Ray Charles’ Country Impact Spotlighted by Modern Sounds Reissue, Panel Discussion

“The biggest mistake in country music was not marketing it to black people,” Shannon Sanders asserted during a panel discussion on Ray Charles held Saturday (Feb. 23) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

A Grammy-winning producer of albums by India Arie and Jonny Lang, Sanders was part of a panel that included recording artist Travis Tritt, who co-headlined with Charles on a CMT Crossroads special in 2002, and John Burk, president of Concord Records and producer of Charles’ 2004 Grammy-winning album, Genius Loves Company. The Hall of Fame’s Michael Gray moderated.

The panel was a tie-in to Concord’s re-issuance last week of Charles’ ground-breaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Volumes 1 & 2 as well as an implicit salute to Black History Month. Concord has made the Modern Sounds albums available via CD, vinyl and digital.

Charley Pride’s breaching of country music’s unacknowledged color barrier was still four years away when Charles released his soulful cover versions of country standards in 1962, just as the Civil Rights movement was burgeoning.

Oddly enough, although many of these covers became pop hits, none crossed back over to country radio and, thus, into the country charts. It was only in the 1980s, after Charles signed to Columbia Records’ Nashville division, that he charted as a country artist. His biggest and only No. 1 song was “Seven Spanish Angels,” a duet with Willie Nelson.

Modern Sounds, Volume 1 topped Billboard’s pop albums charts for 14 weeks and yielded the No. 1 pop single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which stayed at the peak for five consecutive weeks. It achieved similar eminence on the R&B and adult contemporary charts. The song had originally been a Top 10 country hit in 1958 for its composer, Don Gibson.

The success of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was hardly a fluke for Charles or for country music. His recordings of “You Don’t Know Me,” “You Are My Sunshine” and “Take These Chains From My Heart” went No. 2, No. 7 and No. 8 respectively as pop singles.

“He brought so much soul and such a different character to those songs [that he] made them his own,” said Tritt. Sanders noted that the elements that made Charles’ renditions so distinctive were “the nuances, the subtle things, the way he ends a phrase. … He wasn’t really over the top.”

R. Diamond/WireImage

R. Diamond/WireImage

“Ray Charles should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Tritt proclaimed, eliciting a burst of applause from the audience. “I don’t know of anyone who’s done more to promote country music. … He opened up a whole lot of doors for a whole lot of people.”

Burk told of working with Charles in mounting the album that would become Genius Loves Company, including getting the albums placed in Starbucks. He said he suggested and secured the guest artists who’d participate in the collection while Charles generally chose the songs.

Both Tritt and Burk spoke good-humoredly of Charles’ business acumen. Tritt said that for the CMT special, Charles agreed to do only so many songs for the money offered him. When it appeared that the program would fall two songs short, Tritt was drafted to sweet talk Charles into doing them within budget. And, despite his great trepidation, he succeeded, thus ensuring the show would go on. Recalling the joy of singing with his idol, Travis said, “I’ve never had a better day than that.”

Burk said Charles demanded a 90-piece orchestra to back his and Willie Nelson’s rendering of “It Was a Very Good Year.” He would pay for it if he had to, he said, but he much preferred that Concord to do it. Besides shouldering the cost, the label also had to rent a special recording facility to accommodate so many musicians. This largesse did not render Charles any less wary. “I ain’t buying nobody lunch,” he declared.

A video clip preceding the discussion showed Charles singing “Ring of Fire” on a 1970 episode of The Johnny Cash Show. Ever the businessman, Charles used the occasion to mention his current album, Love Country Style.

Tritt said he and Charles hit it off immediately because of their shared backgrounds and musical tastes. “He started telling me when we first met about growing up and listening to the Grand Ole Opry. I did too.” As if that similarity were not enough, Charles revealed he had once played in a bluegrass band, thus tapping into another of Tritt’s musical enthusiasms.

At the end of the discussion, Valerie June, a Memphis native who records for Concord, accompanied herself on acoustic guitar for endearing performances of “Careless Love,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “You Are My Sunshine.”

Al Schmitt was studio engineer for six songs on Modern Sounds, Volume 2: “Take These Chains From My Heart,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’ll Never Stand in Your Way,” “Making Believe,” “Teardrops in My Heart” and “Hang Your Head in Shame.” Still active in recording, he engineered Trisha Yearwood’s new album, Let’s Be Frank.

Modern Sounds was Schmitt’s second recording encounter with Charles, his first having been the Ray Charles and Betty Carter project in 1961. Speaking to CMT.com by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Schmitt noted that Charles cut all six songs in one day.

“In those days, all the musicians were in the studio, along with Ray, who played piano and sang. There were no earphones, there were no vocal booths or isolation booths. The drummer was the guy who kept the basic time together, and that was it. There was no editing and no mixing. It was all done at one time. … It was fun working with Ray, and I got to work with him a lot after that.”

In spite of Charles’ notorious attention to details, Schmitt said he wasn’t demanding in the studio. “At that time, he was hooked on drugs. We would take breaks, and they would take him off somewhere. I don’t know what happened. They’d bring him back in 10 minutes or so, and then we’d go on to the next song. But he was amazing. Marty Paich, I believe, was the arranger, but Ray had a lot of input on how he wanted things to sound.”

In 1962, country music was not held in particularly high esteem, especially outside of Nashville. But Schmitt said the Los Angeles studio musicians exhibited no disdain for the genre. “No, they loved what was going on. Ray sounded so great, and the arrangements were great. So everybody got into it. It was a great fun time.”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.