LAUNDRY: THE SOUL OF BLACK COUNTRY
Did you know that the Pointer Sisters and James Brown have both played the Grand Ole Opry?
Today's country and soul worlds seem increasingly divided not by style so much as by race. Although modern white country singers have obviously been influenced by the vocal approaches of black soul singers, we have been led to believe that country music is the almost exclusive purview of white artists, Charley Pride notwithstanding. Luckily, Dirty Laundry: the Soul of Black Country, a new release from the German label Trikont, explores the long connection and crossover between soul music and country music, addressing the misconception that black music has evolved along a branch completely divorced from the country music that has come to be associated with white America.
Beyond musicological considerations, though, is the music itself. And Dirty Laundry is an absolutely terrific collection of country songs performed by black artists. Many of the performers give soul and black gospel settings to songs by Hank Williams or Harlan Howard or songs best known as hits for artists like Tammy Wynette or Johnny Paycheck. Others, like Stoney Edwards (whose "She's My Rock" comes complete with vocal scoops a la George Jones), give the full-on country treatment to classic country tunes both famous and less well-known.
There are too many fantastic tracks to mention here, but check out Earl Gaines' version of Jimmy Davis' "You Are My Sunshine"--it's a total funky sixties makeover. Candi Staton does a great soul version of "Stand By Your Man" and Etta James delivers chills with her gospel-tinged take on "Almost Persuaded," a Billy Sherrill/Glen Sutton hit written for David Houston in 1968. Johnny Adams recorded "In A Moment of Weakness" in Nashville and, although that town's influence is more subtle here, this is a cheatin' song whose lyrics stand with the greatest of country hooks: "What she don't know won't hurt her / But the hurt is killing me." Otis Williams' "Shutters and Boards" is classic radio honky-tonk with the requisite modulation and steel guitar and fiddle whining behind the honest vocals.
The accompanying booklet, by producer Jonathan Fischer, is a treasure trove of information about the age-old exchange between soul, gospel, and country, as well as about the individual artists. When asked why he put out a country album, legendary R&B producer Andre Williams (Bobby Blue Bland, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner) reminds us (at the beginning of Fischer's liner notes) that there's scarcely a great soul singer who hasn't recorded Country songs. While the connection may be less in evidence today, to artists of the generation represented on Dirty Laundry the link was natural and obvious.
And the Pointer Sisters and James Brown at the Opry?
Well, the Pointer Sisters wrote a crossover country song called "Fairy Tale" that garnered them both their first Grammy and an invitation to play on country music's hallowed stage, the first black female act to ever grace it. Anita Pointer remembers, "When we first performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the audiences loved us. But at the hotel where there was a party for us, the staff assumed we were the hired help and directed us toward the back door." James Brown was invited onto the Opry by Porter Waggoner, and after playing a medley of country songs, including "Your Cheatin' Heart," launched into his funk set. Some felt the Opry had been "desecrated" and James Brown recalled his reception this way, "I felt I got as much praise as a white man who goes into a black church and puts $100 dollars in the collection plate."
While issues of race may have always attempted to draw hard musical lines in the sand, Dirty Laundry is a potent and uplifting reminder that such divisions are arbitrary at best and do not represent the true and ongoing organic flow between genres of music. Judith Edelman
the trikont site has a list of places that carry their CDs