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Ray Charles

The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959-1986 – 1998 (Rhino)

Reviewed by Eli Messinger

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CDs by Ray Charles

Setting aside Ray Charles' contributions to blues, soul and jazz, his catalog of Country and Western, documented in this four-disc set, still forms the basis of an incredible career. Rhino has gathered tracks spanning 28 years and several labels in this exhaustive document of Charles' country music.

His 1962 "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" and "Modern Sounds ... Volume 2," began a lengthy affair with Nashville songwriters. As the liner notes suggest, "the attraction was country song more than country style." Disc one, combining these first two albums, shows Charles' setting Nashville's finest to his brassy soul sound. The result is a successful reinterpretation of the country song, including hit versions of Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Cindy Walker's "You Don't Know Me."

Disc two opens with a driving take of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On," and a swaggering reading of Harlan Howard's "Busted." Charles surrounded his soulful vocals with big-band charts, strings and choruses as he translated these songs to a new idiom. He added an inverted bossa nova beat to Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and scored a mid-60's hit with Buck Owens' "Crying Time."

By the '70's, Charles began augmenting his sound with a country twang. He turned Chuck Willis' R&B classic "What Am I Living For," into a steel-guitar laden country-blues and he reworked Sonny and Cher's "All I Ever Need is You" with mandolin, steel guitar and his own alto saxophone.

In '82 Charles signed with Columbia's Nashville division and released "Wish You Were Here Tonight." Recording his band in Los Angeles and overdubbing in Nashville, he found tremendous resonance with pickers like Buddy Emmons. The influence of George Jones and other country vocalists can be heard on covers of "I Don't Want No Stranger Sleepin' in My Bed" and Tony Joe White's "3/4 Time." Mid-'80's duets with Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and others fill out disc four.

Considering this is but one corner of Charles' career, the variety and depth is impressive. Hats off to Rhino's Mike Johnson, and liner-note author Daniel Cooper for idea and execution.