More Dirty Laundry: The Soul of Black Country is the second in a pair of discs dedicated to an expansive and inclusive look at black contributions to country music, and the breadth of music that falls into the realm of County Soul is enough, I hope, to fill more compilations in the future.
The artists included on the disc are not exactly names one might consider when thinking of black country musicians. Of course, if it were limited to the standard black country artists, there would hardly be enough material for two compilations. Charlie Pride, DeFord Bailey (the Grand Old Opry’s first black star), and Ray Charles, with his genre shattering Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, are nowhere to be found on either disc. This is by design, since those artists are well documented elsewhere. Dirty Laundry (released in 2004) and its sequel, More Dirty Laundry (2008), provide “a collection of black approaches to country music” which is both a more inclusive and a more accurate representation of African American contributions. Because the institutionalization of country music essentially cut black musicians out of the picture, black artists have had to find different ways to approach the genre.
Listening to these compilations becomes a game of rethinking what country music is. Can you hear the country in Ruth Brown’s rhythm and blues version of the country standard “Tennessee Waltz”? Can you hear a Merle Haggard type twang in the voice of Stoney Edwards on “Honky Tonk Heaven”? Or conversely, can you hear the “soul,” (which is to say “blackness”) in the honky-tonk piano and pedal steel of Vicki Vann’s “You Must Think My Heart Has Swinging Doors”?
More Dirty Laundry gets to the heart of what one associates with country music. And who’s doing the associating. If country is limited to pedal steels, honky-tonk piano, and southern twang, Country Soul keeps all those elements, but also adds horns, gospel stylings, back-up singers, and soulful singing by artists like Solomon Burke and Bobby Womack that would make Hank Williams blush.
But country music isn’t just limited to the instrumentation and sonic textures, but is as much wrapped up in the history, the heartbreaks, and stories of the songs. Arthur Alexander’s “Everyday I Have To Cry,” and O.B. McClinton’s “If Loving You Is Wrong” ring the same sad tones often associated with the lily white country music from George Jones to Garth Brooks. O.C. Smith’s “The Son of Hickory Holler Tramp” is as compelling a story of country roots as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” again, with a different approach. Take a story of pride in humble Southern beginnings and a deep devotion to family, swap the twangy telecaster and banjo of Loretta Lynn’s version for Smith’s driving bass guitar and blaring horn section, and you have two musical approaches to the same material.
Both Dirty Laundry and More Dirty Laundry make fantastic listening experiences. They cull from a wide and deep tradition that has been hidden in the cracks of other genres. Many of the artists represented here are famous in their own right (Ike and Tina Turner, Solomon Burke, James Brown), just not as country music stars. Fantastic liner notes by Jonathan Fischer provide an outline of the history of black participation and influence on the trajectory of country music as well as detailing each performer’s individual connection to country music, often through writing and producing credits for white stars.
These records may not be what you expect, and because of that, they make us realize how narrow our expectations have become.
Posted by Thomas Grant Richardson