Various Artists “Sweet Dreams – Where Country Meets Soul, Volume 2” (Kent CDKEND 395)
By Pete Nickols
Sweet Inspirations – But You Know I Love You; William Bell – Please Help Me, I’m Falling; Clarence Carter – Bad News; Hank Ballard – Sunday Morning Coming Down; Facts Of Life – Sometimes; Pat Lundy – Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line; Otis Redding – Tennessee Waltz; Bobby Hebb – A Satisfied Mind; Ralph Lamar – Don’t Let Me Cross Over; Joe Simon – Help Me Make It Through The Night; Ted Taylor – I’ll Release You; Millie Jackson – Sweet Music Man; James Carr – Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong; Bettye Swann – Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me); Johnnie Taylor – Sixteen Tons; Bobby Bland – I Hate You; David Ruffin – Statue Of A Fool; Esther Phillips – Sweet Dreams; Eddie James – All I Have To Offer You (Is Me); Etta James – When I Stop Dreaming; Isaac Hayes – I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You); Dorothy Moore – Funny How Time Slips Away; Orquestra Was featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson – Forever’s A Long, Long Time.
Country-soul is a significant sub-genre of southern soul music. To me, the best emotive country songs have more than enough meaningful quality and telling lyrics to lend themselves very well to a soulful treatment and the success of black-skinned country-soul purveyors like Percy Sledge, Joe Tex and Joe Simon surely bears this out.
The first volume in this mini-series was good but I think this one is even better and may yet rank as one of the best-regarded specialist soul releases of 2013. Often, soul enthusiasts are looking for the release in CD format of aurally interesting and rare recordings, yet here Tony Rounce has simply brought together a selection of pretty impressive slabs of country-soul from the voices of chiefly well-known artists, the original versions of which were often issued on fairly major labels – but it’s the aesthetically appealing quality of the ‘musical mix’ that sells this CD, not any rarity value of its constituent parts. Tony’s previous first-hand experience of the country-music industry also ensures his sleeve-notes are well-informed and they make for very interesting reading. Perhaps the most significant thing here, though, is that these are not just soul performances with a country ‘feel’ – every track on offer is in fact a ‘soul cover’ of a ‘country’ original.
One doesn’t normally associate the northern-based and gospel-drenched Sweet Inspirations with country-soul music but their cheerful yet still righteous interpretation of Kenny Rogers’ early 1969 country hit “But You Know I Love You” certainly kicks things off in fine fettle.
William Bell is a fine, often underrated soul-singer but I have to say his interpretation of Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling” is a tad ‘plummy’ to my ears and could use a touch more melisma (as used by William chiefly just near the climax) to increase its overall soulfulness.
One of the high-points of this fine CD is certainly the ‘evil-and-proud-of-it’ Clarence Carter’s superb rolling, Fame-rhythm-section-driven take on John D Loudermilk’s “Bad News”, although, as Tony Rounce points out, Clarence’s interpretation is more influenced by Johnny Cash’s big country-hit version.
If that track is a stand-out, so for sure is the version included here of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, first a country hit for Ray Stevens and then a massive one for (once again) Johnny Cash. I defy any listener who didn’t know in advance to name the singer as that veteran R&B hitmaker, the Detorit born, if Alabama-raised, Hank Ballard. This is a really beautiful piece of emotively interpreted country-soul – what a shame that, in his later ‘solo’ years, Hank didn’t visit Nashville more often if this was the kind of result we could expect. Just superb!
Yet another northern-based artist shows that it wasn’t just the sub-Mason Dixonites who cut country-soul. Singer/actress Pat Lundy had a potent voice and she doesn’t hold back on this telling version of Jimmy Bryant’s “Only Daddy (here Mama) That’ll Walk The Line”.
Otis’ version of the much-recorded 1947 Cowboy Copas recording “Tennessee Waltz” (most-popularised by the MOR singer Patti Page) at least retains the waltz tempo and gives ample scope for the big R to show off his soulful ‘chops’. It’s maybe more R&B/gospel than soul, but for me the best-ever re-interpretation of this hoary old favourite was Lil & Rene’s driving tour-de-force produced by H.B Barnum, amazingly for Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label – although that certainly wasn’t ‘country-soul’.
I have to say Bobby Hebb is not a favourite singer of mine and his version of Red Hayes’ “A Satisfied Mind” is just gentle pop to my ears – there’s very little real soul in evidence.
The high, if rather broken-voiced Ralph Lamar creates an appealing-enough version of the 1962 Carl Butler country release “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” but next we welcome a ‘king’ of country-soul in the shape of Joe Simon, who delivers a lovely, catchy, trotting-paced version of Kristofferson’s great song “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, first cut by Bill Nash but a huge country hit for Sammi Smith. Lovely of its kind, for me even Simon’s version can’t hold a candle to Gladys Knight’s magnificent slow, deep, rap-introed interpretation for Motown’s Soul offshoot, one of the finest ‘pure soul’ records (in conjunction with Yvonne Fair’s “It Should’ve Been Me”) that Berry Gordy’s essentially ‘crossover’ company ever produced.
Ted Taylor’s answer-disc to Esther Phillips’ hit country-soul version of Eddie Miller’s “Release Me” (cut with much the same Nashville musicians and backing singers as used by Phillips) may be even better than Esther’s hit version but went nowhere when released on Okeh. Taylor never used his trademark ‘female-sounding’ falsetto as a gimmick but rather as a genuinely soulful vocal attribute - and that shines through on this very fine quiet-fire country-meets-gospel soul recording.
Millie Jackson was such a fine interpretive soul singer that it was almost a shame that she had later to rely on a raunchy, sex-saturated live-act to put bums/butts on seats and make more dollars for herself than her recordings could create in their own right. Her lovely, meaningfully delivered vocal on Kenny Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man” demonstrates this surely as well as any of her many other fine straight-soul recordings.
James Carr deservedly holds an esteemed place in the soul music roll of honour and, even on this, his final Goldwax session, cut at Malaco, James shows just how to meaningfully deliver a country-soul performance of the highest quality. The vehicle is that 1970 country hit for George Jones, “Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong”.
Another absolute stand-out track here is the wonderful Bettye Swann’s oh-so-soulful 1969 interpretation of Hank Cochran’s great song “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)”, first a country hit for Ray Price in 1966. As Tony Rounce so aptly puts it: “her version drips with soulful self-pity”.
Merle Travis’ work-song “Sixteen Tons” (a huge hit for Tennessee Ernie Ford) has never really apperaled to me all that much and I have to say that Johnnie Taylor’s very bluesy version here is just about the best I’ve heard – but even that doesn’t really do all that much for me.
Dan Penn (no less) co-penned “I Hate You” essentially for his then pal Ronnie Milsap, the song giving Milsap his frist-ever country hit. But Bobby Bland makes it almost his own with this peerless performance from his 1975 “Get On Down” album – country meets bluesoul and Bland sure delivers!
On Yahoo’s southernsoulgroup there has been some mention of track-skipping the last track on this CD (which I’ll come to shortly) but for me I would certainly track-skip David Ruffin’s “Statue Of A Fool”. Ruffin has a very fine soulful voice but even here, when he was trying for post-Tempatations solo success, he was still clearly very much a Motown artist and therefore trying above all else to ‘cross-over’ to attract the potential big sales in the pop-MOR market. You can hear the soul in his voice for sure but here it’s being tempered by that overriding need to appeal to a wider audience. A shame – because “Statue Of A Fool” is a pretty ballad which could have taken a greater degree of ‘soulification’ than Ruffin is prepared to give it - even though he would have been more than vocally capable of doing so if he (or his producer) had so chosen.
Having previously mentioned Esther Phillips, we next get a lay-back almost late-night version of Don Gibson’s pretty song, “Sweet Dreams” from Esther, cut with the guys who brought her such big chart success with “Release Me”. It’s very listenable, if only for Esther’s trademark Dinah Washington-influenced vocal interpretation; however personally I feel it’s nowhere near as telling a country-soul performance as Mighty Sam’s interpretation for Amy.
Eddie James only cut three 45’s but his King version of black singer Charlie Pride’s first Country Chart No.1 in 1969, namely the Dallas Frazier song “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)”, is an impressive, deep piece of storyline soul. It’s a Nashville recording by Rogana, which was WLAC DJ Hoss Allen’s production company.
Etta James made a pretty good job of most styles of popular music throughout her long and distinguished career and she took a chance when she ‘souled up’ a true country-music classic by that peerless harmony duo The Louvin Brothers. However, “When I Stop Dreaming” becomes a gospelly slab of meaningful storyline soul in Etta’s more than capable hands. Yes, she was a black-music ‘great’ alright!
Now I have to confess to regarding Isaac Hayes as a better songwriter and musician than a singer (something which got me into trouble with some members of the aforementioned southernsoulgroup) and, although I stand by my opinion, I have to admit his smooth baritone on the lovely Hank Williams song “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You)” serves the piece well in this form as a slow quasi-uptown soul-ballad (shades almost of Walter Jackson). Of course, he has a very fine vehicle to work with – Williams wrote this very personal song genuinely about his desire to get back with his wife and lifelong love – yes this is ‘deep’ country, which lends itself naturally to ‘deep’ soul.
Dorothy Moore not only had one of Malaco’s biggest soul hits with “Misty Blue” but was consistently one of that label’s most impressive artist(e)s. Joe Hinton may have made the most gospelly soul version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” but Dorothy gives the song the considerable benefit of her own gospel credentials while retaining a lovely lazy, ‘wrap-you-up’ feel to the proceedings. This is quality gospel-meets-country-soul.
Now, re the ‘let’s skip it’ final track on offer here, I actually admire Tony Rounce for having the courage to include it. Why not feature just one example of a relatively modern soul-style still making genuine use of a fine song by one of country-music’s ‘giants’, namely Hank Williams. “Forever’s A Long, Long Time” is a fine song with a fine scene-setting title, and let’s be honest, Sweet Pea Atkinson has a genuinely soulful, if gravely voice which is more than capable of offering real interpretive nuances to the piece, which to me does possess a haunting quality. So, OK, the piano break gets a tad jazzy but we soon return to Sweet Pea and, whilst this is a 1996 recording and I probably wouldn’t want to listen to a whole CD by this group, I can not only play and enjoy this particular track but can stand a replay or two of it too.
Soul sacrilege I can hear many shouting, but I say, play this track and (after an initial hearing) maybe skip the William Bell, Bobby Hebb, Johnnie Taylor and David Ruffin.
Whatever, make sure to buy the CD – overall it offers up some country-soul of a high standard.