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Music Review: Solomon Burke – Nashville

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In Dream Boogie, Peter Guralnick's fantastic biography of soul music innovator Sam Cooke, very few people come off completely well. Cooke, for all his genius and generosity was an avid womanizer with a boundless ego. Sometime tour-mate Johnny "Guitar" Watson often slagged off touring because pimping paid better. Little Richard, well, the less said of his freaky-deaky exploits the better for us all. Better to think of him as the king of "R&B uptempo! R&B uptempo! WOOOOOOOO!" than as a tortured soul with poor impulse control and a Bible whose margins he filled with scrawled records of his sins.

One of the only figures in the entire book who seems like someone you'd trust with your house keys is soul-gospel-blues singer, "The King of Rock & Soul," Solomon Burke. A religious man (he was preaching from the age of twelve) he (according to Guralnick) was more famous for cooking up fried chicken for his tour mates than for any epic feats of sin and dissipation.

Burke was one of the yeomen of the early soul period. He racked up a number of hits and a great deal of respect among his peers in the late 1950s and 1960s as a performer and singer of gospel-country-soul-blues rave-ups and confessions, but he never quite cracked the upper reaches of the pop charts. Although his career never reached the critical mass of a James Brown or a Ray Charles, he continued releasing albums throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and also returned to his roots as a minister. And although his popularity waned over time, his albums remained, if not inspired or inspiring, refreshingly free of self-parody or outright desperation.

A few years ago, Burke signed with the good people at Fat Possum Records, one of the keepers of the true flame of the deep blues, and released what turned out to be a comeback album, 2002's Don't Give Up On Me. For that project, Burke was paired with young indie rock producer Joe Henry, who (yes, just like Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash) sat Burke down in a comfortable chair with a batch of songs by top-notch writers, and made sure that Burke's own church organist was sitting in on the sessions to boot. The result was a landmark career revival, as good as any of Johnny Cash's comeback records, Loretta Lynn's comeback record, or that of any other formerly neglected rootsy legend you might care to name.

Burke's latest album is Nashville, a collection of country songs, reinterpreted in his own style.

But I need to interrupt these proceedings to talk a little about what that means, "country." What is "country?" One answer is, "it's what's on the country charts," but I don't mostly like that answer. What's on the charts is crap. Another answer is "anything that Hank wrote." That's a pretty good answer, but limiting. Another answer, according to Solomon Burke himself in an interview I did with him recently is, "[T]his whole thing about country music and soul music and gospel music just wears me out. The truth is that for me, these are all separating categories that do a disservice to music. Because if you go back and listen to my work through the years, you will see that regardless of the category, it all comes down to a message of love."

That works for me.

Solomon Burke has some seriously high-profile fans. Don't Give Up On Me featured songs by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bob Dylan, Nick Lowe, and Van Morrison, and Nashville is just as studded with talent, including songs by Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, George Jones, Bruce Springsteen(!), Patty Griffin, Don Willams, and more. Moreover, many of his female song contributors (Parton, Welch, Griffin, Patty Loveless, and Emmylou Harris) actually appear as duet partners on the album.

From the first notes of the opening "That's How I Got To Memphis," a country standard written by Tom T. Hall, Burke infuses each song with truckloads of expression and emotion, bending his voice into a whine, a howl, a barely veiled sob, wrenching every bit of meaning out of the words he's singing. The result is probably the best album I've heard in 2006, an amazing set of performances by an artist who's old enough not to give a damn anymore about how much he's going to sell, but deeply concerned with making music that hits the spot.

Highlights (from an album full of highlights) include "Valley of Tears," which is a plaintive and ragged duet with Gillian Welch, the aforementioned saga of misplaced devotion, "That's How I Got To Memphis," the love-gone-bad lament of "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," written by producer Buddy Miller and his wife Julie, the quiet devotion of "Up On The Mountain," with a deeply affecting, nearly wordless duet contribution from songwriter Patty Griffin, and a stunning performance of "Atta Way To Go," a Don Williams song that Miller produces in the ornamented style of George Jones' hits with Billy Sherrill, and which Burke takes from an intimate chat to an over-the-top cry of anguish without apparent strain to his considerable vocal gifts.

And what a gift! Burke's voice has burnished with time, and at 66 he is in total command of his instrument. He can growl, whisper, moan, plead, cry, laugh, even give an evil cackle without breaking the musicality of his singing, and he has a flair for the dramatic and the theatrical that doesn't ever descend into mere melodrama. His performances on Nashville are thrilling, and his ability to adapt himself to the style of his duet partners is a welcome treat.

However, the single weak spot on the album is in Emmylou Harris' wan and marginal vocal contribution. Though he tries mightily, Burke can do nothing delicately enough to keep her from practically disappearing from sight. This might be a simple matter of song choice, as Burke and Harris are paired on the George Jones-Tammy Wynette classic "We're Gonna Hold On," and Harris is a far, far lighter singer than Wynette ever was. But regardless of why, in an album full of inspired performances from all parties, Emmylou Harris is, surprisingly, the only weak patch.

In keeping with Burke's stated disdain for genre titles, the styles represented on Nashville run the gamut from bluegrass (on Springsteen's "I Ain't Got You") to countrypolitan to country blues to gospel and beyond. "Country" is a concept as hard to pin down as "soul," or what the Spanish call "duende." To play flamenco music you have to have duende – you either have it, or you don't, and you can only tell it's there when you hear it, but without it flamenco music is just some fool playing the guitar really, really fast. Same with soul and country. You know soul when you hear it, and you know country music when you hear it (in everything from Travis Tritt to Tom Waits, from Kitty Wells to Neko Case), and what Burke's got on this album is the Platonic idea, the eidos of both of those things in spades.

At age 66, Solomon Burke is at the top of his game and deserves a fuller dose of the belated success that has come to him in recent years. Nashville is a spectacular album, and he can be proud of what he's done. People spend so much time talking about the ridiculous exploits of artists, searching for evidence of genius in dickish behavior, that it's easy to believe that a man who's good at making chicken, whose day job is looking after souls, couldn't possibly possess that same secret flame. Well, crap to that. Solomon Burke is the real deal, and Nashville is God's honest proof.

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