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!”