Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music
Released April, 1962

This week gives us the album “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” by Ray Charles, released April, 1962. Old mate Charles was a prolific bugger and released a steady stream of albums from 1957 onwards. He had a tough life, raised in the south of America . It was here he grew to love both the blues of the south and country and western music, believing that the lyrical content was very similar. By the time he recorded “Modern Sounds” Charles had moved on indie label Atlantic where he played a crude mix of R& B and gospel and had signed to ABC-Paramount in a massive deal in which he could pretty much record whatever he wanted. In a move that would confuse everyone, he used his creative control to record his beloved country and western music in an R&B/soul style. It was a moved that was doubted by many of his peers and the people in his record label. The period in which he was recording it was known for its racial segregation and it was not seen as a wise move for a black man to record ‘white’ music. Not only was it the most successful move of his career, it also had a massive influence on the Civil Rights Movement. In the process he helped bring country music to a whole new audience. “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” is Ray Charles most successful album and it had massive commercial and critical success.

I had no idea what to expect with this album and naively thought it would be a black man singing country songs in a country style. How wrong I was. What it actually is, is a black man singing country songs in a black style but with a massive orchestra and choir bringing in a white style. Confused? Yeah, I was too. I just didn’t get it to begin with. I didn’t really connect with this album on my first few listens. It felt over-produced and too polished. To be honest I often felt like I was listening to the soundtrack of an old school Disney movie with all of the orchestration and choral singing. After about four listens things started to turn around a bit. By the time the fifth listen came around I had fallen in love with Mr Charles’ ragged tones. I thought Otis Redding had soul a couple of weeks ago but I reckon Ray Charles gives him a good run for his money. I’m listening again to “Modern Sounds” as I’m writing this and I’m still surprised at how much I’m enjoying considering how much I disliked on the first few listens.

Country and western music is lyrically very honest and I think it is this is where this album excel. Ray Charles’ voice is so honest and believable that when you couple that with the simple country and western lyrics here it’s hard not to feel something. By all means I should hate this album. It has all the things I’ve been discovering I don’t really like in music – country & western, a big orchestral/choral sound, unnecessary production  and it has marketing gimmick written all over it. But god damn if I didn’t fall hopelessly in love with Mr Charles. There is just something so charming that despite all of the elements I didn’t like I still fell in love with songs like ‘You Don’t Know Me’, ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’, ‘Careless Love’ and a favourite from my childhood ‘Hey, Good Lookin’.

Don’t get me wrong, I did struggle getting through the whole album. No matter how much I love the man’s voice there is only so many ‘Disneyfied’ arrangements one can handle. Last week I said I admired Patsy Cline for what she achieved and stood for, but I was pretty quick to delete it off the iPod. Songs from this album however will remain as all week I’ve found myself walking around singing them, unable to get them out of my head.  I’m not ready to let this one go yet. Thank you Ray Charles for helping me find beauty where I was least expecting it.

I was disappointed by this Ray Charles album, even if the title does tell you exactly what it’s going to be. It’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. It’s very pretty and all that, but when you know what Ray Charles is capable of – his up beat, energetic rhythm and blues tracks like ‘What’d I Say’ and ‘I’ve Got A Woman’, released in the 50s – “ Modern Sounds” is much too sleepy for my liking. There are two exceptions, and conveniently, they are the first and last tracks. The first so you want to keep listening, and the last so it leaves a good taste in your mouth, hopefully making you forget the lullabies in the middle. I don’t think ‘Bye Bye Love’ necessarily fits in to the country and western mould, but it’s great fun, even if the lyrics aren’t great fun for the narrator. Even if most of the songs are a bit dull for my liking, at least they all show off Ray’s amazing piano abilities. I reckon his pianoing is even more impressive, considering how he can’t see using his eyes or anything. His voice is brilliant as well, but you don’t need to be able to see to sing well. I guess it would be remiss of me to not mention the orchestral arrangement. They sure add a sense of drama to the country ballads, and fill the recording out a lot, the horns providing a dramatic sound, and the strings adding a melancholy atmosphere. (I feel like I say melancholy a lot… Is there another word for it?) I know this album was immensely successful, earning Grammy nominations and awards, I just think Ray’s more energetic offerings are better than country and western. Though most things are better than country and western.

Well, my BA (Before Afyccim) knowledge of Ray Charles was pretty much limited to one of my favourite songs ever, ‘I Gotta Woman’ (as re-modelled by Kanye West and Jamie Foxx in “Gold Digger”). So, I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I certainly wasn‘t prepared for the croony sounds that “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” delivered.  That’s not to say that I didn’t like this album; quite the contrary actually. As the album title suggests, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” presents a blending of country and western music with rhythm and blues and soul, and at the time served as the perfect means to develop C & W standards into a more contemporary sound. For the most part the album is a bit OTT for my liking, sounding very Big Band and way too polished. And what’s with those hideous close-vocal sections that sound like they belong on a Bing Crosby Christmas Album? They’re just too much. Despite these negatives, I had a couple of favourites, namely ‘You Don’t Know Me’  – for its believability due in part to Charles’ emotional delivery – and of course the cheeky ‘Hey Good Lookin’ for the clever use of metaphors, its funky piano solos, and its theme of throwing caution to the wind. In true country and western style, the songs are about love, longing and heartbreak, which are all themes and lyrics that lent themselves well to the rhythm and blues and soul style into which they would be re-shaped. The parts of the album that I enjoyed were the quieter moments that didn’t sound like they came straight off the soundtrack for a chick flick. Overall, an enjoyable album that would compliment any dinner party or would be nice enjoyed with Sunday morning cups of tea, and definitely one that should be found in any serious music lover’s vinyl collection, mine included.

I can see why this album would have been groundbreaking in 1962; a blind African-American performing country standards written by white people, and infusing them with gospel and swing sensibilities? This concept could have destroyed Ray’s career, but he famously said that if he played it right, he’d gain more fans that he’d lose. The problem with looking at an album like this fifty years after it was released is having no real appreciation of the impact or shock it caused. Not being alive at that time, I have to judge this on its musical merits alone, although I can appreciate the influence this would have had on other artists. So, I’m going to say right here that I didn’t enjoy this album. The arrangements are saturated with syrupy backing vocals, that makes the record sound five or ten years older that it actually is. Many of the songs are overproduced with the strings and brass becoming the dominant texture, dwarfing Ray’s vocals. The only track that seems to showcase his singing and piano-playing is the last one, a great cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Hey, Good Lookin’, which is by far the best thing on this album. I actually didn’t mind ‘Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)’ either. Two of the most well known cuts here are ‘Born to Lose’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’ which both bore me to tears. I don’t need to hear yet another version of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and the attempt to swing up opening track ‘Bye Bye Love’ is one of the biggest misfires on the album. If I want to listen to Ray Charles, I’ll bust out ‘Mess Around’, ‘I Got a Woman’, and, of course, ‘What’d I Say?’. This isn’t the Ray for me. I prefer him lively and pounding those keys.

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