Rock and roll from the ’50s was credited with mixing white musical styles, such as country and pop, with black music, such as R&B and gospel. However, by the early ’70s, the genres had separated. Classic soul and country rock were being created with little ethnic intermixing, which reflected what was going on in the larger society. But the truth is country and soul came out of the same Southern places before rock even existed, and the influence the two had on each other has always been clear to discerning listeners.
Consider Millie Jackson. Her deep soul albums of the ’70s, such as It Hurts So Good, Still Caught Up and Feelin’ Bitchy, contained a country leavening in the way Jackson accentuated the language and phrased her way across a melody, not to mention the fact that she frequently covered country songs on these albums. There was also something about her attitude. You couldn’t call her a redneck, but then again she retitled “Redneck Crazy” as “Black Bitch Crazy” on the one new song on this collection. They are pretty much the same things.
Anyway, it should not seem a surprise that Jackson released a straight country record back in 1980 called Just a Li’l Bit Country. She covered such deliciously emotive material as Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”, Tammy Wynette’s “Till I Get it Right” and Howard Harlan’s “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down”. She also, for some reason, included a few non-country items, such as Neil Diamond’s “Love on the Rocks”. The album flopped, which Jackson attributes to personnel changes at the record company. That may be true, but the original album was spotty and not all the songs top notch.
Which is probably why there are only five of 10 Just a Li’l Bit Country tracks included on the recent anthology of Jackson’s country music, mostly recorded between 1977 and 1981, featured on The Soul Country Collection. The 17-cut collection contains some real gems, including her 1977 top 10 soul cover of Merle Haggard’s “If You’re Not Back in Love By Monday” and the 1978 top 40 soul hit version of Kenny Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”. These work because Jackson takes these songs straight on. There is nothing gimmicky about them.
Less successful are the more disco-fied and less sacrosanct covers, like Barbara Mandrell’s “Angel in Your Arms”. She camps it up too much, and the instruments blare over her voice in a lackluster arrangement. Mitchell’s too good to have to be trendy to succeed. Sure, it may be fun to change Kris Kristofferson’s bawdy “Anybody That Don’t Like Hank Williams” into the irreverent “Anybody That Don’t Like Millie Jackson”, but the joke wears thin before the song is over.
Jackson’s a major talent who doesn’t always get her due because she often performs blue. That was and is her trademark, but there is little of that here. Instead, this disc offers a chance for listeners to hear a neglected side of an overlooked artist. Soul lovers may revel in the already available classic albums from the past, but there is much to offer music fans here.