Modern Sounds in Country and Western

Ray Charles : Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (#31)

Ray Charles | Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (April 1962)
Country / Rhythm and Blues / Countrypolitan – 39:33

“The music field was the first to break down racial barriers, because in order to play together, you have to love the people you are playing with, and if you have any racial inhibitions, you wouldn’t be able to do that.”

It would be fair to say that modern music has been instrumental in breaking down barriers of race. However, such a sweeping statement would need to come with a rather hefty caveat. Think about the number of artists who have introduced a sound to the masses – and, as we’ve seen before, by this we mean the vast number of white Westerners who sadly have the say on what constitutes popular music. Take a look through the cultural highlights of the last 60 or 70 decades: artists like Nat ‘King’ Cole had to wear make up to lighten their appearance on television; blues progression into the more popular rock ‘n’ roll was courtesy of Elvis rather than artists like Little Richard; world music only became popular after the likes of the Beatles visited India; disco and rap were pushed to the top of the charts thanks to the involvement of white rather than black stars (Run DMC’s biggest hit in the 1980s was their teaming with all-white rockers Aerosmith, while the Beastie Boys had higher charting tracks than NWA or Public Enemy).

This is obviously a massive generalisation, but it does appear to the casual observer that the record buying public, en masse, would prefer its artists to be white. Thankfully there are still those who insist on doing things differently. One such person is the great Ray Charles. Having already brought his distinct sound to the jazz genre with his album The Genius of Ray Charles, the pianist was looking for other forms of music to experiment with. He set his sights on Country and Western music – a huge decision at the time, given that Country music was seen as predominantly (if not wholly) white music. But, fortunately, Charles refused to see colour in music and was keen to point out the similarity between his own background in the blues and the lyrics of many Country and Western songs. He is quoted as saying: “[T]he words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar’.” Or, as he put it elsewhere: “You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.”

Of course, none of this counts for anything if the album itself doesn’t work – or comes across as tongue-in-cheek, like Dredd Zeppelin, Hayseed Dixie or Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. It is essential that the work is taken seriously, rather than coming across as a novelty recording, in order for it to make this list of quintessential recordings. Luckily, his own genius, alongside the talent of producer Sid Feller, helped to ensure that this was a work that combined the raw lyrics of the genre with the best big band arrangements. Feller selected a number of tracks from a catalogue of 250 or so songs, allowing Charles to then work his musical magic on them. The results proved a hit with the public and critics alike, with the album regarded one of the artist’s best.

Things kick off in style with the breezy Bye Bye Love, an incredible opener by any standards. The rhythm jumps straight in, instantly turning the tune into a classic swing number. Charles is able to stamp his intention early and any doubts that this would work are thrown out of the window within the first few beats. It may be short, but it declares his aim and works brilliantly. As he slows things down, with the gentle You Don’t Know Me, it becomes evident that Charles’ plan was not as crazy as it may have first appeared; through the powerful arranging and Charles’ natural talent, you forget that these songs were ever sung by anyone else. One of the things which struck me about the previous Ray Charles album on this list was the fact that it was when he was interpreting other people’s work that he was at his best. It was something which Charles was actually aware of, and this album features only songs already popular with other artists, albeit in a different genre. And, yet, it works. Many of the tracks may be slower than you’d expect from someone like Ray Charles and, as before, the slower numbers don’t always work – I Love You So Much It Hurts, while not a painful listen, does seem out of place. But when things speed up again, on tracks like Just a Little Lovin’ or his incredible version of Hey, Good Lookin’, then the album comes into its own.

Ray Charles certainly earned the right to call himself ‘The Genius’. To take two genres which seem, on the surface, to be so opposed both culturally and musically, and to bring them together with such success is surely indicative of the type of person Charles was – someone who, like many other great artists, was able to see what others could not, and make it work. Forget the mash-ups of the late 1990s; the first person to succeed in combining two disparate styles was the great Ray Charles. Listening to Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music proves that, regardless of what the statistics might say, doing something different can create a great piece of work. Heck, if all Country and Western sounded like this, I’d soon change my mind about it. If only it did.

Unfortunately Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is not available on Spotify.

Next time: Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs

Sunday at the Village Vanguard

Bill Evans : Sunday at the Village Vanguard (#30)

Bill Evans | Sunday at the Village Vanguard (June 1961)
Jazz – 42:00

“It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not. It’s feeling.”

As I’ve already pointed out elsewhere, it is very difficult to analyse music. Without wanting to sound too pretentious – and there is no way of doing this in a way that doesn’t – music has the ability to root itself deep within your soul and touch emotions directly. Words are limited in their ability to describe this in any adequate way. There is a reason why I chose the title of this entire blog as Where Words Leave Off. It comes from a quote by the German poet and journalist Heinrich Heine, who set much of his own work to music; the full quotation reads “Where words leave off, music begins.” I agree with Heine’s assessment – music is able to convey so much more than words are able to do. A good piece, from a classical arrangement to a three-minute pop song, can make you feel elated or melancholic; it can raise you to laugh at the world, or draw on your darkest miseries. There is a reason why so many teenagers turn to music as they struggle with their place on this earth; it is as if the music itself understands them in their inarticulate attempts at expressing themselves.

Many musicians would prefer that their work speaks for itself, rather than being over-analysed. One such musician was the jazz pianist Bill Evans. For Evans, his instrumentation was based on ‘feeling’ the music as he would direct his fellow musicians – usually he worked in a trio – in a range of jazz moods and styles. Having worked with some of the greatest jazz players in his early years (including George Russell, Charles Mingus and Miles Davis), he decided to head out on his own in 1959, bringing in bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian with him. By the time of their recording of Sunday at the Village Vanguard, a live performance at the Greenwich Village jazz club, the three men had become so tight that they were able to second guess each other as they played, constantly complimenting one another. As a result, they produced what many cite as one of the greatest jazz albums of all time – no small feat given the number of fellow jazz musicians also laying claim to this with their productions at this time in history.

Perhaps my biggest problem with this form of jazz is the very thing which Evans and his bandmates are so keen to create – pieces based on feelings rather than set patterns. Riffs quickly come and go within each number, and there is never a coherent flow to the sound. Having brought up on the traditional pop song, my ears are desperate to hear the progression of verse, chorus, verse, chorus. At this level of jazz, however, each piece can change rapidly from one tempo to another; from one style to another. Humans like to seek patterns in everything and there is a feeling of discord when experience jazz that this pattern doesn’t obviously exist. True, it is easy to appreciate the musicianship on such pieces, and you cannot fault their ability. Evans’ piano playing is exquisite; his fingers lightly touching the keys as they flow up and down the instrument. Likewise, the gentle drumming of Motian is wonderful while all credit must go to LaFaro for his work. LaFaro was killed in a car accident just 10 days after the performances were recorded. As a result, a devastated Evans insisted that LaFaro’s bass was put to the forefront of the selected tracks. It is certainly worth it, to hear him work the bass with such skill.

However, skill does not necessarily make the album great. And while I can sit back and hear their greatness as musicians and wonder at their ability to work with each other, I find this a difficult album to listen to. As with many styles, if it moves too far into a particular genre, only die-hard fans are able to ‘get it’. For everyone else, it can become a chore – a worthy but dull experience. While some jazz albums have made me want to know more, I feel so out of my depth with Sunday at the Village Vanguard, that listening to it becomes too much like hard work. I want to understand why the musicians are making the choices they make, but instead it sounds like this is a practice session or, at times, as if they are warming up (these aren’t the only musicians to face this assessment – according to legend, sitarist Ravi Shankar once thanked an audience for their applause by pointing out that he was simply tuning his instrument).

You cannot help but feel that this is an album made purely for the enjoyment of those making it, rather than those listening – they are able to enjoy where they are taking it, while those in the audience can only hope to admire without ever really engaging. Evans may have wished that his music was felt at a deeper level, but, based on this live album, it is something I cannot do. I can only admire intellectually – and, in doing so, I have failed to appreciate his work. Which is a great shame, as I want to like it. I really do. But sadly I can’t.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Sunday at the Village Vanguard here:

Next time: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles

Muddy Waters at Newport

Muddy Waters : Muddy Waters at Newport (#29)

Muddy Waters | Muddy Waters at Newport (November 1960)
MCA / Chess
Chicago Blues – 32:38

“There’s no way in the world I can feel the same blues the way I used to. When I play in Chicago, I’m playing up-to-date, not the blues I was born with. People should hear the pure blues – the blues we used to have when we had no money.”

Money changes people. It’s an obvious thing to say but there is a huge difference between the work of a struggling artist and one who has plenty of money in the bank. Once you have made your mark on the world, it is easy to assume that you suddenly have something to lose. In politics, Winston Churchill once commented that if you didn’t vote Labour in your 20s, then you had no heart; if you didn’t vote Conservative in your 40s, then you had no head. When you are young, you can be idealistic – you can push boundaries, because you don’t have anything to lose. Once you have a taste of something more, you don’t want to lose it and so, as an artist, you’ll want to give them more of the same. Sometimes it can be no bad thing and your work can even develop to explore the themes which come from being one of the ‘haves’ rather than one of the ‘have-nots’. But what happens when the pieces which you produce so successfully require you to be unsuccessful. Or, to put it another way, how do you sing the blues when you’ve got nothing to be blue about? It is a question which every successful blues artist has asked, including one of the greatest of all – Muddy Waters.

Not that Muddy Waters needed to worry about that in 1960. His brand of music had proved an underground hit within the black communities already listening to his style; but, as much as it made him a star to a small portion of the population, he was largely unknown to the wider music-buying public of America and beyond. And by ‘wider public’ read a white audience. Fortunately the late 1950s and early 1960s saw the barriers slowly coming down, and it was a performance at Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 that helped do that for Muddy. The artist, known to his mother as McKinley Morganfield, had been playing throughout the 1950s with Chess Records. His style of Chicago Blues used electric instruments as opposed to the acoustic ones that the mainstream audience was more familiar with when it listened to the blues. By the end of the 1950s, his sales were starting to dip, and it was a case of taking action to draw in new listeners.

Given the style of blues that was popular at the time, it does make me wonder whether the sound of electric blues had as much of an effect on its audience as Bob Dylan plugging in an electric guitar a few years later at the Newport Folk Festival five years later. Certainly, Muddy didn’t face the aggressive criticism which Dylan saw in 1965; no shouts of Judas were fired at the performers. Instead, if reports of the gig are to go by, the musicians had the audience of young hipsters in the aisles and dancing by the end of the 35 minute set. It is easy to hear why – opener I Got My Brand on You displays all the rawness you associate with the blues from the Mississippi Delta. The whole set has an incessant beat that drives its way under the skins. Sometimes it feels that Blues all sound the same; that slow, steady guitaring that repeats itself repeatedly in each song, the harmonica blasting between identical lines of lyrics. But thankfully Muddy Waters’ live album proves me to be wrong. Yes, there is a certain style to the genre which is adhered to, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

As the album progresses through the – now famous – Hoochie Coochie Man – and into the wonderful Baby, Please Don’t Go, it is understandable why the young groovy things got up to dance; this is great music, kept simple. But it is with the slower Soon Forgotten that you realise that Blues music is not a bunch of similar sounding numbers; instead the track knocks the vibe into something much quieter, bringing a feeling of hollowness and raw pain to the song of lost love. Tiger in the Tank, a fun track, quickly changes the tempo again, with an underlying spirit of rebelliousness to it that matches much of what rock ‘n’ roll was doing elsewhere. Indeed, there is a reason why the blues musicians influenced the rock stars of the future as much as any other music genre of the 1950s; it is little surprise that guitarist extraordinaires Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton both had this album as an early influence on them, alongside many other giants of rock from the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the end, with the piano picking up the groove for I’ve Got My Mojo Working Part One and Part Two, the blues take on a gospel air that sounds as much as a call to arms for the electric blues – and one that worked, sending the audience into a frenzy.

The influence of the blues on modern music cannot be denied; when it sounds as powerful and raw as this, it is easy to see why it was picked up by so many performers. True, Muddy later confessed that singing the blues became more difficult once he had hit the mainstream, but that didn’t stop his earlier work from showing his real talent. Be thankful that he was able to suffer enough to produce work like At Newport; it is more than a piece of history, but the sound of a musician displaying his skills. Without albums like this, the landscape of popular music over the last five decades would have been very different.

If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Muddy Waters at Newport here:

Next time: Sunday at the Village Vanguard by Bill Evans