[11 July 2014]
Klinger: The Great List, that mathematical compendium of critical rankings that has served as our lord and master for the past four years, is an incredible resource for both discovering musical milestones and inspiring beer-fueled arguments. It also helps point out certain blind spots in the critical canon. One of the main issues we see is that it doesn’t really get going until about the mid-‘60s when writing seriously about rock music first became an semi-legitimate profession. As a result, many of the forefathers and foremothers of rock ‘n’ roll have been given short shrift. The case of Ray Charles is a prime example.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which came out in 1962, marks Ray Charles’ first appearance on the Great List, clocking in at No. 240. That’s a respectable placement, but hardly befitting one of the architects of popular music. I’d do a lot more grumbling about that fact, but luckily for rock critics I’m too busy being enthralled by this masterpiece, which manages to do so much more than just apply Charles’ gospel-infused R&B to the country format. There’s a wealth of influences coming together here, and the end result is a brilliant, understated statement on the state of pop in 1962. But it may not immediately reveal itself right away. Or does it? Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: Ray Charles is an open book, if that book was full of hidden meaning, double entendres and unexpected twists and turns. At first blush, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music seems like a collection of standards from a bygone era, an era ruled by the big band when Lawrence Welk was king and that pop music was something only enjoyed by those unruly youths and ne’er-do-wells. But it’s not that at all. It’s a Trojan Horse built to deliver the wide-ranging vision of Ray Charles’ unmatched genius to the unsuspecting listening public.
This album crushed racial barriers in the middle of the civil rights movement, joined every corner of the music business together in a neat package, and made the well-known Ray Charles into a bonafide star. It’s audacious, Klinger. That’s the best word I can come up with for it. Ray’s vision was audacious and to think, the A&R folks didn’t want him to make this record.
Klinger: Record industry people are seldom known for their foresight, which could explain how they’ve gotten themselves in the pickle they’re in. And I’m actually a little surprised that you’re as on board with this album as you are. After all, for every uptempo jam like “Bye Bye Love” or “Hey Good Lookin’”, there’s a track like “You Win Again” or “Born to Lose”, which are not only significantly more downbeat but also saturated in strings and chorus voices, to the point where it can be a little uncomfortable for the rock-based masses who might have been expecting some earthier R&B.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music gets a lot of credit for making inroads into white America at the height of the civil rights movement, and that’s a fair statement. But it’s not as if the simple act of recording Hank Williams songs was going to all of a sudden earn big points in the deep South. This was, after all, still a time when labels still put pictures of white people on black artists’ album covers. I think the real accomplishment of this album was to reach the hearts and minds of the white people closer to the middle, people whose ears were all buttered up for Mantovani strings and sumptuous choruses. Those same suburban types who were digging George Shearing and Ferrante and Teicher. Was Ray Charles canny enough to recognize that? I’m guessing yes.
Mendelsohn: Of course Ray was that canny. Not only was he a talented musician, composer, and interpreter, he was also a consummate businessman. He negotiated for ownership of his master tapes from record labels who were known for screwing over artists at every turn. And this came from a blind, black man at one of tensest, racially strained times in recent history. The man had some huge balls, Klinger. He knew exactly what he was doing when he put this record together. This album was designed to move units among the white suburbanites who worshiped at the altar of Welk.
If I didn’t love Ray Charles and respect the man’s talents, this album would have thrown me for a loop. The string arrangements and backing choir can be, as you so eloquently noted, cringe-inducing. But he does it with such panache, it’s hard not to smile and think he was putting something over on everyone and thoroughly enjoying himself while he did it. Plus, strings or not, his interpretations of these songs are amazing and he never shies away from injecting a little jazz, a little swing, wherever possible. And a little swing is always possible.
Why this album, Klinger? Is it just for the Ray Charles or is there something more?
Klinger: You never need an excuse to listen to Ray Charles, but I really wanted to discuss this album because it’s a landmark album that too often gets treated like an afterthought by critics who view the album as a post-Beatles art form. The idea of viewing an album as a cohesive art form (and not just a collection of singles and some filler) began right about the same time the 12-inch LP became the predominant listening format. Frank Sinatra was an early adapter with concept albums like In the Wee Small Hours, and in many ways Modern Sounds in Country and Western is an extension of that idea.
Creating this large-scale work of art wasn’t new, and I suspect it made the idea of spending $2.98 on an LP seem more palatable somehow. This could also explain why Modern Sounds in Country and Western was such a massive hit. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music was one of the top-selling albums of 1962, making the kind of impact that at the time was reserved for Original Cast albums and Bob Newhart. In fact, whatever terrible advice ABC-Paramount A&R guys tried to give him went out the window straightaway and a sequel was soon commissioned.
And again, that commercial success was as much due to the sounds that we now perceive as gloopy as it is the drive and verve of the swinging tracks. It did take me quite a bit of getting used to, but once I did I found myself mesmerized by that gloopiness, but like you said, it was well-tempered by the soul that Charles injects into his every utterance. Were you familiar with this album before this little excursion, Mendelsohn?
Mendelsohn: Not exactly. I had never sat down to really take in the this album as a whole, but I’m familiar with most of the material — Ray Charles was one of the artists I grew up listening to on the house stereo. My parents had a greatest hits cassette, and it was one I regularly asked for as a kid. Want to know why? Two words: California Raisins. Seriously, as goofy as it sounds, those raisins did an excellent job of introducing soul and R&B to tiny minds in the 1980s. Ray did a commercial spot for the California Raisins Advisory Board and that pretty much sealed the deal for young Mendelsohn. So whether it’s the swinging beat of “Bye Bye Love”, or the gloopy “Worried Mind”, I’m on board.
Listening to Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music over the past week has renewed my appreciation for Ray Charles as an artist and innovator, but especially as an interpreter of music. The man had an ear for the hidden melody and could transform any little rinky dink, honky tonk ditty into a supremely swingable number. Take a listen to “It Makes No Difference Now” by any one of those country crooners, then take a listen to Ray’s version. The difference is stunning as Ray turns an old-fashioned ballad into a sexy big band strut. His interoperation of that country standard stands out as the album’s high point for me. What other artist can do that?
Klinger: Not many, and of course thank you for putting those damn raisins in my head. I hadn’t realized that they had contributed so much to our collective consciousness. Just don’t make me listen to one of their albums here. And thanks for pointing out the rich middle ground between the syrup and the swing. “It Makes No Difference Now”, “Half as Much”, and their ilk deliver a narcotic ease that settles just right, striking the balance that makes the album really gel.
I realize that this album gets a good amount of acclaim, but I can’t help thinking that it’s been lauded for the wrong reasons. This might be one of those cases where the critics know they need to include an artist, but they view greatest hits compilations as suspect. So they pick a “proper” album to anoint and then the hive mind kicks in (see also Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut album). Modern Sounds in Country and Western is more than just a placeholder — it’s a great album in its own right. Still, far be it from me to quibble. I’m not going to worry about why exactly it’s been selected, and instead I’m just going to enjoy this swinging, slinky, sexy, schmaltzy statement for what it is.