The Southern Soul of Music Row
By Steve Morley
When a popular country performer like Tim McGraw or Jason Aldean teams up with a rap star like Nelly or Ludacris, controversy will often arise. Critics of such stylistic mashups say that these two musical styles just don’t belong together. That’s simply a matter of opinion, of course, but the discussion gets more interesting when you introduce this single fact: commercially successful country-and-R&B mixtures like these could never have come from Nashville 50 years ago. The reasons for this are complex, but in part it was because music was (and still is) categorized for the purposes of marketing it to its intended audience.
As early as the 1930s, commercially successful musical styles had already been segregated, with country music assumed to be for primarily Southern white audiences and R&B (short for the original descriptor “rhythm & blues”) assumed to be for black audiences. This wasn’t necessarily the case. In the South, where country and blues had sprung up side by side from common roots, a person’s color didn’t necessarily determine their musical preferences. Over time, such categorizations masked the original relationship between these musical half-brothers. The artistic barriers created by the labeling of music would not come down easily or quickly, but change did begin to come to Music Row. Gradually, it would occur through the contributions of singers, songwriters,
musicians, music producers and others who did not see music in simple terms of black and white.
As the 1960s began, the Nashville industry was focused on finding a bigger audience for its country artists. That was the priority of its record labels, which only released music that fit the desired mold. Nashville record executives had all rejected a song cut 125 miles away in Muscle Shoals, Ala., by a young black singer/songwriter named Arthur Alexander. The song, a gently rhythmic and heartfelt number called “You Better Move On,” blended elements of country and R&B, both of which had influenced the Southern singer. One of the first examples of “country-soul,” the record enjoyed moderate pop success in 1962 but was considered too R&B for country radio and too country for R&B radio. (Nearly a decade later, “You Better Move On” would reach the country Top 10 as recorded by singer Billy “Crash” Craddock. Craddock’s version did cater to then-current country trends by featuring a faster tempo, background singers and snappy steel guitar licks. Still, the song’s soul flavor peeked through, suggesting that Nashville’s country sound could bend at least a little.)
Arthur Alexander’s success as a songwriter would later win him a job writing songs for a Nashville music publisher. As a performer, though, his natural Southern soul style made it tough for him to fit comfortably into Music Row’s country container. “Arthur comes to Nashville, and what do they do in Nashville? They try to shape you into the country market,” says Norbert Putnam, who played bass on the original “You Better Move On.” Putnam, along with three other Muscle Shoals studio musicians who had backed Alexander and other acts, came to Nashville’s greener pastures in 1965, where they also faced the necessity of meeting country’s rigid requirements. “We could play country, but we were not country musicians,” says Putnam, who, like his Alabama buddies, had honed his craft in bands playing the dance-oriented soul music of James Brown and Ray Charles. Becoming a well-paid country session man meant leaving those R&B grooves outside the studio door. Producer Owen Bradley began booking Putnam for occasional sessions, giving him a stack of records and, as Putnam recalls it, telling the musician to “study these bass lines. That’s how you play country.”
While stylistic lines remained clearly drawn, a popular African-American musician known as “the Genius of Soul” had stunned the entire industry in 1962 with an album of Nashville-penned songs. Recorded in Los Angeles, Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” shone a light on the historically close link between country and blues, creatively defying the music industry’s race-separating marketing labels. “Modern Sounds,” which blended blues, jazz, pop and country, appealed to listeners of all those styles and sold a million copies, convincing middle-class America that country music was more urban and up to date than many had believed it to be.
“Rhythm & blues singers singing country-western music, this was, like, revolutionary stuff,” Grammy-winning pop entertainer Billy Joel told the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for a 2006 Ray Charles exhibit. “All of a sudden, I got country-western music. Now I get it — there’s soul in this music.”
If the seeds of soul had not yet found fertile soil in plentiful supply on Music Row, they occasionally did find a spot to take root. Like Arthur Alexander, African-American performer Joe Tex was an R&B singer with a lifelong affection for country music. A prominent Nashville music publisher named Buddy Killen, sold on Tex’s talent but unable to find a record label willing to give him a shot, started his own label, Dial Records, in 1964. He then began taking Tex into the recording studio to cut R&B styled material. As Killen wrote in his autobiography, “By the Seat of My Pants,” the Nashville musicians who played on Tex’s early recordings “used clean, country techniques that didn’t fit with his soulful style.” Finally, in ’64, Killen and Tex agreed to try recording in soul-savvy Muscle Shoals with a racially integrated band that combined country pickers with black musicians who backed Tex onstage. With a studio band that now perfectly captured Tex’s country-and-R&B style, he cut his breakthrough pop hit for Dial Records, “Hold What You’ve Got.”
Tex would go on to greater success doing straight ahead soul music, but he maintained his connection to his roots with albums like “Soul Country,” a 1966 release primarily featuring Nashville-produced hits in Tex’s own interpretations. Music journalist Ron Wynn recalls a late-1970s interview with Tex, who told the writer that “when he was growing up, he equally loved gospel, soul and country. Actually, when he first started out, he would throw some country songs into his live show. He saw the ‘Soul Country’ sessions as a chance for him to revisit that part of his background,” says Wynn, adding that Tex “considered it to be one of his greatest records.”
For “Soul Country,” Tex and producer Buddy Killen split the recording sessions between Nashville and Memphis, again seeking the ideal mixture of the two cities’ differing musical attitudes and skills. Nashville was within driving distance from both Muscle Shoals and Memphis, successful but smaller recording centers where a larger degree of African-American musical influences prevailed. As a result, it was not uncommon for session musicians to work in at least two of the three cities, which formed what author Charles Hughes calls “the country-soul triangle.” Interaction between musicians in the triangle allowed them to pick up musical ideas from one another and incorporate them into their own bag of licks, creating opportunities for country musicians to insert fresh ideas into recordings made on Music Row.
Just one small example of this process can be found by first listening to Joe Tex’s humorous 1967 hit “Skinny Legs and All.” Recorded at Memphis’ American Sound Studio, the track features guitarist Reggie Young, then a core member of the studio’s “Memphis Boys” team. About two minutes into the record, everything comes to a stop except for a plucked, upward-bent string that stutters its way back downward. The memorable guitar lick is credited to Young, an Arkansas-born player who had soaked up soul music along with country. Jerry Kennedy, a Nashville studio guitarist and longtime friend of Young, can be heard repeating the two-second lick from “Skinny Legs and All” on a No. 1 country hit released the following year, newcomer Jeannie C. Riley’s story song “Harper Valley PTA” (it appears midway into the song, at 1:27, right after Mrs. Johnson walks into a parent-teacher association meeting — gasp! — wearing a miniskirt — remember, this was 1968, people . . . ).
While that bit of copycatting was probably just a nod and a wink between musical buddies, “Harper Valley PTA” turned out to be one of the biggest songs of 1968, winning a Grammy and reaching No. 1 on both the country and pop charts. The hit song’s contemporary lyrics, rock style drumming and soul-seasoned guitar work demonstrated that something new was beginning to happen on Music Row. The musicians who had come to Nashville from points south and west, younger and generally hipper than Nashville’s long-established session men, would be joined by more modern-minded businessmen at the record companies in the early ’70s. As a result, country slowly began moving down a more pop-oriented path. This shift would allow musicians who had begun importing soulful cargo to Music Row from Memphis and Muscle Shoals to dip more freely into their R&B backgrounds.
By 1970, an African American named Charley Pride who sang in a down-home style had established himself as country’s first black star. This development proved that Music Row and country fans were opening their minds, but it did little to affect the firm division between records marketed as “country” and “R&B/soul.” This was still Nashville, and the focus of the country industry was to create and sell country records, which it had gotten very good at doing.
The emergence of Quadrafonic Sound Studio, a recording studio opened in 1971 by former Muscle Shoals musicians Norbert Putnam and David Briggs, provided an important alternative where artists and musicians could move beyond the confines of Nashville’s country sound.
Dobie Gray was another black performer whose natural style fell into the grey area of country-soul. At Quadrafonic, he cut the song for which he would forever be remembered, “Drift Away.” With a studio band that connected all points of the Nashville- Memphis-Muscle Shoals “country-soul triangle,” Gray delivered a warm, expressive vocal, while Reggie Young’s relaxed guitar introduction set an easy tone that suggested a September night in the South. Nashville had now expanded into a place where hugely successful pop, rock, folk-rock and country-rock records were being produced, adding diversity to daily dealings on Music Row. “Drift Away,” a No. 5 pop hit in 1973 (and a similar success for Uncle Kracker in the early 2000s), reached country’s Top 10 in a version released the same year by Narvel Felts. The two versions highlight the differences between the way Nashville was making country and pop records in the early 70s, but those differences would get smaller as “pop-country” found success late in the decade.
Unexpected acceptance came for black quartet The Pointer Sisters in 1974, when their self-written song “Fairytale” grazed country’s Top 40 and won the group a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. Group member Anita Pointer would return to country in the mid-’80s, joining singer Earl Thomas Conley on the No. 2- charting duet “Too Many Times.” The slinky mid-tempo rhythm and up-to-date pop sound of “Too Many Times” indicates that major changes had occurred in the dozen years since The Pointer Sisters had released “Fairytale” and become the first African American vocal group to guest on the Grand Ole Opry. By the early ’80s, it had become commonplace for country artists like Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty and Barbara Mandrell to wade knee-deep into pop and soul waters. One of Mandrell’s biggest hits was a remake of R&B singer Luther Ingram’s No. 1 hit “If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right), while Twitty spun a male version of The Pointer Sisters’ popular single “Slow Hand” into a chart-topping country song. Music Row’s tightly patrolled boundaries had become far more relaxed than they’d been a quarter century earlier.
In a bit of belated but much-deserved recognition, Ray Charles put a dozen singles into the country charts during the 1980s, including a No. 1 duet with Willie Nelson, “Seven Spanish Angels.” By this time, Charles had become an American musical institution with nothing to prove to Nashville, but his revolutionary early-’60s fusion of country, jazz and pop had left a lasting impression. Ronnie Milsap, one of country’s best-selling artists throughout the 1970s and ’80s, had followed Charles’ own musical course, carrying his musical vision forward with personal encouragement and guidance from Charles himself.
It’s fitting that Milsap, whose crossover style was so heavily founded upon Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” album, would become the 1980s poster boy for country’s modern sounds. Milsap’s affection for other early R&B artists would also trickle into his long string of pop-leaning country hits. It was never more obvious than it was on his late-’80s hit “Lost in the Fifties,” which includes portions of the well remembered 1956 doo-wop song “In the Still of the Night.” On this track, he brought his passion for classic R&B totally into the forefront.
Milsap, a former Memphis studio keyboardist thought to be “too R&B” when he first came to Music City in the early ’70s, briefly faced the same challenges as the Memphis and Muscle Shoals players whose R&B backgrounds had not initially been welcomed on Nashville’s country sessions. Not surprisingly, Milsap cut many of his albums with groove-conscious session men who’d earlier played on pioneering country-soul records by Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex and Dobie Gray. The “country-soul triangle” was no longer a route traveled only by musicians playing on non-country projects. Memphis-based guitarist Reggie Young, to name only one example, had relocated to Nashville, where he would leave his soulful signature on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of recordings. His fretwork was heard as recently as 2014, on Martina McBride’s tribute to her own R&B roots, “Everlasting.” The album debuted at the top of the country charts, confirming the continued presence of soul’s DNA in the bloodline of today’s Music Row.
Legendary Memphis guitarist Steve Cropper, asked about Young’s role in linking yesterday’s soul music and today’s country, observed that “without a doubt, Reggie Young is one of the best session musicians of all genres of music.” But Cropper couldn’t help but single out Young for “his contributions on soul sessions [for artists] like Joe Tex,” which he calls “totally unmatchable.” When telling the story about how soul enriched the sound of Music Row, it’s important to remember that it was accomplished by individuals whose natural musical instincts couldn’t be stopped by man-made categories. These talented artists and musicians already understood what it took Nashville years to demonstrate that country, rhythm and blues could not only peacefully coexist, but that they had been able to do so from the start.