This weekend I went to the Country Music Hall of Fame for the first time since the day the new location opened in 2001. A scary sight greeted me: a Ray Charles exhibit. Something tells me this is a lobbying effort of sorts to get Charles inducted into the Hall of Fame, as I have heard people asking for Charles to be inducted for at least ten years. With every fiber in my country-loving soul, I beg those anonymous voters: DON'T DO IT!!!!
Ray Charles was an absolute certified legend. NO question. Anyone who thinks otherwise simply does not know music. That is not my concern, lest anyone think otherwise.
No, my issue is that the great Ray Charles is not a country legend. Oh, yes, he recorded Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You" on his landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country Music. One album or song, however, does not a Hall of Famer make.
First, Ray Charles was not the first non-country performer to do a country song. In fact, the very first song to top the Billboard "Hillbilly and Western" singles chart in 1944 was Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters' rendition of Al Dexter's "Pistol Packin' Mama." That's right, a pop cover hit #1 before Dexter's own version. Crosby was also referenced in Hank Thompson's "Wake Up, Irene" ("Even Crosby too, with his boo-boo-ba-boopty-doo / Tried to get Irene to hit the hay"). Neither of these facts makes Bing Crosby Country Music Hall of Fame material.
Other non-country acts have done country albums or performed duets with country artists. Gene Pitney did two albums of duets with George Jones (and a third country duets album with Melba Montgomery). Elvis Costello has performed with everyone from Ricky Skaggs to Charlie Louvin, and Johnny Cash has covered his songs. Costello's Almost Blue album would be banned by modern country radio for being TC (Too Country). None of this makes them worthy of induction (although if one wants to put a rocker in, Costello is most qualified).
Second, Ray Charles was not country. Check out his show-stopping "Shake a Tail Feather" in The Blues Brothers, and if you think that's country I'll eat your cowboy hat at Hank Williams' grave. Good? Without question. That number and Aretha Franklin's "Think" are worth the price of admission alone. But COUNTRY? Not even by today's standards.
Third, other halls of fame do not induct people outside the genre unless there is a legitimate reason to do so. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for instance, has inducted a number of country artists -- as early influences on rock and roll. Only Johnny Cash (a rockabilly pioneer) has been inducted as a performer. I don't see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tripping over themselves to induct Don Gibson because he wrote "I Can't Stop Loving You." And, you know what? They shouldn't. Yes, Gibson made the pop charts (he had four top 40 hits, the biggest in terms of chart success being "Oh, Lonesome Me" in 1958), but that doesn't make him a rock and roll legend. It takes a career, not a flash.
Fourthly, there are numerous people who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered anything except country who have yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Al Dexter, Pop Stoneman, Ferlin Husky, Jean Shepard, and Hank Locklin are long overdue for induction. It's bad enough that Elvis Presley was inducted before these people (even though there is far greater a legitimate argument for Presley's inclusion than for the induction of Ray Charles). Let's get the country people in first, then we can debate people like Ray Charles, Gram Parsons, and Bob Dylan and whether they belong.
Finally, consider public perception. The only hall of fame that wants you laughing as you leave is the Comedy Hall of Fame. When you mention Ray Charles to the overwhelming majority of people, they associate him with R&B or rock and roll, not country. (Sure, he did a duet with Willie Nelson, but who hasn't? If a duet with Willie Nelson makes one "country," the Hall of Fame needs to start setting up the Julio Iglesias exhibit!) People would scratch their head over a Ray Charles Country Music Hall of Fame induction the same way they would -- and rightfully so -- if a jazz hall of fame inducted Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass or Barry Manilow was put in a heavy metal hall of fame.
I mentioned in an earlier piece ("SIRIUS Problems") that people seem determined to redefine country music in ways that the people they're trying to redefine as country never imagined. I pointed out that some people today consider Lynyrd Skynyrd "country," while the band themselves never considered themselves anything but a rock and roll band. Ray Charles is an R&B legend and an American treasure. What he is not was Country Music Hall of Fame material.