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Five for Friday: Country Soul Albums

Country in recent years has been dominated by dudes – Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, and more. But change is afoot. The success of Kacey Musgraves, and the release this week of Ashley Monroe's Sparrow, indicate male machismo is on the way out. Monroe may be best known for her work in Pistol Annies, which features household-name Miranda Lambert. Yet Sparrow seems destined for breakout status. With songs such as "Hands on You," Monroe deepens her sound with sultry string arrangements that recall the works of Sun Records pioneers as well as oft-overlooked country icon Bobbie Gentry. The move also enhances Monroe's sound by furthering her already present soul and R&B influences, styles that have long nestled up to country. Here, we look at five key albums that bridge the worlds of country and soul.

Ronnie Milsap, It Was Almost Like a Song
Still touring in his mid-70s, Ronnie Milsap will perform at this month's Stagecoach Festival in Southern California, America's largest country gathering. Yes, his string of high-charting albums in the 70s may come off as more easy-listening than twang to today's audiences. The vocalist-keyboardist, born blind, had a champion, however, in soul legend Ray Charles. It's no surprise when one listens to Milsap, whose music effortlessly touches on country, blues, R&B, soul, and more. His 1977 effort It Was Almost Like a Song narrowly focuses on Milsap's romantically smooth voice and low-key albeit groovy keyboard playing. Check "Selfish," with swooning backing vocals and slow-dance-worthy finger-picking. Here, Milsap's vocal delivery could easily be affixed to a Sam Cooke arrangement and no one would be the wiser.

Bobbie Gentry, Fancy
Today, Bobbie Gentry stands as one of music's great mysteries. The owner of fiery, slightly scratchy voice remains an under-appreciated shaper of modern country. Her rock n' roll edge and Southern stylings brought a rough, outlaw-like personality to the genre and touched everyone from the members of Pistol Annies to Reba McEntire. Then the artist – and onetime owner of the Phoenix Suns – went missing. A recent Washington Post article found the need to track down the staunchly private Gentry and succeeded in locating her Mississippi home, but failed to get an interview. So let's remember her as a killer songwriter. Evidence: The brazenly confident "Fancy," in which a woman born into poverty uses charm as a weapon to unleash on men as she climbs the class ranks. A guitar sashays around Gentry's stately and too-tough-to-care delivery. It's the only song she wrote on the 1970 album, but via a Southern soul, the whole collection – even the funky "He Made a Woman Out of Me" – becomes a statement of defiance.

Charlie Rich, Behind Closed Doors
Early in his career, Charlie Rich was cast as a session musician at Memphis' famed Sun Records, playing with a host of country and rockabilly cats that included Johnny Cash. Sun proved a fine place for Rich's genre-hopping stylings seeing the label mixed and matched the foundations of American roots music. But Rich didn't become a name on his own until the 70s, nearly 20 years after his tenure as a Sun staple. Then known as the "Silver Fox," the artist specialized in crossover country for which Behind Closed Doors serves as a prime example. Particularly noteworthy: The Kenny O'Dell-penned "Take It on Home." A piano ballad – imagine a slightly more honky-tonk take on Stevie Wonder elegance – the song stands as the all-too-rare tune about a man making the right decisions by spurning the advances of a stranger and returning home to his wife. A good ol' boy indeed.

Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide to Earth
Alt-country. Cosmic country. Psychedelic country. All have been used discussing Sturgill Simpson's music, especially his 2016 album A Sailor's Guide to Earth. Such phrasing indicates many didn't know exactly where to place Simpson, for his songs erupt with a swinging, Stax-worthy horn section one moment only to dissolve into a slide-guitar break the next. Make no mistake, it's still country – just not establishment country – as evidenced by Simpson busking last year outside the Country Music Association Awards. Ultimately, A Sailor's Guide to Earth feels equal parts meditative and celebratory. Take the mix of strings and organs in "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" or Southern-fried, New Orleans funk of "Keep It Between the Lines." Sturgill guides us on a tour of Southern music, where smoldering, groove-based songs such as "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)" show us that some decades-old genres still have plenty of tricks to reveal.

Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat
L.A.-based Jenny Lewis usually isn't lumped in with the Nashville elite. Her background skews more indie rock. But as a solo artist – and especially with 2006's exquisite Rabbit Fur Coat, for which she collaborated with fellow roots musicians and Angelenos the Watson Twins – Lewis has offered a vision for a modern take on country soul. The 12 songs here, including a cover of the Traveling Wilburys' "Handle with Care," emphasis harmonies and Lewis' casually autumnal vocal delivery. Tunes such as "Rise Up with Fists!" apply the old-fashioned people-who-live-in-glass-houses rule to modern life, with the Watson Twins providing the truths behind Lewis' verses. The hustling acoustics of "Big Guns" has a slight gospel lilt and then, later, "Born Secular," fully erupts, even if Lewis' tools include synthesizers and skepticism.

April 20, 2018

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