How Solomon Burke Got to Nashville

The headline of an August 2002 feature in the Los Angeles Times declared Solomon Burke “The Lost Soul Man” (11 Aug 02). While bordering on hyperbolic — Burke was not lost, per se — the headline alluded to how Burke’s immense talent and body of work was sorely overlooked by the music industry. Though he was crowned the “King of Rock and Soul” in the 1960s, Burke was not positioned as a crossover artist, which hindered long-term commercial success. Forty years after Burke’s first charted hit, “Just Out of Reach”, the industry finally recognized Burke and once they did, the adulation flowed freely: an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2001), a Grammy for Don’t Give Up On Me(2002), and a Grammy nomination for its follow-up,Make Do With What You Got(2005). (The former album, produced by Joe Henry, featured songs written especially for Burke by devotees such as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Elvis Costello.) Perhaps the greatest personal triumph for Solomon Burke, though, is his new album, Nashville. He proudly states, “Here I am able now after 45 years to do a country CD. I’m hoping that it will be accepted… throughout the world, that I’ll get an opportunity to sing these songs and not sing them as a ‘secret message’ but just as songs within my repertoire that are a part of my life.” Melding the production talent of Buddy Miller, high-profile guest vocalists like Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, the cream of Nashville’s finest musicians, and, of course, the incomparable voice of the “King” himself, Nashville is a look inside the blessed soul of Solomon Burke. A few weeks after the album’s stateside release, Burke spoke with me about Nashville — the record, the place, and the state of mind.

The journey to Nashville began in 1960 when Burke signed with Atlantic Records, home to Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, and LaVern Baker. At the time, Atlantic was the top rhythm and blues label in the world, but Burke took exception to the “rhythm and blues” moniker and did not hesitate to make his sentiments known. “They were a little upset with me because we [sic] didn’t want to sing rhythm and blues, per se, and be classified as a rhythm and blues artist, because of my religious convictions.” Burke suggested “soul” as an alternate classification to “rhythm and blues”. On the first sides Burke recorded for Atlantic, his technique suggested more country than soul, much to the amusement of label executive Jerry Wexler. Burke recalls about the recording session for “Just Out of Reach”, “Tommy Dowd sat there as one of the engineers and said, ‘Solomon, just sing. They’re laughing but don’t pay any attention to them'”. As a reward for staying true to his artistry, “Just Out of Reach” landed Burke in Top Ten of the R&B charts in 1961.

Though Burke was a consistent presence on the R&B charts throughout the 1960s, effortlessly churning out hits like “Cry to Me”, “If You Need Me”, “Tonight’s the Night”, and “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, he yearned to sing the country music that stirred his soul as a young boy who watched westerns. Rigid musical categories have long defined black artists so, with very few exceptions, the door to country music was effectively closed for artists like Solomon Burke. Charley Pride is one of the only black artists to completely embody country music and thus served as an inspiration to Burke for this project. “I admire Charley Pride, who all of his life had the opportunity to be surrounded with just country music,” Burke shares. “It’s just natural for him. I’m sure he knows James Brown but he would know Hank Williams better. He would know Patsy Cline better than he would know Etta James. When you’re surrounded all your life with a certain sound of music, it gets easier for you to express it,” Burke explains. After years of performing his R&B hits in small venues around the world, Burke could barely contain “the country inside of me”.

The seeds for Burke to finally record a country album were planted at the Americana Music Awards in 2005. He and celebrated musician Buddy Miller both performed at the awards ceremony in Nashville at the Ryman Theater, “the mother church of country music”. Each expressed an interest in working with the other and through the efforts of Shawn Amos, VP of A&R at Shout! Factory (Burke’s label), Miller and Burke reviewed well over 100 songs at Burke’s home in Los Angeles. Once a set of songs was agreed upon, Burke drove to Miller’s house in Nashville for the recording session. The opening song on Nashville,”That’s How I Got to Memphis”, is a parallel story for Burke’s odyssey to Nashville. With an air of wonderment enveloping his deep voice, as if still absorbing the experience, Burke recalls, “The blessing was that the Lord allowed me to drive from California so that I could go through Memphis, so I could get the feeling of ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’, so I could see the signs ‘Memphis: 40 miles’, ‘Memphis: 20 miles.’ It was a big difference from the first time I went to Memphis on a Greyhound bus! This time going to Memphis, I was going to Nashville to make this record and that’s what gave me the inspiration to call this record ‘Nashville’.” Ostensibly, Burke sings about a woman — “If you love somebody enough / You’ll go wherever your heart wants to go / That’s how I got to Memphis” — but the lyrics also reflect Burke’s visceral love of country music and the sojourn to Nashville.

Once Burke arrived at Miller’s home in Nashville, recording the entire album took all of eight days, thanks in part to Miller’s impeccable selection of musicians. Burke recounts, “Buddy Miller put together a collage of the best musicians and writers and then said, ‘The surprise will be five of country music’s royalty — divas, the queens of country — to sing with you.'” Contrasting with the rich tones of Burke’s baritone on Nashville are none other than Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, and Gillian Welch. Harris and Loveless duetted with Burke on “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “You’re the Kind of Trouble”, respectively, while Parton, Griffin, and Welch each lent their voices and one of their own compositions to the album. A mutual admiration between Burke and his duet partners solidified in those eight days. What did he learn from the “Queens of Country”? “Patience, tolerance, how to listen, how to learn, how not to just jump up and sing. In Nashville, it was ‘Hold it — listen — are you ready? — got it? — hold on — let’s do it — now’. It was actually like putting the horse to the cart and teaching a horse how to trot and how to run and how to win.” Any naysayers who doubted Burke’s ability to sing bonafide country music would be silenced by his performance with Parton on “Tomorrow is Forever”. His voice intertwines flawlessly with Parton’s, sounding perfectly at home beside Al Perkins’ pedal steel guitar.

Though rooted in country, Nashville is a mixture of tones and moods. It’s in moments like Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” and Gillian Welch’s “Valley of Tears” that Burke unveils universality in the lyrics, linking the humanity between himself, the composer, and the listener. Burke is captivating as he explains why “Up to the Mountain”, in particular, resonates so strongly with him:

You go back to the ’60s and the ’50s and you watch the world change. You watch us climb up the hill ’til we reach the mountaintop. Some of us never reach the mountaintop. Some of us are still climbing. We’ve reached over the humps and the bumps and the lumps and the puddles in the roads with integration and segregation … We’ve reached over those things now. We’re going a little further. It’s no longer ‘Oh, the fear of the Ku Klux Klan, the fear of the NAACP, the fear of the black man or the blue man or the green man or the brown man’. It’s the fear of terrorism. It’s no longer the guy with the mask. It’s the food that’s being destroyed. It’s the water that’s being destroyed. It’s the ocean that’s being destroyed. It’s the atmosphere.

Testimonials like these underscore the depth to which Burke explores the lyrics and illustrate why Nashville is such a compelling listening experience. Each song is like a portrait of the artist and the lyrics serve as vibrant brushstrokes.

Burke equates the experience of recording Nashville to being a student at the “University of Country Music”. He cites the respect musicians have for one another as a distinguishing factor between Nashville and other music centers in the U.S. He observes, “They’re really working together because everybody that’s … making this music is trying to make sure that the other person’s music gets over too! Nobody’s selfish. Nobody’s saying, ‘Don’t do this song, do my song!’ That’s something that you don’t find around the world. It was just a beautiful experience, something that I wish to be shared openly.” Looking through the booklet photos that accompany Nashville, one senses a tactile camaraderie between Burke and the musicians, a kinship that is also reflected in the music.

Few artists can attest to recording an album in eight days but Solomon Burke is unlike other artists. He’s not just the “King of Rock and Soul”, he’s also a singer who’s still learning how to perfect his craft, with a passion that fuels boundless creativity. Burke says, “I’m hoping and praying that others will get a chance to listen to this record and give me a chance to prove that I can try to do something different.” Anyone who spends time with Nashville hears the heart of Solomon Burke singing country music and, by extension, is touched by the presence of his ever-blessed soul.