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In American culture, blues and country are viewed as operating on opposite ends of the race spectrum. Charley Pride aside, country is still the whitest genre in pop; and before the Brits co-opted the blues in the 1960s, it was almost exclusively an African-American art form. Musically, though, the line between the two genres is a blurry one. In the early 20th Century, black and white musicians essentially played the same songs, and primitive country and blues versions sit together comfortably on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Early country legend Jimmie Rodgers, who shot to fame with his series of (appropriately named) “Blue Yodels,” was cited by Howlin’ Wolf as a formative influence. Likewise, Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene” and “Rock Island Line” have been covered at least as many times by country singers as blues musicians.
Yet by 1962, when Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, country and blues had become firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness as “different,” both from each other and from the mainstream. Part of this divide was due to marketing (“race records” versus “hillbilly music”); part was due to decades of natural musical evolution, especially once name stars became established and emphasis shifted to recording original compositions over old folk tunes. So when Ray Charles decided to record an album of country covers, the general reaction was surprise, to say the least. And when the album became successful, it was hailed as groundbreaking. Charles’s record was perceived as a powerful statement during the Civil Rights era, uniting black and white audiences and illuminating the shared roots of blues and country in American folk music. It also, rather unexpectedly, was the record that proved country music had a place in mainstream pop.
“I Can’t Stop Loving You,” the biggest hit from Modern Sounds, illustrates the record’s template. There’re no steel guitars or exaggerated accents here, just Charles crooning the ballad in his usual Southern drawl and playing his jazz/gospel piano. The result is that it sounds like a Ray Charles song, not a gimmicky cover. Current listeners unaware of the record’s history may not even realize that it had ever been a country song. And if the record had been merely Charles, his band and his backing singers, The Raelettes, it would have been a knockout. Later live versions (such as this one) demonstrate how great the song could have sounded if recorded with Charles’s usual set-up. Instead, in a bid to make the single even more appealing to white pop audiences, it’s slathered in strings and a backing chorus that sounds too formal and restrained for either R&B or country. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is still an impressive record, but one that sounds a bit too dated and straitlaced. And when viewed as part of Charles’s legacy as a whole, it also marks the point where he became less concerned with being an R&B innovator, and more concerned with appealing to the mainstream. 6
Hit #1 on June 2, 1962; total of 5 weeks at #1
72 of 972 #1’s reviewed; 7.41% through the Hot 100