PopOff Commentary: A Not-So Modern Idea, A Classic Boundary-Breaking Album, and A New Year

For me, 2019 is going to be about my local community and bringing people together as a way to heal this very tribalistic and divided world I live in. And I think it is just perfect that one of the greatest albums to ever unite opposing tribes, Ray Charles’ Modern Sound In Country and Western Music has recently been reissued (both volumes in one package no less) and made available for streaming.

I was born in 1976 and didn’t really take hold of any pop culture until the late 80s, and this album came out in 1962. I was not there personally to see or hear it’s impact. But most of us I would hope know the basics of the early 60s scene: overt segregation and racism was in full effect, the civil rights movement was on the move, and JFK was shot dead in Texas. To say racial tensions were high is an understatement. Though by looking at the music charts at the time, you would think everybody got along just swell, daddy-o!

White and black artists both having hits, selling records, and selling out shows. But in public, largely, these groups did not mix. And in public, rhythm and blues (what we generally call soul today) and country music NEVER mixed.

Yes, in the 50s people like Elvis Presley and – OY! – Pat Boone snatched up the black sound and sold it to the white masses; though Elvis stayed truer to the original sound than the smoke-filled lounge of Boone. But that was the mainstream music malt shop scene. Country music was not mainstream anywhere but the south, and parts of the midwest. You may have had a few hits here and there from folks like Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline who, as a side note, was considered WAY TOO pop for real country traditionalists at the time.

Country music was not the New York assembly line hit machine of of the Brill Building or the Surf sounds and sunshine pop of CA and the west coast. It was a tradition of storytelling, a playing brought over by European immigrants in the 1800s, and prior that, goes back to mainly Ireland, Scotland, Wales ect. It had its own lingo, its own mode of transportation and way of moving and talking in the music world, and its own mythology from drifter songs to murder ballads. And it was certainly not (presented as) black music before 1962.

Yes, I know African-Americans were doing straight up honky-tonk country all along, but as I alluded to above, the genre as a whole (and those controlling country music’s Pearly Gates) presented it as, “whites only.”

The short version of the Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music story is that it united white and black audiences, and black and white music genres. Ray Charles (literally blind to color) knew that even though it’s a cliché, music unites people. And with Ray Charles playing “white music” in a “black” style, the world was better for it then and in the long run.

Not only did Charles himself see a rise of white audiences at his shows (without the usual backlash from the black community) but Nashville and it’s songwriters suddenly found a new fan base in black communities, as well as mainstream white communities.

Future songwriting legends like Cindy Walker (“You Don’t Know Me”), Floyd Tillman (“I Love You So Much It Hurts”), and Ted Daffan (“Born To Lose”) became some of the hottest and go-to writers in all of music. Even country music’s king Hank Williams – nearly 10 years dead by then –  scored a newfound appreciation and audience thanks to Charles tackling “You Win Again” and “Hey Good Looking,” thus proving something I’ve said most of my life.

Choosing what you sing is a very underrated musical skill and can make an artist equally as great or better than some musicians who write their own songs. And you can rest assured if Ray didn’t feel it, he wouldn’t sing it.

Sometimes one selects a song and makes it their own, and sometimes one selects a song and not only makes it their own but makes it the definitive version. Some history making examples include Etta James’ “At Last,” Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me To The Moon,” Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love,” and in the case of Ray Charles and Modern Sounds…, “You Don’t Know Me,” a song that on the surface is a beautiful unrequited love song, but in Ray’s hands, it gets infused with a deeper metaphor about race relations that the songwriters probably didn’t even know were in their own lyrics.

But Ray Charles, I imagine, on some level saw it that way. Now the song is a pop standard alongside the likes of “Summertime” and “Fever,” becoming one of those songs you know, even if you don’t know you know it.

This album opened the door for cross-pollination where there had been none, and we still see the effects today. Just look to the current bro-country scene of the last near decade with Nelly rapping on the Florida Georgia Line track “Crusin‘” and Brad Paisley and LL Cool J teaming up for “Accidental Racist.” These songs owe everything to Ray Charles.

In fact, the bro-country scene as a whole owes much to Modern Sounds… as these trucker hat dudes in mom jeans ape pop sounds and package it as country. The difference between them and Mr. Charles is that as Ray said, “I’m not a country singer, I’m a singer who sings country songs.” And that is a THE KEY to the album’s impact in the mainstream, and more importantly, the country realm itself and why it, unlike today’s mainstream country albums, had crossover success.

Today’s country mega-stars spout the cliché “country music must evolve” every time they get called out for making a pop record and selling it to country fans and radio. They say this because they know they are frauds, yet are breaking records in the country back roads because they know they’d never survive on the actual pop highway.

Ray Charles took the high road back in 1962 and put out a record that by all accounts is pure R’n’B but became one of the top selling country records of all time, and is more country than anything that has been on country radio in the past 5-6 years.

How was this possible in era of segregation and extreme racism? It is rather simple really. He didn’t insult country’s fan base or the culture and history of country music by doing some form of Cowboyface (putting on, boots, a hat, and an accent). He didn’t present a false narrative to about what his music was, or what his life experience was. Volume 2 of Modern Sounds, released not long after Vol. 1, also became a smash. Both are among the best selling country records of the era.

It’s the honesty and authenticity that bridged the racial musical divide and led to people like maestro Buck Owens to claim this album to be an influence, and led to Willie Nelson and Ray Charles becoming good friends and performing partners, recording “Seven Spanish Angels,” a country standard of its own. Heck, because of this record, folks like Owens’ fellow Bakersfield alumni, Merle Haggard brought in horns on the #1 country hit “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

Outside the music itself, Ray Charles, by producing and conceiving the album, became one of the first black artists to be bestowed artistic control by a major record label. And again there are the social ramifications still felt today: the release and success of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is probably one of the top radical moments in the history of music. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to quote Billy Joel, “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.”

I will add to that: no less than uniting the two sides through the power of music.

I did not speak much on the music itself. No track by track analysis here. There is no need. If you’ve heard the album, you know. If you haven’t, you will know.

In either case, in this age of musical tribalism, musical ageism, genre police, and general disdain for critics or opposing views of any sort, it seems people en masse are fed up with fake performers and inauthentic music. And so while uniting people under music is not a modern idea, maybe music should follow Ray’s path: through honesty and authenticity.

And I suggest we do this by supporting the authentic voices in our communities telling our stories in our language. Not the costumed clowns sold to us on YouTube, or singing TV shows, or the new charts, aping what’s hip or trendy in a checklist brand name attempt at a cash grab.

If Ray Charles can unite without a fight, so can we.

Happy New Year, Ya’ll!


Tasty Tracks:

All of them (but I personally love “Half As Much,” “Born To Lose,” “You Win Again,” and “You Don’t Know Me”)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *