Ray Charles could do anything. R&B? He was a master. Jazz? Same. Gospel? All day and night. Country? Well…
…Of course he could!
His decision in 1962 to release an album of country music songs was looked upon as somewhat controversial at the time, but the result was nothing short of masterful. Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music found Charles covering songs by Hank Williams, Eddie Arnold, the Everly Brothers and other country music greats, and putting his own stamp on the genre. The results were astounding, both commercially and critically: Modern Sounds spent more than three months atop the album charts, and is considered to be among the greatest records Charles – or anyone, for that matter – ever recorded.
One of the biggest heartbreakers on the record is “You Don’t Know Me,” a towering anthem of unrequited love written by Cindy Walker and Eddy Arnold, and recorded by Arnold in 1956. The kicker in this classic is the recognition that the singer had a chance at love but couldn’t bring himself to approach his beloved (“Afraid and shy / I let my chance go by / The chance that you might love me too”). Charles’ voice bleeds pathos in those lines and throughout the song. It is a record of exquisite pain, exquisitely rendered.
“Born to Lose” is another unrequited love song, but instead of delving into the mire of heartbreak, Charles stands above it, at a slight remove. The arrangement is pure countrypolitan cool, and Charles plays it for all it’s worth.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” gives us the best of both approaches – the heartbreak and the cool. Certainly, Charles voices the haunted yearning of this Don Gibson weeper with all the sadness he could muster. The sound of the record – creamy strings and staid background voices – cut through the tearful poetry perfectly.
Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” is pure country blues, but Charles takes it to the ballroom without losing any of the song’s inherent power.
Whereas most of the record finds Charles fitting his R&B stylings into the country mold, “Careless Love” does the opposite, using country instrumentation like pedal steel and fiddle as accoutrements for his deeply soulful take on the traditional song.
The runaway success of Modern Sounds led to Charles releasing a second volume of country tracks in October 1962, a mere six months after the first; it, too, was a critical and commercial success. He largely set country music aside after that record, returning to it occasionally on albums like Love Country Style (1970) and From the Pages of My Mind (1986). He knew country music was a well from which he could draw whenever he wanted, confident the results were going to be special.