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)
Solomon Burke was one of soul music’s early pioneers and has one of the most commanding (and rangy) voices in the history of the genre. However, his first charting single was a country cover that sounded like Chet Atkins could’ve been manning the control board.
“Just Out Of Reach” was recorded by Faron Young in 1952 and Patsy Cline in 1958, but only Young’s cut made much of a dent (#10 country). In 1961, Burke took the song to the R&B charts (#7), and later the pop charts (#24), becoming the first black singer to hit with a country and western tune, though not on the actual C&W charts. In fact, “Just Out Of Reach” peaked in November 1961, predating Ray’s initial C&W foray, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” by roughly six months.
Burke brought his career full-circle in 2006 by releasing his first proper country album, Nashville. Produced by No Depression‘s Artist of the Decade, Buddy Miller, the album is a bit better in theory than in practice, but it’s still worth checking out. After all, how can you go wrong with a Solomon Burke take on Tom T. Hall?
Al Green – I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
Call Me, 1973
Al Green – Funny How Time Slips Away (1973)
Call Me, 1973
In 1973, Al Green released the defining album of his career, the sinewy R&B masterpiece, Call Me. The album featured Al’s sexy voice riding on top of lush strings, smooth horns, and a rhythm section best described as a musical featherbed. For that, you can thank producer, Willie Mitchell. Call Me also conspicuously featured two songs straight outta the country canon, Hank Williams‘ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Willie Nelson‘s “Funny How Time Slips Away.” While both songs were unmistakably transformed into black soul music, the arrangements also served to highlight the fundamental strength of the source material. Bottom line: great songwriting is great songwriting, no matter the genre. In this case, Al took timeless country music and turned it into equally timeless R&B. Everyone wins.
Where Al Green’s take on country music owed far more to the Stax Sound than the Nashville Sound, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown deftly (and somewhat equally) mixed the vernacular music of black and white cultures. What made Gate unique was that his sound was self-consciously pre-rock, pre-soul, and even pre-Nashville Sound. If anything, he was a throwback to that underrated post-WWII era when jump blues, swing jazz, and western swing were all variations of the same swangin’, twangin’ gumbo. In 1977, Brown teamed with Hee Haw’s resident guitar badass, Roy Clark, for a way-under-the-radar Americana showcase, Makin’ Music. Here’s their take on a Harlan Howard classic made famous by Johnny Cash and Ray Charles.
Ted Hawkins was a troubled singer who spent much of his “professional” life busking for change along Venice Beach and who died on January 1, 1995, of a stroke just as his admittedly mercurial career was gaining a bit of momentum. Inspired by Sam Cooke, Hawkins developed a solo style that was an amalgam of folk, country, gospel, and a hint of the blues. This is his interpretation of the old Webb Pierce 1953 smash hit (#1 country for 12 weeks).
Incidentally, if you’ve been wondering why you haven’t read the name Charley Pride to this point, it’s because I was saving his contribution for the sign-off. I recently discovered this clip from The Johnny Cash Show and I think it showcases Charley’s brilliantly intuitive vocal phrasing better than most of his recordings. So, here’s Cash and the one-time New York Yankees farmhand duetting on a medley of Hank Williams tunes.
Charley Pride & Johnny Cash – Hank Williams medley
I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You) + Your Cheatin’ Heart + Kaw-Liga
The Johnny Cash Show
Originally broadcast September 6, 1969