(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The new Ray Charles exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville is a fitting tribute to a man who probably did more than any other artist to spread country music beyond its traditional boundaries and audience.
Charles’ epochal 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music today remains not only a country milestone but a pop music icon.
But beyond that landmark recording, Charles continued to sing and record country songs nationwide and worldwide and to cut duets with many country artists. This tribute is overdue for an artist who belongs not just in an exhibit in the museum but belongs as an actual member of the Hall of Fame.
The exhibit tracks Charles’ country history and his general career highlights through rare photographs, interviews, video clips and memorabilia.
Charles was born in Albany, Ga., in 1930 and was raised in northern Florida, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcasts from Nashville and was at home with country music the rest of his life. As a teenager, he played piano in a country band, the Florida Playboys. And he would return to country again and again, first recording Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” in 1959 before Modern Sounds in 1962.
Just recording that was a challenge for him. In January of 1962, he finally got drug charges against him dismissed in a courtroom in Indianapolis for an earlier arrest there for heroin possession. A month later, he was recording Modern Sounds in New York City.
And then releasing the record was a risk. The notion of cutting a country album for a pop audience seemed like lunacy to the pop music industry at the time. The unexpected showpiece of Modern Sounds turned out to be Don Gibson’s song, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which had been a No. 7 country hit for Gibson in 1958. Charles had not envisioned any single releases from Modern Sounds because the twist (remember that dance?) was all the rage in those days. But DJs began playing the song, and then B-movie actor and teen recording star Tab Hunter cut a copycat version and released it as a single and radio started jumping on it.
Charles finally authorized a single release, and his version of “I Can’t Stop” became a No. 1 pop hit for five weeks. Interestingly, Charles’ version of the song never did appear on the country radio charts. Gibson’s original handwritten manuscript of the song is on display now at the Hall of Fame exhibit. The album became a No. 1 pop album for months. And it so encouraged Charles that he recorded and released a follow-up country album before the end of the year.
The lasting lesson from that original album and from “I Can’t Stop” is this: Charles gave country music its due and his respect. He did not pander to the genre or the song. He recognized the songwriting for the mastery it possessed, as well as for its lyricism. And he transmitted that through his interpretations of the songs on that album, no matter how lush the string arrangements or the soul instrumentation. The country-ness of the songs shined through.
Just getting rights to his master recordings was a major accomplishment for Charles in those days when record companies and producers owned everything. In the exhibit is the master tape box from the album sessions (with the label also written in Braille).
There are many wonderful things on display in this exhibit, from Charles’ saxophone to a collection of his sunglasses. The most astonishing video clip is “Ring of Fire” from The Johnny Cash Show, in which Charles manages to wring every last possible soul note out of that remarkable song.
The most touching and personal glimpse into Charles’ life comes from a very simple item in the exhibit. It’s a white college mug from Boston University. Charles’ daughter, who went to BU, gave it to him, and he kept it near him the rest of his life. He kept it constantly filled with a mixture of half gin and half coffee — with sixteen packets of sugar added. It’s a very poignant reminder of the human element in the creative process. Every time I play Modern Sounds or Genius + Soul = Jazz, I’m reminded that, now and again, even a genius needs a little rocket fuel of some kind.