Filling the Holes in Rolling Stone’s List of Greatest Country Soul Albums

As a given rule, criticizing the music lists of others is often a misguided practice. Whether it’s end-of-year lists accumulating the best stuff annually, or all-time lists looking more globally, these lists should be taken more as one individual’s insight, or one outlet’s perspective, and nothing more. Nobody has the omniscience to know about every song or album in a given field, nor the authority to decree what the “best” of anything is beyond their own perspectives, whether it’s Rolling Stone or anyone else.

For the record, when Rolling Stone released their 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time back in 2022, I actually though it was decent. Sure, I quibbled with quite a few things, and caught hell from a lot of folks for not flamethrowing it wholesale. But again, this was Rolling Stone‘s assessment, not Saving Country Music’s. And I felt they got a lot of important things right.

But this Rolling Stone list of the 25 Best Country Soul Albums has so many holes you could strain your spaghetti with it, while simultaneously including some titles that have no business being there. It’s so misleading, it demands a rebuttal, especially since it was posted to piggy back off the whole “Beyoncé goes country” moment, and has subsequently gone viral.

Furthermore, there is just something unsettling about labeling anything released from Black artists either in or near the country space as “country soul.” It can affect an othering of Black country contributors that feels unfair or even softly racist, similar to how many actual country artists over the last many years have been referred to as “Americana” because they do not fit the mainstream country stereotype.

Just because a performer is Black doesn’t mean their music automatically comes with more inflections of “soul” or “R&B.” Similarly, just because an artist is White, that doesn’t mean their music won’t come with any “soul” at all.

What Should NOT Be Included on the Rolling Stone List:

#4 – Linda Martell – Color Me Country (1970) – What’s so cool about Linda Martell and the moment she’s experiencing through her appearances on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is that Linda’s album Color Me Country is straight traditional country music through and through. Maybe there is a little bit of pop-style country rock indicative of the era in the mix as well, or just a dash of R&B-influenced delivery in the vocals of the album’s signature song, “Color Him Father.” But Color Me Country in no way sounds like a country soul project.

What is the sound of country? There is a twang to it, meaning biting, sharp notes that bend. What is soul? There is more of a smoothness to it, and a groove. Soul is often rendered more in keys and less in steel guitar or fiddle. Soul is greasy and sweaty. Country is more buttoned up. On Color Me Country, steel guitar is all over the place, and the sound is Countrypolitan. There is no crossover sound or a blending of genres.

#5 – Charley Pride – The Essential Charley Pride – First off, never include a Greatest Hits album on a “Best Of” list unless it’s risen to an iconic status all on it’s own. Think of The Eagles, Their Greatest Hits (1971-1975), but that’s the very rare exception. Yet Rolling Stone’s list has multiple Greatest Hits albums and multiple compilation albums as well. This is just lazy list making, like “Gee, Charley Pride is Black, but we don’t really know his catalog, so let’s throw a Greatest Hits album in the mix.”

Most importantly though, Charley Pride wasn’t really a country soul artists. This is how you can take Black country stars and do them dirty by stereotyping them. Charley Pride was Countrypolitan, country pop, and a traditional country star during the seasons of his career. What was cool about Charley Pride is he broke down stereotypes of what a country artist could be. He wasn’t a crossover star, and he didn’t come from another genre. Charley Pride was country, period.

#7 – Various Artists – From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music – This a fine collection of music released in 1998, and one that underscores how black contributions to country were not erased as some love to claim. But Rolling Stone also included this album in their 100 Greatest Country Albums of All Time list, and it didn’t make any sense then either. This compilation has long been out-of-print, barely anyone owns a copy, let alone knows of its existence. It just feels like putting a comp album on the list because the performers are Black.

#23- Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music – Okay, now you’re just insulting our intelligence. For the record, in Saving Country Music’s estimation, Metamodern Sounds is the most important country album of our generation. It opened up independent country to the mainstream. It stoked the modern country music revolution. It is up there with Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger as one of the most important albums in country music of all time, and was #1 on Saving Country Music’s list of Greatest Albums of the Last Decade (2010-2019).

But this isn’t a country soul album at all. Not even a little bit. It’s the titular example of psychedelic country. But I guess we’re going to call it country soul just because Sturgill named it after Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country Music from 1962? Give me a break. Simpson’s Grammy-winning A Sailor’s Guide to Earth probably has more soul due to the Stax horns.

#25- Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig – An incredibly important album to the country canon, but one that in no way embodies the idea of “country soul.” Instead, it’s a reclamation of country music’s Black roots born from very traditional and old-time string compositions that tracks country’s origins back to Black minstrel players. Does it simply have “soul” because the performers are Black? Again, this is a stereotype.

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Let’s also give credit where credit is due. Rolling Stone says 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country Music by Ray Charles is the #1 country soul album of all time, and that’s hard to argue with. Their #2 is Tina Turner’s Tina Turns The Country On! from 1974, which is also a solid selection. Arthur Alexander’s self-titled album from 1972 comes in at #3. That may be a little high on the list, but Alexander is recognized as a pioneer of the “country soul” sound.

Charlie Rich at #8 for Behind Closed Doors is a solid pick, as is Valerie June at #12 with Pushin’ Against A Stone. Yola really is the modern definition of country soul, and her album Walk Through The Fire makes it on the list, though #21 seems high for an album that’s so emblematic of modern country soul .

What Should Be Included:

Jerry Reed – Georgia Sunshine (1970), When You’re Hot, You’re Hot (1971), Ko-Ko Joe (1971), or pretty much anything else from his catalog from 1970 to 1980 – When you’re talking about country soul, there is really only one artist after Ray Charles that you absolutely must make sure to include, and that’s Jerry Reed. He is the origination point of the greasy, bell-bottomed, straight-out-of-Georgia smooth pimp country soul sound if there ever was one, and to overlook songs like “Amos Moses” and “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot” is to totally disqualify any attempt at populating a list of country soul music.

What is Rolling Stone thinking? It’s Country Music Hall of Famer Jerry Reed and everyone else. On a Top 25 list of country soul albums, he should appear two or three times at the least. This is nothing short of an egregious oversight.

Chris Stapleton – Traveller (2015) – You can’t have a discussion about country soul without including Chris Stapleton. Chris Stapleton isn’t a country artist. He’s a soul artist with country inflections who rose to popularity in the country space. That’s why he is polarizing to some country fans despite the undeniable talent. The soaring nature of his voice and the style of his stellar guitar playing is all imbued with the true meaning of “soul.”

2015’s Traveller changed the game in country music forevermore. When Stapleton won big at the 2015 CMA Awards, it marked the beginning of the end of Bro-Country, and the rise of non radio-supported artists in the mainstream. “Tennessee Whiskey” is still one of the most popular songs in all of country music nearly 10 years after Stapleton’s version was released, and is the perfect example of country soul.

Ray Charles – Friendship (1984) – One of the most egregious oversights in not just country soul, but the contributions of Black performers in country music continues to be the ’80s output of Ray Charles. No, Ray Charles didn’t just release one country album, which is the constant refrain you hear from folks who love to compliment Modern Sounds in Country Music, but don’t know much afterwards. No, Ray Charles released seven country albums, including four between 1983 and 1986.

Friendship was a #1 album in country music. It produced a #1 song in “Seven Spanish Angels” with Willie Nelson. “It Ain’t Gonna Worry My Mind” with Mickey Gilley went #12. “Rock and Roll Shoes” with B.J. Thomas, and “Two Old Cats Like Us” with Hank Williams Jr. both went #14. Friendship did in the ’80s what Modern Sounds did back in the ’60s for fusing the R&B influences with country.

J.J. Cale – Naturally (1971), Troubadour (1976) – Perhaps there’s no performer that instilled feel and groove into what otherwise would be considered country music than Tulsa, Oklahoma’s J.J. Cale. His debut album Naturally gave rise to “They Call Me The Breeze” covered by Lynyrd Skynyrd, and “After Midnight” that was made a hit by Eric Clapton, speaking to his sweeping influence. If that ain’t country soul enough for you, check out another one of his masterworks, Troubadour from 1976 that includes the iconic “Cocaine.”

When you look in a textbook under the term “country soul,” you’ll see a picture of the soft spoken and groove-laden J.J. Cale, at least in Oklahoma.

The War & Treaty – Lover’s Game (2023) – For whatever reason, The War & Treaty always get overlooked in critical conversations about Black contributions in country music, even though they’re signed to a major Nashville label, regularly perform at the Grand Ole Opry, and might be on the short list of upcoming Opry inductees. Or maybe it’s the fact that they are accepted in Nashville and country, and they don’t go around grousing about how horrible they’re treated that they are never included in these conversations.

Either way, you absolutely cannot have a conversation about country soul, and keep The War & Treaty out of it. Similar to Yola, Michael and Tanya Trotter define country soul in the modern era, and are great ambassadors for it in the way they’ve converted scores of country fans to the discipline.

Larry Jon Wilson – New Beginnings(1975) – One of the truly overlooked pioneers of country soul from Augusta, Georgia, his terrible track record for landing hits and selling records seems to always get Larry Jon Wilson left out of these conversations.

The one time Larry Jon Wilson wasn’t overlooked is when he appeared in the iconic Outlaw country documentary Heartworn Highways. He was captured recording his excellent country soul scorcher “Ohoopee River Bottom Land” in a scene that has since become an iconic moment for country soul.

Charley Crockett – When all is said and done, who knows, Charley Crockett might be crowned the King of Country Soul. It’s Crockett’s distinctive mix of traditional country with soul and R&B influences that have made him one of the hottest artists in independent country, and one of the coolest cats country music has ever seen. Which album best embodies Charley Crockett’s country soul? All of them really.

And what makes Crockett especially cool is how he can slide from a traditional country song into a smooth vintage soul tune totally seamlessly. This is because Mr. Crockett is a master of both disciplines, and looks at music more through the lens of era as opposed to genre.

Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon – (2018) – Or really, any of his albums – Georgia is the home of country soul. That’s where Ray Charles is from. That’s where Jerry Reed is from. This is where Larry Jon Wilson is from. That is where Brent Cobb is from, and you can hear it oozing out of all of their music.

Brent Cobb is one of the premier modern purveyors of country soul. And though all of his albums qualify under that heading, Providence Canyon comes with an extra helping of grease and butter to make it slide down easy.

Honorable mention must also be given to Adam Hood and his 2022 album Bad Days Better, as well as Jason Eady’s Mississippi. All three of these top notch songwriters have put that deep groove on their recent albums in a way that best illustrates “country soul.”

A Hastily Thrown Together Potential Top 20 “Best Country Soul Albums of All Time” List:

20. Waylon Jennings – This Time (1974)
19. Valerie June – Pushin’ Against a Stone (2013)

18. Charley Crockett – The Man From Waco (2022)
17. Brent Cobb – Providence Canyon (2018)
16. J.J. Cale – Troubadour (1976)
15. Arthur Alexander – Arthur Alexander (1972)
14. The War & Treaty – Lover’s Game (2023)
13. Larry Jon Wilson – New Beginnings (1975)
12. Jerry Reed – Ko-Ko Joe (1971)
11. Yola – Walk Through The Fire (2019)
10. Ray Charles – Friendship (1984)
9. Charlie Rich – Behind Closed Doors (1973)
8. Jerry Reed – When You’re Hot, You’re Hot (1971)
7. Tony Joe White – Black & White (1969)
6. J.J. Cale – Naturally (1971)
5. Bobbie Gentry – Ode to Billie Joe (1967)
4. Jerry Reed – Georgia Sunshine (1970)
3. Tina Turner – Tina Turns The Country On!
2. Chris Stapleton – Traveller (2015)
1. Ray Charles – Modern Sounds in Country Music (1962)

Other names that deserve to be in the discussion: Ronnie Milsap, O.B. McClinton, Joe Stampley, Delbert McClinton, Leon Russell, T. Graham Brown, Anita Pointer, and more…

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