(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Ray Charles should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Why? Because he belongs there. Because of his dramatic embrace of country music early on — which was an epochal shift in the music itself — and because of his continued support of the music ever since.
First of all, there’s his breathtaking, landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. At a time when it was seemingly unthinkable for a black artist to record any country songs, let alone a whole album of country songs, Charles defied everyone — including the record label executives at ABC-Paramount who warned him it would be sheer folly — and did what he felt he should do. And the result was groundbreaking both for Charles and for country music and its artists and its audience and its future. He spread the music nationwide and worldwide, he showed that country’s appeal was not limited just to Southern white people, and he amply demonstrated that country music could be a voice of the nation.
And he maintained country ties and contributions throughout his long career, ranging from “Seven Spanish Angels” (his No. 1 hit duet with Willie Nelson) to Friendship (his No. 1 album of country duets) and his influence on and work with such younger artists as Travis Tritt.
“Ray Charles’ album [Modern Sounds] did more for country music than any one artist has ever done.” — Willie Nelson, interviewed for CMT 100 Greatest Love Songs.
His last recorded work, the new duet CD Genius Loves Company, demonstrates anew Charles’ commitment to all of American popular music. He records here with Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Michael McDonald, B.B. King and a wide range of others, showing his remarkable ability to unite many strains of American music in a way that few artists have ever been able to do. Over the years, he has become a backbone of American popular music. Like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra and a handful of other greats, he long ago transcended genres and belongs to the world of music.
I can already hear some country purists protesting that Charles’ career was not devoted exclusively to country. Well, neither was Elvis Presley’s. And he’s in the Hall of Fame. As he should be.
The Hall’s mission statement is this: The Country Music Hall of Fame honors performers, musicians, songwriters, promoters, music publishing and recording leaders, broadcasters and others in the music industry, reflecting country music’s stature as both art and enterprise.
And here is the Hall’s statement on membership criteria: Throughout the history of the Country Music Hall of Fame, the criteria for election have changed little. The main qualities or achievements considered for an individual or group to be inducted are “the degree of his/her contribution to the advancement of country music” and “the indelibility of his/her impact,” a big part of which is considered to be “influence on others.”
When you take time to read through the list of members of the Hall of Fame, you will see many names most people won’t recognize. That’s because early on in country’s development, many non-artist architects of the budding country music industry were inducted for their very-solid contributions in making country music what it became: George D. Hay, Art Satherly, Fred Rose, Paul Cohen, Steve Sholes, Connie Gay, Grant Turner, J.L. Frank and others. They belong there because they helped build the industry. But so did Ray Charles.
Remember the criteria: “contribution to the advancement of country music, impact and influence.” I do not envision one convincing argument that Ray Charles has not met these standards.
Ray Charles should be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Why? Because he belongs there. It’s as simple as that.