Hank Williams sang the blues but he meant something other than a musical genre restricted to black musicians. The term has always covered more than music. Knocked back British lovers become ‘down’ or sad. Rejected Americans have the blues but record companies also claim words to narrow the definition of music to appeal to markets. So the word blues was used to describe black music that in the thirties had more in common with bluegrass than the purists in either camp like to admit. The recent appearance of the talented Darius Rucker at the Grand Ole Opry produced racist tweets that told the performer to leave country music to the white folks. These people are a little late. True, it has been relatively easily for the country corporate giants to shield their industry from black performers. The black artists who have had hits on the country charts are very few. Charlie Pride is the exception. Perhaps not quite as ‘uppity’ as Jack Johnson, Pride, like Johnson, was a trailblazer. He achieved 39 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Country Chart. Although it did not happen immediately after the triumph of Johnson, other black athletes followed and soon dominated heavyweight boxing. The same did not occur in country and western.
But we should not conclude black musicians have avoided country music. Learning to play an instrument and even sing properly, like Americans for so long did with superior ease, requires the mastery of techniques. Musicians are curious because they have to be. Race was never going to keep them apart, and thanks to two European record labels we have evidence of how the apartheid dreams of music executives failed almost from the beginning.
Kent Records in good old Blighty has released two stunning CDs called ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘Behind Closed Doors’. The title for the project is ‘Where Country Meets Soul.’ ‘Meet’ is classic British understatement. The genres bleed brilliantly into each other, and these irresistible tracks remind listeners of a working class Southern identity that despite the corporate giants and the resistance of the Tea Party is beyond race. The great American novelist, William Faulkner, failed to predict the arrival of rock and roll but he was no fool. He argued that it was in the South, where black and white had a shared social experience, that integration would be best achieved. Despite his genius, Faulkner will not convince everyone about his hopes for the future of Dixie but the music on these CDs should make even the most ardent wonder if he has a point. Meanwhile, our rival record collectors, the Germans, have also produced two CDs of country music by black performers. These are called ‘Dirty Laundry’. None of the tracks on the four CDs overlap. Unlike the English alternative, the German collection also features musicians like Stoney Edwards who steadfastly pursued a musical career as a country artist. Edwards and Vicki Vann have fabulous pure country voices that will startle listeners who stereotype into genres. Stoney delivers great versions of ‘Honky Tonk Heaven’ and ‘She’s My Rock’. Vicki Vann proves her credentials with her country whine on the phrase ‘Swinging Doors’. Dolly Parton should listen and worry. The beautiful Vicki also moonlights as a lingerie model. Clearly, there are occasions when we have to settle for worship.
Without wishing to make a sales pitch, it can be said that there is not one duff track on the four CDs. Indeed, in some instances the different genre appears to inspire some vocalists to exceed their normal achievements. It helps them get something different out of their system. This is obvious on the track by Andre Williams, ‘Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone To Kill’, in which the singer is willing to be confused with a psychopath. Etta James has made plenty of great records but her version of the country classic, ‘Almost Persuaded’, ranks with her finest efforts. ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’ forced this listener to rethink his view of Hank Ballard. Previously, he could be regarded as a journeyman rhythm and blues singer but here he demonstrates sensitivity and real soul. Best of all is the never forgotten ‘Wings Upon Your Horns’. This Loretta Lynn song has a spare arrangement that proves less is more and a vocal by Tami Lynn that captures perfectly the unavoidable regret of the vulnerable. It is tempting to compare the record to ‘Tess Of The D’ubervilles’ but that would flatter Thomas Hardy, and I say that as a Hardy loyalist. Of course, the soul giants are no surprise. We know Solomon Burke can warble a country tune but his version of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’, which is not widely available outside this collection, exceeds any other version. Neither do we need to listen to David Ruffin on the ‘Sweet Dreams’ CD to know his mastery but ‘Statue Of A Fool’ should make anyone yearn for what never happened, a country album by the great one. And of course, many of the black musicians featured in these two series did make country albums, names such as Bobby Bland, Joe Tex, Esther Phillips and Bobby Womack. Esther Phillips requires a special mention because not only does the British series include her unsurpassable versions of ‘Sweet Dreams’ and ‘I Saw Me’ but her own album ‘Release Me – Reflections Of Country And Western Greats’ is as good as any country collection by any performer, black or white. It should be played back to back with ‘From Elvis In Memphis’. While Elvis always had his own identity and invention that took him elsewhere, it is clear that he had been listening to Esther before he took that short fateful drive to American Sound Studios in 1969.
The influences are complicated because American music was always a two way street. We have to wonder how many black musicians listened to Elvis add rhythm and blues to ‘I Was The One’ and ‘A Fool Such As I’ and said, ‘Well, if he can jazz country up, so can we.’ The sheer volume of tracks and artists on these four CDs reveal just how many were tempted, if not by him then someone else.
In his history of Soul music, author Peter Guralnick dismissed Tamla Motown and much of what British fans think of as Northern Soul as pop music. His definition leaves a lot of ex-gospel singers wrenching emotion from ballads about exploitation and betrayal. That phrase sounds familiar because it also defines country music or at least that from the south east of America. When Chips Moman asked songwriters to provide anything country for the album he was planning to make with Elvis we feared the worst. We should have known because notable Atlantic producer, Jerry Wexler, was right. Soul music, real soul music, is ‘country music with horns’. Detroit born Aretha Franklin may not have been persuaded but her male equivalent Ray Charles certainly was, and he does not even feature in these collections. Ray Charles did more than sing country and western brilliantly. Like Elvis with black music, he persisted. His wilfulness produced his own four CD country and western collection. So there is plenty of country music that has been performed by black musicians, and we also have the music that is hidden in genres but actually denies categorisation because it steals influences. It can be ‘It’s All Over Now’ by Bobby Womack, John Lee Hooker singing ‘Hometown’, ‘Suspicious Minds’ by Elvis or even swamp rock. The idiots on Twitter may not agree but nobody should bet against William Faulkner, and many musicians have always contributed to the argument. So those who hope that Darius Rucker will disappear need to be prepared. He may surprise them and prevail, and not because the world has changed. It has but not in the way that the bigots think.
To hear Darius Rucker and see what offends some, here’s a clip:
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