Hey, you got soul in my country
By Doug Freeman,
4:10PM, Thu. Sep. 18, 2008
Country and soul have always had a tenuous connection, undoubtedly exacerbated by the racial identifications of their respective fanbases. Yet despite the perceived disconnect between the two genres, the populist formats of both have always been more fluid and contiguous than is traditionally recognized. Elvis’ melding of country and R&B may even arguably be considered the genesis of rock & roll, though that middle ground has largely only served to allow soul and country to remain segregated.
With his 1962 Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles created the benchmark for crossing the line, highlighting the similarities in sentiment often overshadowed by sound. Then there are the woeful but effective 1990s attempts by labels to package hits across genres in watered down formats, with songs like “I Swear” being simultaneously pre-fabbed as chart toppers for John Michael Montgomery and All 4 One. Granted, both versions of the song were directed for generic Wal-Mart sensibilities, but emphasized labels’ recognition that with only a slight shift in arrangements and presentation, the same song can play across radio formats.
The release of German imprint Trinkont’s More Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country, the second compilation of country songs retrofitted with soul and funk attitude (and vice versa) is a different beast altogether, and an exceptional archival achievement. Like the initial collection, More Dirty Laundry expands and explodes the traditional narrative that has often segregated the genres. The compilation isn’t simply a gimmick of country songs covered by R&B artists, but rather a testament to just how embedded the artists and songs are in a similar cultural appeal. Listening to Sammy Davis Jr. do Merle Travis’ “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke” sounds as natural as can be, and James Brown on Roy Drusky’s hit “Three Hearts in a Tangle” is an immaculate melding.
The key to Dirty Laundry, however, is the realization of the connection between country and soul. Ike and Tina Turner’s original “Don’t Believe Nothing” is smoky and funky, but put in this context, the influence of Southern rock is brought to the fore. Opener “Hell Yes, I Cheated” from Johnny Adams displays a similar emphasis, a slow R&B groove over a sentiment that would seem pure country, while O.B. McClinton’s version of “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right)” aches with a low drawl that actually sounds similar to Jim White. McClinton serves as an example of an African-American country artist and songwriter on the album who, unlike Charley Pride’s extremely smooth and traditional sound, still injects some of the rough soul into his music, most evident on the very country lean of “Talk to My Children’s Mama.”
There are some songs on the album that are less effective, like Clyde McPhatter’s rockabilly “I’m Movin’ On,” and Joe Tex’s “King of the Road” doesn’t do much to push the original. These examples are easily overlooked, however, by moments like Ruth Brown’s absolutely eviscerating “Tennessee Waltz” and the complete overhaul of Ernest Tubb’s “Walkin’ the Floor Over You,” by Junior Parker. Across 24 tracks, there is a lot to experience, but more important is just how much that experience and the context in which Trinkont puts these songs demand a re-interpretation of the relationship between soul and country (as well the genres’ race-based assumptions).