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The Boston Phoenix Stand They Did

The black experience in country music.

By Douglas Wolk

JUNE 15, 1998:  The subtitle of the three-CD set From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music is apt to provoke giggles -- what's next, an anthology of the Jewish experience in gospel music? There are a few tracks by Charley Pride, of course, the singer who initially had to wisecrack about his "permanent tan" to his audiences and ended up scoring 29 number-one country singles. There's an appearance by Ray Charles, who had a crossover smash with his Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music album and continues to record country material to this day. And Stoney Edwards's hits "She's My Rock" and "Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul" turn up. But what is there beyond that?

As it turns out, a hell of a lot, almost all of it worthwhile and some of it startling. One black country performer is an anomaly; two or three are a fluke. Forty-plus black country hitmakers are a tradition, and an important thread in the history of the music.

The Grand Ole Opry's broadcasts got picked up by radios in black and white Southern households alike, and black singers and musicians who grew up listening to country naturally ended up singing the songs they loved. For that matter, there's still a substantial black audience for country -- 24 percent of the black adult radio audience, according to a 1993 Simmons poll. Country radio these days is whiter than ever, but these days the tradition's kept alive mostly by touring artists. Next Thursday Johnny D's will have three local singers featured in From Where I Stand: Big Al Downing (who played piano with the rockabilly Poe Kats and later had a solo hit with "Touch Me (I'll Be Your Fool Once More)"), Bobby Hebb (who's best known as the pop-soul guy who wrote "Sunny" but appears on the compilation with mellifluous covers of "A Satisfied Mind" and "Night Train to Memphis"), and Barrence Whitfield (his track on the set is a surprisingly subdued, race-flipped cover of Merle Haggard's "Irma Jackson").

Disc one of From Where I Stand, "The Stringband Era," consists mostly of tracks recorded between 1927 and 1930, the Anthology of American Folk Music era, when country and blues records (or "hillbilly" and "race" records, as they were then called) weren't terribly different from each other. Musicians tend to play with one another on the evidence of their ears, not their eyes, and integrated string bands weren't uncommon. Not that racism didn't get in the way of the music: the disc is bookended by tracks by harmonica whiz DeFord Bailey, who though a regular on the Grand Ole Opry was presented as the show's "mascot." (Fired over a contractual dispute in 1941, Bailey spent his later years shining shoes; a long-overdue anthology of his work, The Legendary DeFord Bailey: Country Music's First Black Superstar, is expected next month on John Fahey's label Revenant.) A few inclusions are a bit of a stretch -- does Leadbelly's "Midnight Special" really count as country? -- but tracks like the Mississippi Sheiks' "Sitting on Top of the World" bridge blues and bluegrass.

It wouldn't be long before R&B and country turned into very different styles. Yet even when two cultures develop side by side, they inevitably start to mix. And when record companies figured out that good songs could be recorded twice and sold to both white and black audiences in the South, the cover versions started to fly. The second disc of this set, "The Soul Country Years," is its best, being mostly black artists' covers of country numbers, some of them astonishing. Wynonie Harris's jump-blues cover of Hank Penny's "Bloodshot Eyes" is one of his greatest performances, hilarious and vicious; and Hebb's happy/sad bounce through "A Satisfied Mind" is a beautiful thing. Even the failed experiments, like the Supremes' awkward take on "It Makes No Difference Now," are interesting, and the singers who get inside the high lonesomeness at the heart of country -- Al Green, Esther Phillips, Solomon Burke -- can tear the songs open. (There's a flip side to this story that doesn't get told here -- country artists' covers of R&B songs. Maybe someday there'll be an anthology of those.)

The third disc -- modern country by Charley Pride and his successors -- is the least consistent here. Beyond Pride's hits ("The Snakes Crawl at Night," "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin' "), there's a strange mishmash of past-their-prime R&B types essaying country songs (Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Aaron Neville), one-hit wonders (Cleve Francis, the singing cardiologist who hit with "Love Light"), regional favorites who never quite made it big (Ruby Falls, La Melle Prince), and unexpected delights, like the Pointer Sisters' "Fairytale," which won the Best Country Group performance Grammy in 1974. Still, this CD isn't making an aesthetic statement so much as a historical one, pointing out that there is a black country tradition, and that country music crosses the boundaries associated with it more easily than you'd think.

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