“I think Ray Charles did as much as anybody when he did his country music album.”
You don’t primarily consider Ray Charles as a country artist, and for obvious reasons. The lion’s share of his legacy was forged in pop, blues, and R&B. But you don’t consider Elvis Presley primarily a country star either, or the Everly Brothers. But they’re in the Country Music Hall of Fame for not just the influence, but the impact they had on the genre. This is the same reason the Country Music Hall of Fame has also chosen to induct Ray Charles as its 2021 Veterans Era inductee.
He was announced Monday morning (8-16) with a surprising four inductees this year, after musicians Eddie Bayers and Pete Drake tied for the distinction. The Judds were also announced as the new inductees the Modern Era category (READ MORE).
Some will larp about how the Hall of Fame has gone woke, or present other arguments about the obvious calculus behind the pick. For sure, it is advantageous to induct Ray Charles at a time when race is such a heavy topic in American culture, and country music specifically. But don’t allow that to discount the incredible impact Ray Charles had on the genre in ways that most certainly are Hall of Fame worthy, and frankly, a lot more worthy than some of the other plaques that adorn the rotunda.
With his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and Volume 2 released later, Ray Charles opened up the gift and the joy of country music to an entirely new audience that may have otherwise not have been exposed to it. It wasn’t just the contributions of Ray Charles to the country music canon, it was his ambassadorship for country to the rest of the musical world that made his contributions so magnanimous, and impactful.
And though you may not consider Ray Charles a Hall of Famer simply off of the commercial numbers he amassed like some inductees, it wasn’t as if his impact on country was all hypothetical. The Modern Sounds in Country Music volumes launched numerous hits, including #1’s with “I Can’t Stop Loving You” written by Don Gibson, Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me,” the old traditional “You Are My Sunshine.”
Ray Charles died in 2004. The President of the Ray Charles Foundation Valerie Ervin spoke on Ray’s behalf about the induction. “Needless to say, Ray Charles loved country music. As a matter of fact, he risked a lot in 1962 when he decided to record ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.’ As the President of the Ray Charles Foundation, I cannot express enough how happy and honored Ray Charles would be at this moment in time, as I am for him.”
And sometimes folks forget about all the success Ray Charles had in country music in the 80’s, charting six Top 20 hits, including a #1 with Willie Nelson on “Seven Spanish Angels,” and the #6 “We Didn’t See a Thing” with Chet Atkins and George Jones. His album Friendship released in 1984 went #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
Country music had a friend in Ray Charles, and one it owes and incredible debt of gratitude to for the service he did for country in the 60’s, in the 80’s, and throughout his entire career. And now that debt has been repaid by enshrining the legacy of Ray Charles forever in the Hall of Fame.