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Exhibit explores Ray Charles’ country side

R&B genius’ 1962 album ‘Modern Sounds’ cornerstone of Nashville display
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ray Charles' 1962 album "Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music" was a milestone that broadened the audience for country music and brought new respect to the genre, and a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum helps explain why.

"I Can't Stop Loving You: Ray Charles and Country Music" opens March 10.

It shows how he listened to the Grand Ole Opry radio show as a child, and performed Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors" for a Country Music Television special a year before his death in 2004.

But "Modern Sounds" is a cornerstone of the exhibit. The album was a phenomenal success for Charles, staying at No. 1 on the Billboard Pop Album chart for 14 weeks.

Many say it brought credibility to a musical form that was thought inferior and derided as "hillbilly music."

Michael Gray, associate museum editor and co-curator of the exhibit that runs through Dec. 31, 2007, said singers from other genres began looking to Nashville for material after Charles released his masterpiece.

The display includes audio from the album, song manuscripts, sheet music and photos, as well as quotes about the record from Loretta Lynn, Willie Nelson and Billy Joel.

"Country music has been here forever, but for years a lot of people who listened to country music were ashamed to admit it," Lynn said. "What I really think started it booming was Ray Charles and his hit 'I Can't Stop Loving You.'"

And yet "Modern Sounds" is an odd landmark for Nashville. Recorded in New York and Los Angeles, it's a collection of country songs that sound nothing like traditional country music. Instead they are filtered through Charles' prism of jazz, pop, R&B and gospel.

Songs such as the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love" and Hank Williams' "Hey, Good Lookin'" were interpreted as big band jazz numbers, while others including Williams' "You Win Again" and Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" were done as lush pop songs with string orchestras.

Country radio largely ignored it. Despite being a No. 1 pop and R&B hit, "I Can't Stop Loving You" didn't even make the chart on the country side.

Not until the 1980s did Charles find success on the country charts, chiefly with an album of duets he recorded in Nashville with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Hank Williams Jr. That album, "Friendship," gave Charles his only No. 1 country song, "Seven Spanish Angels," a duet with Nelson.

A 1950s pioneer of soul with raw songs such as "I've Got a Woman" and "What'd I Say," Charles had performed and recorded country tunes before "Modern Sounds," even playing piano in a white country group, the Florida Playboys, as a young man.

But the album marked the first time he'd recorded a whole collection of it. The move seemed to validate the music of the Southern white working class during the heat of the civil rights era, and ABC-Paramount executives were nervous.

"They told him he was crazy," Gray said. "They thought he would lose his core audience. He said, 'I might lose some of my core audience, but I think I'll gain more fans than I'll lose.' And he proved to be right."

Charles became a millionaire after "Modern Sounds," allowing him to achieve financial and artistic independence by opening his own recording studio, publishing company and record labels in Los Angeles.

"It gave him complete control over the recording process," said Mick Buck, the other curator of the exhibit.

The 5,000-square-foot exhibit covers other aspects of Charles' nearly 60-year career and is filled with artifacts, including his electric pianos, saxophone, stage costumes, electronic chess board, and Braille editions of Playboy (the joke around the Hall of Fame is that Charles' is one of the few men who can truthfully say he read Playboy for the articles). TV footage includes Charles performing on "Hee-Haw," "The Johnny Cash Show" and "The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour."

Many of the artifacts are on loan from Charles' estate, and many from collectors or musicians who worked with Charles.

Gray said one thing became apparent as he and Buck were assembling the exhibit.

"You know how sometimes there's a hype around a name or a cliche? From every account of research that we've done, everything points to him truly being a musical genius. Nobody doubts that. Even the people who may have had personality issues with Ray or whatever. Unequivocally, everyone talks about what a genius musician he really was."