Blessed are the true artists who bridge cultures and soothe souls with their music.
Rhythm & blues legend Solomon Burke has been accomplishing that mission for more than 50 years now, and he continued to accept his calling Monday night (Sept. 25) in Nashville during a sold-out show celebrating the release of his new country album. Although Nashville marks his first all-country project, the 66-year-old member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame grew up listening to the cowboy music of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Herb Jeffries and scored his first major hit in 1960 with a country song, "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)."
Those unfamiliar with Burke's work may recall a version of "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love," the 1964 hit he co-wrote, sung by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in the original Blues Brothers movie in 1980. Burke's other hits for Atlantic Records during the '60s include "Cry to Me," "Got to Get You Off of My Mind" and "You're Good for Me."
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Buddy Miller produced Nashville at his home studio and also led a stellar band backing Burke for the show at the Belcourt Theatre. Dropping by during the evening were several guests also featured on the album, including Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin and the duo of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings.
Sharply dressed in a three-piece suit and bolo tie, Burke sat on large wooden throne as he sang and worked the crowd with the warm personality befitting his other work as a bishop in the House of God for All People. Opening with Jim Lauderdale's "Seems Like You're Gonna Take Me Back," he followed it up with "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger," a Lee Ann Womack hit written by Miller and his wife Julie.
"I'm just a country boy at heart," Burke told the crowd. "They didn't believe me till they heard me singing this Gene Autry stuff."
Griffin was introduced to help him sing "Up the Mountain," an inspirational song she contributed to the album, and Harris was a worthy duet partner on the George Jones/Tammy Wynette classic, "We're Gonna Hold On." Rawlings' tasteful guitar work accentuated Welch's background harmonies as they joined Burke for her original song, "Valley of Tears." The album also includes guest vocals by Dolly Parton and Patty Loveless.
As good as the guest vocals were Monday night, the most remarkable moments came during Burke's solo performances. From a whisper to a vibrant scream, his interpretations of the songs came from a genuine love and understanding of country music. Burke is more accustomed to being backed by large bands featuring a horn section, but Miller's acoustic guitar and Michael Rhodes' bass were all that were necessary for him to come up with a riveting delivery of Tom T. Hall's "That's How I Got to Memphis." Although Burke did not rerecord it for his album, Monday's inclusion of "Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)" was welcomed by his most devoted fans, and the song still stands up after more than three decades.
Toward the end of the show, Burke threw a few curves to the band when he called out for a G chord and ripped into a medley of Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally," "Lucille" and "Tutti Fruitti." After taking a quick breath, he began singing the opening lines to the standard, "What a Wonderful World." Keyboardist Phil Madeira quickly found the groove, and the rest of the band followed the lead of his Hammond B-3 organ.
An understated arrangement of the Wynette hit, "'Til I Get It Right," got things back on cue, and the show ended with "When the Saints Go Marching In."
At one point, Burke noted that he had been recording since 1954 and added, "This is the first time I've been able to sing so freely and feel so good about it."
Everybody fortunate enough to have been in the same room with him Monday night felt pretty good about it, too.