Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volumes 1 & 2

Ray Charles
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volumes 1 & 2
(Concord)
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Those first hearing Ray Charles’ initial full-blown foray into country music may wonder why so many critics, and artists as iconic as Willie Nelson, have praised it so effusively since its initial appearance nearly six decades ago. Nelson is quoted as saying, “With his recording of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.” After all, the sugary strings and schlocky background voices that nearly overwhelm some songs seem hopelessly mild, especially in relationship to Charles’ early, powerful work combining raw blues, gospel and soul.  

But back in the segregated early ’60s, the idea of a black rhythm-and-blues/jazz star singing country was a radical concept. However, the near-unanimous accolades and impressive sales of these albums — Volume 1 was a top Billboard hit — ushered Charles into full-blown crossover stardom. The music is historic in its ability to bring the races somewhat together in an era of extreme divisiveness. It also raised the profile of country tunes, a genre that was generally frowned upon by the mainstream, who, at the time, considered it mere entertainment for hillbillies.

Considering the influence and popularity of these Ray Charles sides, it’s odd they’ve been out of print for years and never been available on streaming services. That changes with this single disc combining all 24 tunes that Charles recorded for both collections released in 1962. While we can lament the MIA status of 1998’s comprehensive Rhino four disc box, which compiled all of Charles’ C&W work from 1959-1986 and included an impressive hardback 56-page book, at least these seminal recordings are back in the marketplace. The rather skimpy booklet includes the original liner notes of both releases and an informative 2009 essay by veteran journalist Bill Dahl.  

The songs loosely break down into these categories; big band, sort of Rat Pack Vegas-styled arrangements of tunes like “Bye Bye Love” and “Oh Lonesome Me,” string and background vocal-filled ballads such as “Your Cheating Heart” and “Born to Lose,” and more R&B/gospel-inflected material with the Raeletts backing on “Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles” and “Midnight.” Despite the over-production, Charles is in spirited voice throughout. Even when the horns and vocals threaten to smother him, Charles’ soulful singing comes to the rescue, as on his emotional version of Hank Williams’ “Take These Chains.”

The singer/pianist (he had stopped writing songs by this stage) really clicks when adding Latin rhythms and duet singer Margie Hendrix, a ringer for Aretha Franklin, on a rollicking “You Are My Sunshine.” The set’s biggest hit was Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” — a Billboard chart topper for five weeks in 1962 — that works despite the intrusive, angelic singers and goopy strings, due to Charles’ passionate vocal. While his piano isn’t a major part of these sessions, it’s often present and brings a churchy feel, even when nearly obscured by the production. 

It’ll take some adjusting to deal with Charles’ slick, ultra-commercial versions of these old-school country/western and countrypolitan gems. But understanding how drastic a career move this was for the era, it makes more sense. Even with faults, these two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western remain required listening for Americana fans and their reappearance is worth celebrating.