Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Volumes 1 & 2

RayCharles_ModernSounds12The genius of soul re-imagines the Nashville songbook

Originally released on ABC-Paramount in 1962, Modern Sounds in Country and Western, was a revelation, both for fans of country music and for fans of Ray Charles. The former had never heard their favorites orchestrated with the depth of soul brought to the table by Ray Charles, and fans of the genius singer had never before heard him indulging his love of country songwriting so deeply. Nashville had adapted to brass and strings in an attempt to create crossover hits, but their charts and players never swung with the sort of big band finesse and bravado of these arrangements, and their vocalists rarely found the grooves mined by Charles. The second volume, issued the same year, follows the same template, with Nashville standards rearranged and conducted by Gerald Wilson and Marty Paich, and recording split between New York and Hollywood.

Having been a country music fan since his youth, Charles evidently didn’t hear any line that would separate him from the Nashville songbook. His recording supervisor, Sid Feller, was tasked with gathering songs, and ABC, thinking the whole ideas was a lark, left the pair alone to follow Charles’ muse. The album spun off four hit singles, including a chart-topping remake of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and a heartbreaking cover of Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” that fell just one rung shy of the top. Marty Paich’s strings brilliantly underline and shadow Charles’ vocals, adding atmosphere without ever intruding or overwhelming the singer or the song. Track after track, Charles, his arrangers and his band find wholly new ways through these songs, turning “Half as Much” into mid-tempo jazz, layering string flourishes into “Born to Lose,” laying the blues on “It Makes No Difference Now” and punching up “Bye Bye Love” and “Hey Good Lookin’” with big band sizzle.

Volume two may not have been as much of a surprise, but neither was it a second helping. Gerald Wilson’s soul vision of “You Are My Sunshine,” expertly rendered by Charles and a swinging horn section, leaves few traces of the song’s mid-20th century origin. Charles, spurred by backing vocals from the Raeletts, sounds like he’s reeling off a personal tale of devotion rather than singing someone else’s lyric. The Raeletts provide an edge to side one’s New York sessions, with the Jack Halloran Singers sitting in on side two’s Hollywood takes. Both album sides yielded hit singles, including a pained reading of “Take These Chains From My Heart,” and a slow, mournful take on “Your Cheating Heart.” As with the first volume, Charles finds a directness in country songwriting that matches the expression he developed with the blues.

Country music and Charles’ career each received a boost from these albums. Nashville expanded its audience outside its core region, Nashville songwriters found new ears for their songs, and Charles gained an influx of fans who might otherwise have never bought R&B records. These were all lasting marks, as Charles’ fame continued to expand, and country music gained new flavors for its crossover dreams. Concord’s reissue includes the two volumes’ original twenty-four tracks, full-panel cover art (front and back!), original liner notes for each, and new liners by Bill Dahl. Volume one previously appeared as a standalone CD in the 1980s, but the complete volume two only appeared on the (out-of-print) box set The Complete Country & Western Recordings 1959-1986. This single disc is the perfect way to get Charles’ 1962 country sessions in one sweet package. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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