Let’s get this out of the way from the get go: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is not a country album.
It doesn’t look like a country album. Doesn’t sound like one. Sure doesn’t act like one. Even so, it’s one of the most important and essential country albums of all time. Brother Ray flipped these twelve country standards on their heads by taking the drawl and twang out and turning them into a combination of big band style jazz standards and pop songs with lush orchestrations. It marks the first time a major mainstream artist tackled country music without going country. Sure sure, Tony Bennett’s cover of Hank Williams’ Cold, Cold Heart was a big hit in 1951 but that was a lone song and 11 years before this album was released.
What might even be more astounding is that this was recorded in 1962 by a prominent black musician. I don’t know how much you look at old Billboard charts, but the number of black artists in country back then was a big fat goose egg. And when I say back then, I mean the entirety of country music up until that point. When you think about it, the idea of a blind black man making country music palatable for the ears of white city dwellers in the early 60s is kinda funny in it’s one-upmanship.
Modern Sounds features some of the most important country songs recorded by the likes of Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, Don Gibson and Floyd Tillman. Charles digs deep into country’s history to grab important tunes like Born To Lose and It Makes No Difference Now, but also stays contemporary with recent songs like I Can’t Stop Loving You, which he also made a #1 crossover. All of that is sort of immaterial to the listener because the beauty of this album is that if you didn’t know these were country songs (by somehow missing the title of the album), you’d come away none the wiser; that’s how definitive these versions are. Ray owns these.
If you’ve never heard this record before, it’s easy to dismiss it as schlock. Imagine driving down the road, playing it loud in your car and stopping at a light – it would be nearly impossible to look cool. The pop arrangements sound very Music of Your Life/Ray Conniff (ask your grandparents); still, these are far richer than anything Conniff ever put to vinyl. Add in the five big band numbers that punch up the country with soul and you’re got a tremendous genre-bending effort that made it OK for people with no country roots to enjoy country music without even knowing it.
Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is available on CD from Amazon (not MP3 surprisingly). This includes the second volume of songs he recorded almost immediately after the success of the first album.
"Bye Bye Love" (Boudleaux Bryant, Felice Bryant)
“You Don’t Know Me” (Eddy Arnold, Cindy Walker)
“Half as Much” (Curley Williams)
“I Love You So Much It Hurts” (Floyd Tillman)
“Just a Little Lovin’ (Will Go a Long Way)” (Eddy Arnold, Zeke Clements)
“Born to Lose” (Ted Daffan)
“Worried Mind” (Ted Daffan, Jimmie Davis)
“It Makes No Difference Now” (Floyd Tillman, Jimmie Davis)
“You Win Again” (Hank Williams)
“Careless Love” (Traditional, Arranged by Ray Charles)
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” (Don Gibson)
“Hey, Good Lookin’” (Hank Williams)
When putting together radio show playlists, I found this to be especially true. “Why are these songs all so long? Get to the point english major!”
Tammy Wynette is best known for one song: “Stand By Your Man.” The hit created a stir with feminists when it debuted in October, 1968, and in the years following its release the singer would famously say time and again that she spent “fifteen minutes writing it, and a lifetime defending it,” vehemently denying that the song hints at male chauvinism.
It’s undeniable that Wynette’s promoters did all they could to capitalize on the public’s conclusions about “Stand By Your Man,” as evidenced by many similar hits that followed like “The Ways to Love a Man,” and “My Man (Understands).” But it’s important to note that Wynette was a lot more than the public’s view of “Stand By Your Man.” And it’s especially fascinating to look at her discography prior to the release of the song that completely reshaped her career.
Take Me to Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House, Wynette’s second release, is her richest album prior to “Stand By Your Man”— it delivers several excellent songs, and, most importantly, puts the singer’s complexities on full display. The album is most interesting because it hints at one particular theme that echoed not just “Stand By Your Man,” but Wynette’s personal life as well: the conflicted sense of independence and dependence on a man that strongly mirrored her life, the portrait of a woman with a strong mind, yet torn by gender-traditional values.
It’d be a far cry to try to make the argument that Take Me to Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House was meant to be a concept album, consciously dealing with gender issues. Rather, one should understand this album by taking into account the following: Wynette’s personal life and the ways it mirrored her songs, and the singer’s targeted audience, working to middle-class, and rural to suburban women. But though Wynette is not credited with any of the songwriting on this album, many songs on the record directly resonated with her personal life.
By the time Take Me to Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House was released, Wynette was a mother of three, and fast approaching her second divorce. So when Tammy, the product of an upbringing that sternly looked down on divorce, sang “I Don’t Wanna Play House,” her first number one hit as solo artist, there’s no doubt she felt every word of the heartbreaking story she was singing about. Referring to the times she had to perform the song live, Wynette once said: “There’s been many a time I’ve almost had to stop it.” This song can be viewed as the defining track on the album: lamenting, but not necessarily regretting a broken marriage.
The most common theme on Wynette’s second album is the on and off presence of a male partner. “Good” and “Take Me to Your World” are hopeful songs that depict a male as a savior; in each Wynette assumes the role of a morally degraded woman, admitting things like “temptation comes easy to a woman like me,” and that she’s in search of a male companion who can take her “away from bar rooms filled with smoke.”
But while Wynette may present males as moral saviors, more often, she explains that men have let her down— and shows she won’t stand by just any man. “The Phone Call” is the mysterious story of a young woman frantically calling her mother from an unknown location, revealing: “I’m alright, you see, you know how he’s mistreated me.” “I Don’t Wanna Play House” is the heartbreaking tale of the effects of a broken marriage. And “Fuzy Wuzzy Ego” and “Broadminded" are numbers that channel the feistiness of Loretta Lynn and challenge gender double standards of the time.
As was common at the time, Take Me to Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House features a number of covers. In the late sixties, country musicians often released multiple albums per year, and covers of popular hits were both an easy way to fill out an album, and draw appeal on the success of already known songs. “Cry” is an excellent cover of Johnnie Ray’s 1951 hit, whereas “Ode to Billie Joe” is a failing, distracted impersonation of Bobbie Gentry’s haunting song.
Every country fan should give Take Me to Your World/I Don’t Wanna Play House a listen— for not only is it a fun listen, but it’s a testament to the complexity of one of the greatest singers country’s ever seen.