Ray Charles' Modern Sounds in Country & Western Vol 1 stands as a testament to one musicians unrelenting impulse for creative control and to record music his way. Even though he was often circumspect on the subject it may have also been a challenge to take on the vanguard of popular white music and to show that country music could be given a different interpretation and retain the emotional impact, Ray did that and more with this album.
The genesis of the album really began when Ray signed with ABC Paramount records towards the end of 1959, leaving a pioneering rhythm and blues label in Atlantic Records caused some controversy. For Ray Charles it was a decision that was equal parts creative and financial, he was given unprecedented creative license and future control of his material, it was a contract unheard of for most artists let alone an African American rhythm and blues singer. Ray had a long affinity with country music having played in a hillbilly band in his early days and like most who were born and raised south of the Mason Dixon line he had listened to the Grand Ole Opry on a fairly regular basis. When Ray made the decision to record an album of country and western songs he contacted his producer at ABC-Paramount Sid Feller to gather a selection of material from publishers in Nashville and he would select the best fit. Sid found 40 suitable songs and put them on a tape for Ray tot select his preferred options.
In February 1962 Ray entered the Capitol Studios in New York to begin the sessions with a firm idea of the album he wanted to record, he was ably assisted by his amazing band and some great arrangements from Marty Paich, Gerard Wilson and the legendary Gil Fuller. The album starts with a raucous swinging version of the Everly Brothers song Bye Bye Love with a sanctified Ray bemoaning the loss of his love with appropriate moaning sounds in the final chorus. His interpretation of You Don't Know Me is incredible, Ray makes this song resonate deeply with emotion and sadness, the story of someone so shy that they are unable to express their love for someone who considers him to be just a friend. The way Ray sings of this resignation to reality is so stark and pure, his ability to convey this is what truly marks him as a genius. I listen to the song now and I still feel tingles, the string arrangements are lush and add another dimension to the song. The intricate string and vocal arrangements are a strong focus throughout the album and provide these songs with a great intensity, it doesn't detract from the beauty of the originals it's just a different style that works just as well.
Half as Much has a gentle swinging feel with the horn section more prevalent and Ray giving the song a more soulful slant with his gospel rich vocals. I Love You So Much It Hurts displays that aching tone Ray does so well, accompanied by a soft string arrangement. It Makes No Difference Now takes a more bluesy stance especially with the opening intricate piano fill, on the Hank Williams classic You Win Again Ray lets his voice take control. Each of the songs on the album have a sense of desperation and loss, the vagaries of love are explored and provide fertile ground for Ray to display his ability to express this with unheralded conviction. The album was recorded at a time of personal upheaval for Ray, even though he had achieved financial stability he was dogged by his addiction to heroin, he had been busted about six months earlier.
His version of Don Gibsons' I Can't Stop Loving You, which had been a hit the year before was the song the broke Ray further into the mainstream and away from his R&B fan base. The stings create that lonely feeling and sense of isolation, Ray plays some nice bluesy piano fills in the breaks from verse and chorus, in the bridge Ray adds some call and response to the backing vocalists. It's a truly beautiful song and rounds out the albums theme of love and loss. Ray then takes Hank Williams' Hey Good Lookin and turns into a brassy uptempo R&B number with some funky piano playing in the break, what a genius! The executives at ABC-Paramount were initially not pleased with the album fearing that Ray would alienate his traditional base, but it didn't seem to do that, instead it found Ray a new audience. The album topped the U.S album charts on it's release for a massive 14 weeks, it also reached #6 in the U.K. I Can't Stop Loving You topped the pop and R&B charts staying at the top of the pop charts for 5 weeks, it also went to #1 in the U.K. You Don't Know Me was released as the follow up and reached U.S#2 and U.K#6.