Despite having been celebrated by just about every organization and with every honor that can be laid upon someone considered the greatest living ambassador of soul music, Solomon Burke is disarmingly giddy over making his first country album. “51 years in this business, and you get a Christmas present,” he says from his home in Los Angeles, losing himself in laughter often as he describes his eight-day recording session with singer/songwriter and producer Buddy Miller-who produced Nashville. “And this is like a dream. Some people wait a long time for their dreams to come true, and I waited 45 years to do something that I really loved to do.” Despite having been celebrated by just about every organization and with every honor that can be laid upon someone considered the greatest living ambassador of soul music, Solomon Burke is disarmingly giddy over making his first country album. “51 years in this business, and you get a Christmas present,” he says from his home in Los Angeles, losing himself in laughter often as he describes his eight-day recording session with singer/songwriter and producer Buddy Miller-who produced Nashville. “And this is like a dream. Some people wait a long time for their dreams to come true, and I waited 45 years to do something that I really loved to do.”
Of course, if history had proceeded at a slightly different pace, Burke might have been able to make his Nashville debut much earlier. With a voice that possesses every bit as much sadness and humanity as George Jones, some of Burke’s earliest recordings were renditions of country songs that were soon forgotten when he became one of soul music’s most distinctive artists in the mid-1960s. But where Ray Charles took country music and turned it into lushly produced pop with his iconic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Burke poured himself into country music as it was, using soul music to guide him to the place where the two forms naturally overlap.
Still, Burke had to wait another four decades until he had a chance to explore his love of country music over the course of a full-length release. Having been on quite a winning streak since 2002’s Don’t Give Up on Me signaled his return to the throne of rock ‘n’ soul and reestablished him as an almost forgotten living legend, it wasn’t until a chance meeting with Buddy Miller at the Americana Music Awards that Burke found the man with both the production acumen and address book to make his vision a reality. Nashville became that album.
That address book produced Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Patty Loveless, Gillian Welch and a small army of Nashville’s best session men to ensure that Burke would have the most talented stylists available for his makeover. And while pedal steel, banjo and Dobro aren’t the usual sonic garb for Burke’s throaty groan, the now 66-year-old icon simply does what he always has, giving himself totally to the songs and singing straight from the soul. From the barebones rendition of Tom T. Hall’s classic “That’s How I Got to Memphis” to the glossy countrypolitan strings on Don Williams’ “Atta Way to Go,” Burke seems preternaturally comfortable, imbuing each of the album’s 14 tracks with a sensitivity that proves Nashville is far more than a genre exercise. “For me, this was Nashville. It was my first time ever recording there, the experience was incredible…and I have memories that I will always treasure in my heart and in my mind. I wish I could you tell you some more, but I don’t have any more phone numbers to give you. And I don’t have Dolly’s phone number, which I’ve been asked for 80 times already!”
So when did the idea come up for you to do an album in Nashville?
Well, it was something that I had wanted to do for a long time. Originally, I had started singing country music in 1960 on Atlantic Records, when we did “Just Out of Reach.” It was just a great beginning and a wonderful thing to do, and we got involved so strongly in our soul music and r&b that we were able to sneak in a few more things like “Down in the Valley” and “Detroit City” to try to get a little western flavor going. Later on, we were blessed to do some different things. When the first opportunity came that we had a record company, like Shout! Factory, who said, “Hey, what do you want to do next?” I just threw it out there that I wanted to do a country album. Gospel is the foundation for my roots, and country music has such a message. To be able to move over just a little bit to the right and do something country…it was just a great thing to be able to do.
Did you listen to a lot of country music as you were growing up?
As a kid, we listened to country music, and I had favorite artists like Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers who we remember from the radio and the beginning of television. That’s about it. It wasn’t where we sat at home and listened to country music all the time. I’m from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, so we had a variety of music that we listened to-jazz and blues to classical.
So at what point did you meet Buddy Miller?
I met Buddy Miller when I was honored to sing a song at the Americana Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium, and I thought, this is an opportunity I’d love to take. I had a choice to do it without my band or not do it at all. So I said, “Ok, I won’t do it with my band. I’d be glad to do it with the house band.” And the house band happened to be Buddy Miller. And it was an incredible night, to watch this man come into my dressing room and listen to my record for two-and-a-half minutes and then go out there and play it. It was just incredible. I told my record guy, Wally, “All you guys get together quick and try to get a hold of this guy to make a country record! This guy is the one.” I just felt so happy that we made that decision, because to me, he did it well, he did it right, and he did it differently. It was an amazing, wonderful experience for me.