Concord Music has reissued a landmark project in Ray Charles' career. In 1962, he chose to explore white American music heritage. Qwest TV tells the story of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, volumes 1&2.
Have you heard that Beyoncé’s new album is going to be composed entirely of Dixie Chicks covers? Now, just imagine for a moment, that this was a real release . . . do you think this hypothetical pairing of the most iconic, black, contemporary R&B singer with proven crossover country-pop hits could be a success? “Off-brand,” “too risky,” “that’s cultural appropriation,” I imagine bottom-line focused music executives saying about such a project.
Now, time travel back fifty-seven years to 1962 – at the height of the civil rights movement – when Ray Charles, who was the biggest star in R&B of the day, proposed an album entirely composed of songs made famous by white and mostly Southern performers of the country and western musical styles. Billy Joel, the white, R&B-informed piano-man whose persona owes no small debt to Charles, summed-up the album’s audacity: “here is a black man giving you the whitest possible music in the blackest possible way, while all hell is breaking loose with the civil rights movement.”
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and it’s speedily-recorded second volume succeeded in celebrating the shared emotional vocabulary and delivery of the mostly-white country and mostly-black blues idioms. “[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down,” Charles told Rolling Stone’s Ben Fong-Torres. “They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darling, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’”
A concept album before that was a concept, these two records and the runaway hit single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” still stand as one of Charles’ commercial and critical high-water marks. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” sold so well that an Atlanta-based record distributor proclaimed, “people who don’t even own record players are buying it,” while Billboard compared the first volume’s popularity to, “equal in sales action to some of the early Presley disks!”
After his contract with the R&B and jazz-focused Atlantic Records ended in 1959, Ray Charles moved over to ABC-Paramount where he managed to secure an unprecedented (for a black musician) recording contract with complete artistic control. His subsequent albums on the new record label showcased a seemingly incongruous amalgam of gospel, big-band jazz, blues and pop. Then, in 1962, Charles added yet another musical ingredient. “Hillbilly music,” he called it; it was the music of his youth when the sounds of the Grand Ole Opry ruled the airwaves.
Charles entrusted his A&R man and producer, Sid Feller, to help select a repertoire of “modern” country and western tunes, resulting in around 250 songs that Charles whittled down to two dozen split between the two volumes, including country and western classics by Hank Williams (“Hey, Good Lookin’,” “You Win Again” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart”), Don Gibson (“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” and “Oh, Lonesome Me”) and standards like “Careless Love” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
The first volume starts at a breakneck pace with Brother Ray launching into the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bye Bye Love” with a boisterous “hey,” reassuring his R&B fans that his version of country sacrifices neither rhythm nor swing. Similarly, the lead track from Volume Two features Charles’ backup singers, The Raelettes, dueting with Charles on a soulful reading of “You Are My Sunshine.” Despite the kitchen-sink musical approach layering a jazz big-band, orchestration and (often dated and saccharine-sounding) choral backup singers, the accompaniment successfully centers around Charles’ nuanced, soulful vocals, foreshadowing his transition from an R&B and jazz journeyman to a universally-loved pop vocalist.
The blessing of popular and critical success for these albums turned out to be a curse for Charles as it seemed to encourage him to record evermore middle-of-the-road pop, none of which resonated as powerfully with audiences as the Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music recordings. Ray Charles’ bold mixture of cultural influences on these albums not only makes for a thoroughly enjoyable listen, their success bridged the gap between white and black America, as music journalist Robert Christgau explained: “Soon, Charles’ down-home diction, cotton-field grit, corn-pone humor and overstated shows of emotion were standard operating procedure in American music, black and white.” Or, to put it more simply, writer Daniel Cooper wrote of these albums, “It’s an idea as corny as any country song you can think of, and one that Charles knew to be true; music unites people. It just really does.”
Ray Charles, Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 & 2 (Concord)
Concord Music’s recent reissue of these iconic albums finally makes them available on streaming platforms as well as CD and 180g vinyl.