Forty-seven years ago, in the middle of African-American Civil Rights Movement, Ray Charles created the landmark album Modern Sounds in Country and Western. The liner notes reveal he began the project by asking record label executive Sid Feller “for top country and western hits of the [previous] twenty years.” Ray’s interpretations of these songs revealed a common humanity between the races and supported his thesis that if “you take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.”
After having previously brought together the sacred and profane with his combining of gospel and rhythm & blues, eventually labeled as soul music, Modern Sounds is just as dramatic a synthesis, intentional or not, that challenged the way people thought about music and each other. The love songs Ray performs tell tales universally identifiable, as common in country music as they are in the blues, which is why both blacks and whites embraced it. Ray not only gained white listeners without alienating his black audience, but he brought the country-music genre to the attention of pop-music watchers. In an interview for Country Music Television, Willie Nelson said Modern Sounds was so influential it “did more for country music than any one artist has ever done.”
The critically acclaimed album was number one on the Pop Albums charts for 14 weeks. It spawned the Grammy Award-winning “I Can't Stop Loving You,” which topped the Pop Singles, Black Singles, and Easy Listening charts to the surprise of Feller who buried it as the second-to-last song because he thought it was the album’s weakest track. Three other singles were also released: “Born to Lose,” “You Don't Know Me,” and “Careless Love.”
The great success quickly led to Volume 2, released six months later. The arrangements on both albums find Ray either backed by a big band and the Raelettes or an orchestra and choir. On Volume 1, the first 12 tracks here, the sequence alternates. It opens with an up-tempo, big band rendition of “Bye Bye Love,” a previous hit for The Everly Brothers, and then presents the woeful “You Don't Know Me,” preparing the listener for the two contrasting styles. On Volume 2, the final 12 tracks here, the original release took the LP format into consideration and presented the big band numbers on Side One with Side Two featuring the orchestra and the Jack Halloran Singers.
Ray’s vocals are very evocative and his piano playing augments the mood throughout. He even delivers an original song, “Careless Love,” which seamlessly fits alongside his renditions of Hank Williams and Don Gibson songs. Other standout performances include tenor saxophone solos by Don Wilkerson (“Half As Much”) and David “Fathead” Newman (“Just A Little Lovin’”), and featured Raelette Margie Hendrix sharing the spotlight on Jimmie Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine.”
While the historical context is not evident solely from listening to them, both volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western are compelling. The way Ray adapts the work of others and makes them his own (Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart” is barely recognizable) clearly demonstrates how he earned the nickname “Genius.”