The goal was to entice traditionally country audiences into becoming Stax consumers with music that resembled the prevailing popular countrypolitan style from Nashville that ruled the country charts.
Stax Records was the home of Southern soul music during the 1960s and early 1970s. While Motown had a reputation for producing safe, pop hits about love by black artists such as the Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, etc. that appealed to white and black audiences, Stax was the home for black artists like Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, Carla Thomas, etc. who were of more interest to black listeners. At the time, Stax was considered the more authentically black label whose songs addressed controversial topics such as race and sex from a streetwise perspective.
As Stax grew as a company in the 1970s, it encountered financial difficulties for a number of different reasons too complicated to note here. Suffice it to say, Stax began expanding its roster to attract more shoppers. One of its many projects included a foray into country music, which was largely a white field at the time. Now Stax always did have roots in country as many of its artists came from rural backgrounds and loved the music (think Otis Redding's wonderfully comic “Tramp" as an example). However, this project was different. The goal was to entice traditionally country audiences into becoming Stax consumers with music that resembled the prevailing popular countrypolitan style from Nashville that ruled the country charts.
Craft Recordings, the catalog division of Concord Music Group, has compiled some of the best music from Stax's country division from this period. The artists on these sides never became famous, none of the cuts were hits, and the majority of these songs never made it to the radio or record store shelves. That doesn't mean that the music isn't very good. In fact, the opposite is true. These hand-picked selections fit right in with the best-selling country music of the era. That's their greatest strength and weakness. They sound derivative of the existing music. One can probably identify the particular hits that these tracks imitate.
But originality is overrated. As Stax's counterparts in Motown knew, if you have a good selling record, follow it with a similar one (re: Martha and the Vandellas: “(Love Is Like a) Heatwave", “Quicksand", “Live Wire"). Stax couldn't break into the country market, but it did follow the trends trying to do so.
Stax Country comes as either a two-sided album or a compact disc, as well as across all digital and streaming platforms with liner notes by Colin Escott, known as the chronicler of Hank Williams, Sun Records, and the Grand Ole Opry. Escott also co-wrote the Tony Award-nominated Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet. He's researched the 16 individual artists who contribute to the anthology and offers their musical credentials for context. He's informative, but I wish he did more. This music came out during a period referred to as the Post-Civil Rights Movement Era. Changes in federal legislation marked some new progress and disappointments—and its impact applied to the popular culture of the time.
Mainstream country music was still almost exclusively white. My research into the 16 artists anthologized here reveals they were overwhelmingly white. That's not a revelation. As mentioned, Stax copied what was popular at the time: white country music. The two black musicians that could be identified here are the real surprise. Joyce Cobb, who is better known as an R&B/jazz singer performs a honeyed tune called “Your Love" with violin rather than fiddle accompaniment. She sings it with a gentle touch of Southern womanhood. O.B. McClinton's tale of love and class differences “The Finer Things in Life" resembles the story-song tradition of Tom T. Hall and other Appalachian tale tellers. McClinton has a smooth voice with a silky sound. Both of these songs were good enough to become hits, but for a variety of reasons (one would guess low promotional budgets, unknown names, etc.) they never did. They offer much pleasure to the listener today.
The white artists also present good listening. Danny Bryan takes on Motown's the Temptations already mellow number one hit from 1965 “My Girl", and with the help of a strummed acoustic guitar and a pedal steel, makes it even mellower in a sweet way. Roland Eaton challenges Merle Haggard for the title of Redneck King with his “Hippie From the Hills". He may not smoke pot or do LSD, but he has long hair because his “papa broke the shears last spring shearing the family mule" Paul Craft's self-penned “For Linda (Child in the Cradle)" would do Willie Nelson proud as it plays off the Red Headed Stranger's mid-'70s sound. The influence of other stars from the era from like Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich, and Tammy Wynette are also apparent.
Stax Country is released as part of an extensive 60th-anniversary celebration of the record label. As this release proves, its glorious history is well worth commemoration. As Escott points out in the liner notes, “every record is someone's big dream". These songs were all made with care. One can hear the soul in every song—even when the musical genre would be labeled country.