A list of the most influential artists in history chosen by country stars themselves, another honoree is revealed each week on CMT Hot 20 Countdown .
Blinded early in life, Charles discovered a gift for music and would eventually become a legendary song stylist who pushed the boundaries of several musical genres.
Beginning in 1946 as a 15-year-old piano player, he began freely blurring the lines between R&B, jazz and the blues and even went on to release a landmark album titled Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. His early efforts are often cited as a major influence in the development of rock ’n’ roll.
Some of his most memorable recordings include “I Got a Woman,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind.”
Among his many accomplishments spanning almost 60 years in show business, Charles was one of the first-ever inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He passed away in 2004 at age 73.
“Ray Charles, to me, is just the greatest ever,” Lee Brice said. “Just the simple fact of his voice and how he emotes. When he sings, he’s speaking to you. He’s not even trying to sing.
“His vision for making records back in those days and the things he did … skipping across genres and making a country record because he loved it and it was a part of who he was … there just ain’t nobody to me better in front of a microphone than him, ever, in history.”
“He is somebody that transcends genre,” Kacey Musgraves added. “That voice, it’s so legendary. Just the other day, I was watching a bunch of Ray Charles interviews in my hotel room, and it brought me to tears almost. His version of ’America the Beautiful,’ I’ve never heard a patriotic song sound just real and moving. … There will never be another Ray Charles.”
For Martina McBride, her love of Charles runs in the family.
“My dad was and is still a huge Ray Charles fan, so I heard a lot of Ray Charles when I was growing up,” she said. “And my dad is a hardcore country fan and didn’t listen to a lot of other kinds of music, but he loves Ray Charles.
“I don’t think he ever thought of a song as a particular genre. It just became his. And it was a time where he probably did the most for erasing boundaries between genres. It was just about great music. He’s just amazing.”
Country stars also look up to Charles for his ability to take any song and make it his own.
“The more I got to know him, the more I realized this man is truly a musical genius,” Kenny Rogers said. “Aside from his piano playing, he could take a song and make it his own — within eight bars. I mean, he didn’t ever sing anything like anybody else.”
“One of the really great and original musicians and singers ever,” Darius Rucker agreed. “It’s very rare. … Still to this day, no one sounds like Ray.”
According to Charlie Worsham, Charles’ lasting impact boiled down to his ability to make a connection with his audience.
“Ray was such a student of all styles, and he was such a master of emotion,” Worsham said. “He knew how to translate emotions through his fingers on a keyboard, he knew how to whip a band into shape and, of course, how to sing with that brilliant voice of his.
“He is just this warm, fuzzy, comfortable place that I think anybody can relate to when it comes to sound and moving air molecules. He sings a Hank Williams song, and then he’ll sing a jazz standard and then he’ll play an instrumental. And all three of those completely different styles in the heart and mind of Ray Charles can bring you to tears.”
Check out the rest of the CMT All-Time Top 40: Artists Choice list and find out who will be announced each Saturday at 11 a.m. ET/PT on CMT Hot 20 Countdown.