Author, music fan and history professor Charles L. Hughes, like many in his generation, grew up a fan of many types of Southern music, but most notably soul and country. His provocative and comprehensive new book "Country Soul - Making Music and Making Race in the American South" (UNC Press) offers a different view of what was happening in three key cities (Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee and Muscle Shoals, Alabama), which he characterizes as the "country-soul triangle," during the '60s and '70s.
Most books, including an acclaimed trilogy of works penned by authors Peter Guralnick, Robert Gordon and Rob Bowman have characterized this period of one where there was unprecedented racial co-operation and unity among musicians and performers for a lengthy period until the alliance was shattered by the emergence of Black Power as a philosophy and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as an event. But while he acknowledges the importance of those prior volumes and congratulates the authors for mostly important contributions to musical and cultural history, he also takes some issue with their accounts as regards to race.
"I feel another interpretation is necessary, particularly in regard to the still-common notion that Southern Soul studios - particularly in Memphis and Muscle Shoals - were a symbol of racial progress or even a racial utopia in the early 1960s," Hughes said this week in a lengthy interview via e-mail.
"Not only do I discuss racial conflicts that took place at Stax and elsewhere from the beginning, but I also try to complicate the idea that everything went bad in the late 1960s with the rise of Black Power and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I think there are serious flaw in this narrative, so I'm trying to give a new interpretation that will add to the conversation."
Hughes also seeks to offer a balanced but realistic assessment of such men as Nashville producer Buddy Killen and Muscle Shoals producer and studio maven Rick Hall, two white men often hailed as visionaries for their work with Black performers. "I think it is absolutely fair to say tat Buddy Killen (or Rick Hall and others) appreciated the artistry and talents of the Black musicians they worked with. But the fact is most of the people who benefited most from the success of Southern Soul were whites. They recognized the potential for selling this music to Black audiences and they sought the talents of Black performers who could break into that previously inaccessible market."
"Country Soul" examines a host of performers and recordings during these two decades, while also taking readers inside the studios in Memphis, Nashville and Muscle Shoals. He credits Ray Charles' two-record set "Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music, Volumes 1 & 2" as "absolutely essential" to the evolution of both soul and country. He also explores how increasingly country became identified with political conservatism and soul with Black nationalism and radicalism, yet continued to influence each other across that chasm. He also spotlights the lone Black country superstar Charley Pride, while looking at the contradictions in the music of people like Merle Haggard. Haggard would release hardcore tunes that exemplified the most reactionary political themes of the day, yet also issued a song in support of interracial romance.
Ultimately, "Country Soul" provides alternative views and balance while also constantly showing the mutual influence that soul and country had on each other. He cites albums made during that time by Bobby Womack, Joe Tex and Millie Jackson that embraced country, and songs from Barbara Mandrel or Johnny Paychek that were either country covers of soul tunes or songs written by Black composers. Throughout the book, the continuing strange developments, weird situations and oddball events and performers reinforce the very complicated, yet also continual interaction between the two styles and those musicians and vocalists who constantly moved navigated between these two worlds.
Hughes also says that this mutual influence continues today. "The Most obvious and commercially successful example is the influence of Hip-hop on modern country," Hughes said. "Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Cowboy Troy and others are prime examples." He cites Jason Isbell, Valerie June, the Alabama Shakes, and Chris Stapelton among other current performers whose music continues the traditions established in the "country-soul triangle."
"It's so exciting to see young performers continuing these traditions, particularly when they're achieving a large amount of notoriety," Hughes added. hen asked about others besides Ray Charles whom he would consider the finest exponents of the country-soul hybrid sound, Hughes mentions Jackson, Charlie Rich and the unorthodox but brilliant Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams.
Hughes says he hopes that among many things that readers take away from "Country Soul" will be some major realizations. "I hope that readers finish the book with a sense of just how significant the musicians of the country-soul triangle were for American cultural history," he concluded. "They were pivotal actors in shaping the way we think and talk about racial identity in the United States."
"Second, I want res to appreciate the incredibly complex role of race I the production of their music. It's still commonplace to hear people say that "race doesn't matter" when it comes t music, whereas I maintain that's actually the opposite. NOTHING matters more to the musicians than race, both in terms of the way we talk about "Black" and "white" music and the day-to-day work of interracial ensembles in integrated studios."
"Although I couldn't begin t talk about all the great musicians in this book, I hope that "Country Soul" will encourage readers - whether they're fans or newcomers - to dig into the amazing legacy of the musicians thatI talk about in the book. It's one of the most important parts of our musical history.
Author challenges established racial views on soul, country music
New book offers alternative musical history
By Ron Wynn