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Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music Vol 1 is an attempt by Ray Charles to cross over between the R&B and country music markets by covering a variety of songs that had been country hits over the few years previous to its 1962 release. It also happens to be one of the very greatest albums ever made.

Please note - this node is based on an Italian vinyl import copy I picked up second hand for 50p (the greatest bargain of my life), so the tracklist may be different for other countries.

The album opens with Bye Bye Love, a version of the Everly Brothers' hit, transmuted into uptempo jump band R&B. Not one of the best tracks on the album - it feels like a deliberate rearrangement out of pure perversity - but OK.

You Don't Know Me I already covered in the node Ray Charles Is God. Suffice to say this is one of the three or four greatest recordings in the history of popular music...

Half As Much is a decent uptempo blues track. It's not as good as the preceding track, but what is?

I Love You So Much It Hurts, a cover of a Floyd Tillman song, is another absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful ballad. However, like You Don't Know Me, it has horrible whitebread lush sounding backing singers. Someone should have shot them before they could taint an otherwise perfect track such as this.

Just A Little Lovin', the second Eddy Arnold song of the album, is another uptempo jump band blues song. By this point, the album is quickly falling into a pattern, alternating between pretty good but not earth shattering jump blues stuff, usually saxophone led, and beautiful, haunting versions of ballads, with Charles at his best, but with the horrible cooing backing vocalists.

Born To Lose is another classic ballad, recorded by almost every country artist at one time or another. Ray Charles, while his upbeat songs are great (see What'd I Say? or I Got A Woman for ample proof of that), is at his best when articulating simple emotions of heartbreak and loss. I defy anyone to listen to the ballads from this album without crying at least once. The word 'genius' has been applied to many, but never more than to Ray Charles, and there's a reason for that.

Side two starts with Worried Mind - unlike side 1, side 2 is almost entirely ballads and mid-tempo material, and is all the better for it. This track is not exceptional by the standards of this album, but on anyone else's it would be a stand-out track.

It Makes No Difference Now, another Floyd Tillman song, is a mid-tempo blues, with a resigned air - 'I don't blame myself, and I surely can't blame you'. This is the track that more than any other shows the influence of Nat 'King' Cole on Charles' vocal style, but also shows his utterly distinctive use of that style, with some wonderful high register notes.

You Win Again - oddly, the first Hank Williams song of the set - is another of the resigned mid-tempo songs. This is exactly as good as you'd imagine Ray Charles singing a Hank Williams song to be - in other words about as good as it gets.

Careless Love is the only Ray Charles original on this set. A mid-tempo blues song, it's passable and fits well on the album, but isn't one of the best tracks by a long way.

I Can't Stop Loving You is almost as wonderful as You Don't Know Me. Almost. Just listen to the way Ray Charles sings 'but time has stood still since we've been apart' and stretches the last syllable the first time round... Apparently Don Gibson wrote this song and Oh Lonesome Me in one half hour period. Talented bastard.

Hey Good Lookin', the Hank Williams song, is an upbeat closer in the same style as Bye Bye Love, but much more successful. This is just absolutely joyous, everything about it from the drum intro to Charles' trilling piano solo to his leap into falsetto on the very last 'me' just making you want to get up and dance. Not as emotionally moving as some of the other tracks, but it's fun, and quite frankly any more beautiful heartbreaking ballads and I'd be in no state to write this - I'd be in the foetal position crying like a baby.

Go out and buy this album. There's no excuse not to. Why this isn't considered one of those classics like Pet Sounds, What's Going On or Astral Weeks I don't know, but it's every bit the equal of those masterpieces.

update 6/6/05 Slidewell is of course right that the arrangements are poor, and the backing vocalists atrocious. That really doesn't matter though. Flawed greatness is still greatness, and I for one would put this higher than anything in Charles' Atlantic years.

This album is, apart from its brilliant commercial marketing strategy, is nothing less than a travesty in the remarkable career of Ray Charles. I could go on and on praising his superb and deeply emotional vocal interpretations of country and western material that, for the most part, I hold great affection. However, the musical arrangements and performances of the stiff and utterly soulless background musicians and singers leave me drowning in my own tears. Any comparison of these renditions, compared to the classic earthy and vital material he recorded for Atlantic Records is laughable.

This assessment has nothing to do with country music per se. Good country session musicians have created a legacy of heartfelt emotion and deep soulfulness behind all the greats of country music. The band behind Ray on this, and the subsequent Vol. 2, are strictly HOLLYWOOD. Professional, but without substance.

I in no way begrudge Ray's attempt at garnering a larger audience, which he so richly deserved, but this album cannot measure up to Ray Charles' earlier Atlantic albums. Please, there ARE reasons not to run out and buy this album. Do yourself a favor and seek out Ray Charles at Newport. Ray's band and singers kick up a tidal wave of energy behind him. Ray responds with an intensity that the microphones can't contain. On this album, and many of his earlier Atlantic sides, Ray Charles and his band create a visceral excitement that literally jumps out of the speakers. Sadly, on Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 1, the mighty Ray is surrounded by the equivalent of musical vanilla pudding.

By all means, if you've heard the Atlantic stuff, and you want to delve deeper into Ray's catalogue, try MSIC&W Vol.s & 2. I thoroughly ADORE Ray Charles, but after years of trying to dig this album and the follow up, Vol. 2, Modern Sounds is like a beautiful diamond set in a cheap plastic ring.

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