Dispelling the Ray Charles “Only One Country Album” Myth

photo: Norman Seeff

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However you feel about the supposed “country” songs of Beyoncé, her entrance into the country music space could be an opportunity to highlight the Black legacy in country music, and some have used the moment for that very thing to a positive degree. But many others have done the very opposite.

As we have seen in an increasing frequency over the last few years, in the effort to portray country music as being even more exclusionary to Black performers than it ever was, the accomplishments of country’s few but critically-important Black contributors have been systematically diminished, overlooked, and sometimes outright erased in service of this cause.

Another culprit for downplaying or outright erasing Black contributions in country music is to portray today’s Black artists as being more groundbreaking and unprecedented than they actually are, often to launch viral social media posts or articles. This has been especially prevalent around the Beyoncé story.

These trends often result in Black erasure, or the erasing of country music’s Black legacy. And though white supremacy is often cited for removing the Black legacy from country music, it is ironically the journalists, academics, and activists purporting to champion the Black cause in country music that are more commonly the ones perpetrating this erasure in the modern era.

One of the most common misunderstandings when it comes to Black performers in country music is the legacy of Ray Charles. Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2022, his legacy is regularly diminished to being just about “one album.” When Ray’s Hall of Fame status is cited by country fans as a counterargument to country music excluding Black performers, activists often clap back that Ray was an R&B singer who only released one country album, so he doesn’t really count when it comes to country music’s Black legacy. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

First, it’s not fair to gloss over just what a feat it is that Ray Charles made it into the Country Music Hall of Fame in the first place. The Country Music Hall of Fame is not like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or other Halls of Fame that open their doors wide to most anyone who has achieved in a given field.

Whether it’s sports, entertainment, or any other discipline, the Country Music Hall of Fame is the most austere institution at letting new inductees in. The Country Music Hall of Fame only allows three individuals in each year, which has created a massive backlog of inductees that Ray was able to bust through to earn the achievement.

But even in the many articles praising Ray Charles for his Hall of Fame induction in 2022, the common refrain read along the lines of, “He only released one country album. But that country album was so important and influential, it makes Ray Charles deserving of a Hall of Fame distinction all on its own.”

There is even a quote from Ray’s close friend Willie Nelson that on the surface affirms this “only one Ray Charles country record” theory. The Willie Nelson quote reads, “I think Ray Charles did as much as anybody when he did his country music album. Ray Charles broke down borders and showed the similarities between country music and R&B.”

The album that everyone seems to be referring to is Ray’s landmark 1962 release, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album went #1 in country, and is given credit for dramatically broadening the appeal for country to new audiences. It did this by offering renditions of country music classics such as “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin'” by Hank Williams, “You Don’t Know Me” by Eddy Arnold and Cindy Walker, and other standard country songs.

Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music went on to populate scores of “Greatest Albums of All Time” lists by Time Magazine, Rolling Stone, VH1, CMT, Saving Country Music, and many other outlets, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

But Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music wasn’t the only country music album Ray Charles released. In fact, Ray Charles released seven country albums in three separate decades, and participated in other country songs and collaborations throughout his career.

Even just counting 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music as the “one” country album from Ray Charles is grossly misleading. Charles released the original Modern Sounds in Country Music album in April of 1962. But after its overwhelming success, he went back into the studio in 1962, and in October released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Volume Two. This included twelve more tracks and was also an overwhelming success, hitting #2 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.

Both Modern Sounds in Country Music albums also resulted in hit singles, with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” going to #1, “You Don’t Know Me” hitting #2, and Ray’s version of “You Are My Sunshine” going to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100.

But it’s not just Modern Sounds Volume 2 that is regularly overlooked in these discussions. In 1970, Ray Charles returned to his country influences with the album Love Country Style. It included a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” two songs written by country music’s Mickey Newbury, and the song “You’ve Still Got a Place in My Heart” by country artist Leon Payne.

But perhaps most importantly, in 1980, Ray Charles left his deal with Atlantic Records as his his career was faltering. Where he found support was signing with Columbia Records as a country artist in 1983. Over the next three years, he would release four dedicated country music albums as a country artist:

Wish You Were Here Tonight – 1983
Do I Ever Cross Your Mind – 1984
Friendship – 1984
From The Pages of My Mind – 1986

These weren’t just side projects. Radio singles were released from each album, and through this period, Ray Charles was considered a bonafide country artist, appeared on country bills, and playing his country songs during public appearances and concerts. The album Friendship became a #1, giving Charles his second #1 and third Top 5 album in country. He also scored a #1 song in country with “Seven Spanish Angels” featuring Willie Nelson. In total, Charles had six Top 20 singles in country through the era, and eight Top 40 singles.

“Born To Love Me” – #20
“We Didn’t See a Thing” – #6
“Rock and Roll Shoes” – #14
“Seven Spanish Angels” – #1
“It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind” – #12
“Two Old Cats Like Us” – #14
“The Pages of My Mind” – #34

In fact, that Willie Nelson quote of, “I think Ray Charles did as much as anybody when he did his country music album,” there’s a chance Willie wasn’t referring to Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music from 1962. He could be referring to 1984’s Friendship, where Ray paired with country greats of the time duet style. After all, Willie had a #1 song with Ray from the record.

Friendship was produced by well-known country producer Billy Sherrill. Also during this period, Ray Charles performed on The Tonight Show (February 2nd, 1984) to sing the songs “Friendship” and “We Didn’t See a Thing” with George Jones. Ray Charles and George Jones also performed on the 1984 ACM Awards together.

Along with the country artists who embraced Ray Charles through his 1984 album Friendship, Johnny Cash was a regular supporter of Ray throughout his career. Johnny Cash had Ray Charles on his landmark The Johnny Cash Show around the time Ray released the 1970 country album Love Country Style, and the two collaborated on numerous songs over the years.

The 1980s country era of Ray Charles was the last successful era of Ray’s career. It resulted in his final #1 song and album, and his final Top 40 albums and songs overall. Where the R&B and pop formats had abandoned Ray, country music was there to embrace him in the twilight of his commercial career.

There is another reason the ’80s era of the Ray Charles legacy is important to not overlook. Along with the misnomer that Ray Charles only released one country album, a similar misnomer has been forwarded about how the country industry only allowed “one Black country artist” at a time. Over the last few years, this talking point has been parroted regularly, putting the legacy of any Black country artist not named Charley Pride on perilous footing. The popular career of Pride and his thirty #1 singles overlapped with the Ray Charles resurgence in country music during the early 1980s.

Nonetheless, journalist Elamin Abdelmahmoud has pushed this false narrative on numerous occasions, asserting in a 2021 Buzzfeed article, “In the era of Charley Pride, country music’s biggest Black superstar, there was a pervading ethos that country music only has room for one Black star.”

The 2022 Amazon film For Love & Country also pushes this claim. In fact, the film doesn’t even mention Ray Charles at any point at all. His legacy goes entirely undocumented in a film that purports to document the Black legacy in country music.

Stoney Edwards is another example of how this “only one Black country artist” claim is false. Stoney released six country albums for Capitol Records starting in 1971. He was signed to the label by well-known producer Ken Nelson. When Charley Pride won country music’s biggest trophy in 1971—the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award—Nelson felt the label needed to find a Black country singer of their own.

After Saving Country Music marked the 25th Anniversary of the passing of Stoney Edwards in 2022 and complained that his albums weren’t available digitally, Universal heard the criticism and reissued their six Stoney Edwards albums.

It always deserves to be underscored in these discussions that Black performers have clearly received less opportunities in country music historically, resulting in the few Black country performers who’ve found popularity over the years. But there are other factors to this as well, including how there have just been less Black performers attempting to pursue country music as a career over the years. But similar to Charley Pride, Ray Charles insists he did not receive any criticism by turning his sights on country music.

Ray Charles told NPR in 1998, “I had nobody to give me any static about what I did. I had more static when I started sounding like my true self, as opposed to trying to imitate Nat King Cole … But when I went into the country field, you know, nobody said anything. And I guess they really didn’t say too much because the thing was so big. I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue with something when it’s that big a hit.”

As Billboard recently said in one of the few stories that has sounded the alarm about the Black erasure at the heart of many of the articles on Beyoncé’s foray into country, “…while many Black female artists have struggled to thrive in country as they may have deserved, they’ve still been present and impactful, and the word ‘reclamation’ erases the strides they made before the launch of Act II. As a billionaire, Beyoncé is effectively an institution, so she can’t really ‘reclaim’ anything.”

Black women have also been subject to this erasure on numerous occasions, including in 2020 when Mickey Guyton was given credit for being the first Black woman to perform on the ACM Awards when Rihanna, Valerie June, and even Mickey Guyton herself had performed on the awards previously. These kinds of proclamations result in viral social media threads, and the wholesale erasure of the accomplishments that came before in the public mindset.

The country music legacy of Ray Charles is a great illustration of how the contributions and impact of Black performers in country music is commonly diminished and overlooked. Ray Charles didn’t make it into the Country Music Hall of Fame by happenstance or as a token. He earned it by showing his love and appreciation to country music throughout his successful R&B career, and spreading the love and appreciation for country music beyond the genre’s previously-defined borders.

Ray Charles was one of country music’s greatest ambassadors as an R&B singer. But the Albany, Georgia native was also one of country music’s great native performers.

© 2023 Saving Country Music