Today’s album is not only a great collection of performances, it represents another significant effort in the world of music to break down racial barriers and historical silos. As such, the meaning of this album outweighs the music itself, which is a strong statement when the artist in question is Ray Charles. In 1962, looking for a new path to explore musically, Ray decided to record an album of traditional country songs. This album was actually rated as the 6th best country album of all time by tasteofcountry.com. I will fully acknowledge that I did a double-take when I saw Ray Charles on that list, which was exactly the reaction I’m sure he was striving for in the first place.
Yesterday’s country music, and to a lesser degree, today’s country music, are not bursting with diversity. Most importantly though, Ray noted something I also observed earlier this year when comparing Hank Williams to Robert Johnson. While blues and country may sound a bit different at their core, the two styles are also linked by their similarities. Both are rooted deep in the heart of America, with tales of heartache and less commonly, joyful love, and they are transparently and authentically performed by and for common folk, without any unnecessary flair or excess style.
While it was highly probable that for me, this blend of singer and style was going hold great appeal, there are certain moments that stand out. The album begins with “Bye Bye Love”, the song made most famous by The Everly Brothers. The chorus is sung in multiple harmony by accompanying female vocalists, with Ray handling the main verses in perfect contrast. The big band is upbeat and this song just works; it had to be a great number live. I turned back to the roots of country when I heard Ray perform “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’”, two contrasting classics from Hank Williams. The most well-known song from this album is “I Can’t Stop Loving You”, which reached #1 on the pop and R&B charts of the day. It’s nearly impossible to not love Ray’s passionate appeal on this song, but my favorite song on the entire album is “It Makes No Difference Now”, by Floyd Tillman and Jimmie Davis. The piano intro is without compare, and the blues and honky-tonk blend never sounds better anywhere on this album, or really, anywhere.
Aside from being an amazing performer and one-of-a-kind vocal legend, Ray Charles’ courageous take and willingness to challenge norms and test limits makes this album a true milestone in the continued evolution of all music in the 1960s.