Forty-seven years down the line, with country music firmly entrenched in the pop landscape, it’s probably difficult to understand the impact of Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. A massive crossover hit, not in small part due to the Grammy-winning version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, Modern Sounds wedded a dozen of the biggest country hits of the past couple decades to decidedly urban arrangements. The concept album and the covers album—already cornerstones of the country LP market—came together with the voice and piano of an R&B titan, and made possible the later success of the country-soul hybrids of Solomon Burke, Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex, William Bell and others, as well as the legitimacy of Charles himself recording with country figures like Willie Nelson.
In a move that will never go out of fashion, Charles’s blockbuster was also followed by a sequel. Concord’s recent reissue combines both volumes of Modern Sounds on one stand-alone disc for the first time. Granted, the Modern Sounds albums did make up the first disc of Rhino’s 1998 box set of Charles’s country recordings, but with that release out of print it’s nice to have them available together again. They’re certainly cut from the same cloth and, taken as a whole, as important a document of the evolution of American music as you’re likely to find.
They’re far from perfect, however. The criticism most often levied at the Modern Sounds albums—and at Charles’s ABC-Paramount recordings as a whole—is that they’re overproduced. It’s a valid argument; when the piano of Ray Charles is submerged in strings and the voice surrounded by corny vocal-group cliches, the power of the resulting music is bound to be neutered. It’s not a stretch to say that rather than bringing the sound and feel of R&B to country music, Charles more often than not merely sings country songs over orchestrations more befitting a third-rate crooner. As big-band music, it’s probably fine, but there are few traces of actual country music to be found here.
What’s particularly frustrating about the Modern Sounds albums is that, in hindsight, it’s abundantly clear that Ray Charles could do much, much better with a country song than he gets the opportunity to on these records. There are knockouts here, to be sure: the landmark “I Can’t Stop Loving You”; a positively funky, positively black version of “You Are My Sunshine”; the soulful, moaning “Careless Love”; the almost comically fast “Don\‘t Tell Me Your Troubles”; a wonderfully-sung closer in “Hang Your Head in Shame”; and a couple of devastating Hank Williams ballads in “You Win Again” and “Your Cheating Heart”. But it only occasionally has the raw power of country or R&B, and barely ever sounds or feels like anything other than stiff, urban white music.
This isn’t to fault Charles, necessarily; his singing is powerful, and his playing is full of soul when it’s not totally drowned out by orchestral slop. But he would really rise to the occasion within a few years on tracks like “Crying Time”, “Together Again” and the underappreciated “Don’t Let Her Know”, songs on which the saccharine background vocals and string arrangements are toned down a bit and Charles can be a bit looser. Ironically, once Charles incorporated more country (and R&B) into his country songs, he hit both artistic and commercial paydirt, as “Crying Time” became an iconic performance.
Not only did Ray Charles make better country recordings in the few years after the Modern Sounds albums, but he covered Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” several years earlier, at the very end of his Atlantic tenure. It’s an important performance, not just by virtue of its very existence, but because it’s quite good. One could argue that the added touch of the steel guitar isn’t even necessary. Charles imbues the song with feeling and sounds more “modern” than he would a few years later, when he was surrounded by choirs and orchestras. Again, despite all the hits he scored after he left Atlantic, even with country songs like “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, there’s something to be said for sympathetic production. I’d be interested to hear the Modern Sounds tracks without the strings, horns and outdated vocalists, although I’m afraid there’s probably not much going on beneath all that commercial dross.