Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
[Volumes 1 & 2]
First Appeared in The Music Box, July 2009, Volume 16, #7
Written by John Metzger
Mon July 13, 2009, 06:30 AM CDT
Forty-seven years after Ray Charles shattered boundaries with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, the concept of turning a pile of twang-y hits into soul-inflected fare is not terribly far-fetched. When he first proposed his project to the executives at ABC/Paramount in 1962, however, Charles left them scratching their heads, puzzled over the path that their new R&B star was wanting to follow. Having granted him complete artistic control via a new contract, though, there was little that any of them could do but hope he was correct.
In hindsight, Charles’ approach wasn’t as absurd as it initially had appeared. After all, artists such as Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, and Jerry Lee Lewis had been fusing a similar array of styles together for the better part of the previous decade. Likewise, Charles recognized that the thematic concepts of love, loss, sin, and redemption were common to both country and R&B songs. The difference, then, was largely a matter related to his race.
Charles essentially turned the tables on his counterparts by boldly assimilating white-bred music into an African-American framework. This move, of course, wasn’t without risk. Although he had scored his first crossover hit in 1959 with What’d I Say, there was no guarantee that Charles’ mainstream appeal would last. In fact, dabbling in country music seemed like a surefire way to undercut his momentum. When Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was released, African-American artists, like Chuck Berry and Chubby Checker, were just beginning to reach a younger generation, which had succumbed to the power of rock ’n‘ roll. Country music was an entirely different proposition, though, and, of course, the Civil Rights Act was still two years away from becoming law.
As usual, however, Charles’ instincts were right on target: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music immediately became a smash success from both commercial and critical perspectives. Within a few months, Charles returned to the studio to record 12 additional tracks, which formed the basis for the outing’s similarly titled sequel. Without a doubt, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volume 2 is inherently less groundbreaking than its predecessor. As strange as it may seem, though, it also features performances by Charles that arguably are more assured.
Throughout the first installment of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Charles oscillated between using gentle string accompaniments that had been sculpted by Marty Paich and employing big-band arrangements that had been concocted by Gerald Wilson and Gil Fuller. On the album’s opening track Bye Bye Love, punchy horns were united with the call-and-response vocals of The Raelettes, and Charles’ breezy piano interlude spiked the Louis Prima-meets-Louis Jordan reworking of Hank Williams’ Hey Good Lookin’. Charles had begun his career emulating Nat King Cole, and not surprisingly, he fell back into a familiar pattern during the collection’s numerous ballads as he crooned his way through I Love You So Much It Hurts and Born to Lose.
Any hesitancy that Charles exhibited during the recording of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music had faded into the distance by the time that he began to work on the album’s second act. Charles still was modeling his vocals upon Cole, but it became less blatant and discernable in his approach. On I’ll Never Stand in Your Way, Charles scuffed up Cole’s polished precision. Elsewhere, he evoked more gospel and blues flavors, elevating the anguish in Your Cheating Heart as well as the weariness in Midnight.
Neither volume of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music really was meant to be heard in one piece. Both albums were, after all, products of the vinyl era. Placed in sequence on a single disc, they still feel like four distinctive sides, each of which has its own stylistic continuity. If anything, pairing these two outings together magnifies their strengths and their weaknesses. In the end, however, there’s little doubt that with Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music: Volumes 1 & 2, Charles had crafted a pair of endeavors that were as daring and culturally significant as any in his canon.
Of Further Interest...
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music: Volumes 1 & 2
is available from Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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