Sunday, September 16, 2007

An Exhibit or a Taste of Things to Come?

Category: Opinion

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.


Sharon Cobb said...

I respectfully disagree with you on this one.
At a time when much of America was segregated, Ray Charles brought country music to a entirely new audience and made it more accessible.
He also helped rid country music of the stereotype of it being for hillbillies only.
Willie Nelson said that Ray recording 'I Can't Stop Loving You' did more for country music than anyone else.
Ray listened almost exclusively to country music as a child, many of his early live performances included country--something a black man didn't do in the 50s. But Ray did.
He also had country hits with 'I'm Movin' On,'1959, and 'Busted,' 1963--which hit the top 5 spot. He also charted in the top 30 with 'Your Cheating Heart.'
I say, "Go Ray!" He deserves this one.

Raizor's Edge said...

Given the fact that a number of certified country artists (not people we can debate over, e.g., Elvis and the Everly Brothers, but Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins) had #1 pop hits by the time Modern Sounds in Country Music came along, I don't see how America was exactly in the throes of "hillbilly stereotyping." In fact, this was an era where the "Nashville Sound" was producing crossover after crossover (which probably opened the door for people like Charles, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson to make albums of country songs), and country music movies (yes, most of them were atrocious plot-wise, but the performances were good) were being made as quickly as they could get the reels off the cameras and into post-production. Country had no lack of popularity and no stereotype at that time. In fact, the standard argument was that Hee Haw is what set the stereotype of country music BACK, and that didn't start until 1968.

And the question isn't how much someone loves country music. If that were criteria for induction, my dad -- the man who gave me my love for this incredible music -- would be a Hall of Famer. The question is also not did they have a hit or two in country music. Whitburn's 1997 book has Charles at #287. The person above him, at #286, is Debby Boone. Does she belong in? (PLEASE tell me you don't think so!)

BTW, Whitburn's country book only shows Charles charting in country since 1980. All of the songs you mentioned were only hits in pop and R&B. And, simply because someone records a "country" song doesn't make them country. (See: George Thorogood & the Destroyers ["Move It on Over"], The The [their album Hanky Panky], Huey Lewis and the News ["Honky Tonk Blues"], or Al Green ["I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry"].) And, just because they made the Billboard country chart doesn't make them country, any more than Ernest Tubb's cover of Billy Bland's "Let the Little Girl Dance" makes Tubb an R&B singer.

Sharon Cobb said...

I think you're missing my point about the time in America and segregation and what he did to bring country music to an entirely different and new audience. That, in itself, is worthy of consideration.

My source for his country hits is Top 40 Hits--Whitburn, 1955-2000. Same charts as The Beatles, Stones, Nirvana, etc.

You make some solid, valid points about people who might belong in there first, but he definitely belongs in there.

We just disagree, I suppose, on this one. :)

Anonymous said...

I'm with Sharon on this one. Ray took country music to places it had never been.

I do think there are others who should be in before him. Just like Porter should've gone in the HOF way before Dolly did, etc.