I don't really think of Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 and 2 as country albums. Like everything Charles took on, the music he recorded in 1962 was more about his take on an established genre than an attempt to mimic it. But in some ways, Modern Sounds isn't really an interpretive album either. When put in perspective with the racially charged times in 1961 and 1962, Modern Sounds becomes a civil rights statement—a calming message from one Southerner to all Southerners. The gambit could have backfired badly given what was going on in the South at the time. Modern Sounds didn't backfire, of course. Instead, the two volumes became landmark releases that shrewdly bridged the racial cultural divide, proving that music is about talent and passion, not the color of an artist's skin.
Charles was no stranger to country and western music. Growing up in Florida, Charles listened regularly to the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and had many of the country classics firmly in his head. As a blind adolescent, Charles saw little difference between country and the blues. Both genres were built on personal stories of hard luck, drinking, obsessions, adultery, heartbreak, missed opportunities and young love. And like the blues, country required enormous emotion and conviction to be credible.
But back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, country music was code for white, and blues meant black. The fact that Charles, a major African-American gospel r&b artist, even wanted to record a country album raised commercial and racial red flags. Initially, ABC-Paramount wasn't keen on Charles' idea for a country project, fearing that his core r&b audience would view him as a sell-out and that country audiences might view his interpretations as disrespectful.
Charles insisted, having wanted to record a country album since his last years at Atlantic Records. ABC-Paramount relented, and the first album rolled forward, with producer Sid Feller [pictured with Ray Charles] hauling in hundreds of songs on tape from country music publishers. Said Feller, in Bill Dahl's liner notes to the newly issued CD that unites both volumes:
"I weeded it out to about 40 tapes. I edited them all onto one tape and sent it to [Charles]. And from that, he picked the 12 for the first album. And then a lot of them were left over. He did them on the second album."
Listening to Modern Sounds today, you hear Ray getting his twang on but not abandoning his soulful feel for the songs' stories. Said Charles in Brother Ray: Ray Charles' Own Story with David Ritz:
"I was only interested in two things: being true to myself and being true to the music. I wasn't trying to be the first black country singer. I only wanted to take country songs and sing them my way, not the country way. I wasn't aware of any bold act on my part or any big breakthrough."
And yet I Can't Stop Loving You, Born to Lose, Take These Chains, You Are My Sunshine, Busted and You Don't Know Me all became hits, which according to Charles gave him a larger white audience than a black one. Meanwhile, I Can't Stop Loving You quickly became a hit with black audiences.
But Charles' decision in 1962 to record a country album had other motivations. Keenly aware of events unfolding in the segregationist South, Charles yearned to make a subtle statement—one that he could issue musically and personally. By choosing country, Charles was demonstrating that there was no black and white, only feelings and song. By calling the album Modern Sounds, Charles was bypassing the Old South and reaching out to the hearts of Southern listeners. As Charles told Ritz:
"By the time I was 30 or 32 [1960 or 1962], I had acquired the habit of listening to the news every morning on the radio and watching it every night on TV. I kept up. But I didn't need no radio or television to tell me what was happening down South. I was right there, baby. That was still fertile territory for my music, and I got to feel those crazy vibrations firsthand, in the flesh."
Modern Sounds didn't halt the South's harsh treatment of blacks. But the album certainly must be considered another milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. It was a public expression by a leading musician about the audacity and absurdity of segregation. The album showed rural white audiences that a black artist could take their revered songs and treat them just as skillfully and emotionally as the white artists who made them famous.
To put Charles' Modern Sounds in perspective, one must reflect on the events swirling around Charles in mid-1961, when he began advocating for the country project. In May, "Freedom Riders" were bused in from the North to test the desegregation of Southern bus stations. Riders were beaten by mobs in Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., as well as other parts of the South. The Freedom Rides continued during the summer, with at least 1,000 people participating throughout the region.
Two months after Modern Sounds was released in April 1962, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered James Meredith [pictured] admitted to the University of Mississippi. Just after Volume 2 was being recorded in early September, the state's governor blocked Meredith from registering, forcing President Kennedy to send 400 federal marshals to the state university and to federalize the Mississippi National Guard.
A mob of more than 2,000 people attacked the marshals, who were reinforced by the National Guard. On October 1st, U.S. army troops arrived from Memphis to restore order. That day, Meredith finally was registered by the university.
As these battles raged on, singles from the Modern Sounds albums climbed the Billboard Top Pop charts one after the next, with I Can't Stop Loving You reaching #1 in the summer 1962. The result was a straw vote by record buyers nationwide that foreshadowed what would come two years later—The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 and 2 remain Charles' most sophisticated and daring recordings for reasons that embrace and transcend art.
JazzWax tracks: Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volumes 1 & 2 has just been released by Concord Records. You'll find the album as an iTunes and Amazon download, or as a CD here.
JazzWax clip: Bret Primack recently directed and produced a video podcast clip in support of Concord's release of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Vols. 1 & 2...