I haven’t written an entry for two weeks now, and its been mostly because I haven’t been sure what to do with this album. I’ve listened to it start to finish a few times, and was a little caught off guard. I love Ray Charles and specifically, my friend helped me clarify that I love the live music I’ve heard from Ray Charles. But something shocked me when I listened to this album. It wasn’t as soulful and expressive as I expected. At least, not on the first listen.
When I first listened to Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, I thought it sounded like Ray Charles was singing over the background tracks of really white music. The precision and stiffness of the choral background tracks, and the string arrangements…it just didn’t seem to add up for me. But I listened to this album a few more times, and finally, decided to do some reading, and discovered the songs from this album were selected from about 250 country and western songs that one of Ray’s producers sought out for him. He selected the final tracks on the album, but wanted to make his own versions of these tracks. Ray played piano in a hill-billy band when he was young, and so he was heavily influenced by country music in his early days. He also said that country and western music is just like blues and jazz, and that the lyrics are not smoothed out the same way that other music might be – they are honest, they are blunt, they say it like it is. And I can definitely say I agree with this. Most country songs I’m familiar aren’t incredibly poetic, rather they tell a story in clear and plain English and that story is what people connect to. My understanding of this album is that Ray believed the same thing was true of Blues, and as a result, he fused the two genres by taking country and western songs and making his own R&B, blues, and jazz versions of them.
And so, with this context in mind, I re-listened to the album and discovered a whole new sound and an entirely new experience. Suddenly, this album has so much more weight as an artistic expression and also as a piece of musical and social history. Ray combines the two genres with ease and every song sounds like his own. Before, I thought Ray was not as soulful and expressive as other recordings I’ve heard, but now that I listen with a new perspective I feel like he kind of tricked me. Like this album was so much smarter than I imagined it to be when I first listened. He is soulful and soft and honest on tracks like “It Makes No Difference Now”, and with the slow and easy horns and drums on this track, it feels like its straight from Ray and nobody else, like there never was version of this song before this album was released. Some of my personal favourites are “Hey, Good Lookin'” from the original release, and “Here We Go Again”, which was on the 1988 re-release of the album, possibly because I feel like they both capture the deep, soulful vocals that so many of us know and love about Ray Charles. I never knew this was a country cover until I was researching this album, but now that I do, it seems completely obvious that the main vocal line has country influences.
So yes, Charles was successful at combining Country and Western music with Blues and Jazz, two genres which he already said were so similar. What’s even more exciting about this album is that it was one of the best selling albums by a black recording artist at the time. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was released in April of 1962, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The combining of genres on this album was symbolic of the movement to move past racism and prejudices. The recording significantly increased the amount of white listeners that Ray had, without losing his established listener base, which was mostly black. This album was a unification of American music and of American society, and as a result, it is incredibly significant in music history.
I have to admit, I was getting annoyed over the last two weeks, thinking about this album, wondering what I really had to say about it. Now I’ve been pleasantly surprised, and I actually think this has been one of the most transformative listening experiences for me so far, because my opinion and my view of the album changed so much from the first time I listened to it, until now. I’m really thrilled that I had such a fascinating learning experience from listening to this album. That’s what this project is all about.
Enjoy and please let me know your thoughts, as well.
- Bye Bye Love
- You Don’t Know Me
- Half as Much
- I Love You So Much It Hurts
- Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)
- Born to Lose
- Worried Mind
- It Makes No Difference Now
- You Win Again
- Careless Love
- I Can’t Stop Loving You
- Hey, Good Lookin’