Various Artists – From Where I Stand: The Black Experience In Country Music (3-CD set)
“I want to show that gospel, country, blues, rhythm & blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll are really all just one thing. Those are the American music [sic] and that is the American culture.”
— Etta James
In many quarters, no doubt, Etta James’ claim would be considered controversial, attacking as it does all sorts of deeply entrenched social and academic notions regarding art, history and race. However, the music collected here by the Country Music Foundation — 60 examples of black musicians embracing, in one form or other, country music — does a superb job of supporting much of James’ claim. Her words could be the thesis statement for this remarkable collection.
Clearly, American music overflows with examples of black and white musicians borrowing styles and techniques from one another; white and black musicians, producers, songwriters and promoters frequently have forged intimate working relationships. But these musical exchanges are often presented as somehow unusual: Jimmie Rodgers teaming up with Louis and Lillian Armstrong on “Blue Yodel No. 9”; Elvis Presley, Scotty Moore and Bill Black injecting country music with the beat and heat of rhythm & blues (and vice versa); Ray Charles recording two full albums of country songs played R&B-style. All these moments, we’re led to believe, are extraordinary, not just because their musical results were so rarefied, but because black and white musics were supposed to have emerged from two entirely distinct cultures.
From Where I Stand reminds that such cross-cultural exchanges were not special so much as they were simply business as usual. Musicians create music that they and their audiences like — and to do so, they will use whatever lick, lyric or lilt strikes their fancy, regardless of its supposed origin. For most of our century, these “border crossings,” as writer Bill Ivey calls them in one of this collection’s fine essays, have been made routinely, though just as routinely they’ve gone unnoticed, passing into a kind of unknown history of American culture.
Sometimes, of course, the interracial quality of a music was identified as exactly that — finding not just a name, as rock ‘n’ roll did, but a wide interracial audience as well. But even in such a familiar case, the full complexity of this artistic trading has rarely been adequately portrayed. Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and the Everly Brothers, for example, are all quickly cited as instances of white borrowing from black. But the rock ‘n’ roll exchange went the other direction too, as even a cursory listen to the music of country & western fans such as Fats Domino and Chuck Berry quickly reveals.
By including so many pre-rock ‘n’ roll selections, From Where I Stand shows how the big boom of rock was, musically speaking, less a revolution than just one more stop on a long journey. Disc one, The Stringband Era, includes assorted black combos playing regional varieties of straight up old-time music, artifacts of a period when the great pool of shared American song and sound had only just begun to be red-lined into marketing niches of “hillbilly” and “race.”
Some of the 18 picks here are a bit obvious though still essential, including two cuts from folk legend Lead Belly, as well as three from DeFord Bailey, the African-American harmonica wiz who was one of the Grand Ole Opry’s earliest and most popular stars. Just as wonderful, and more unexpected, are great sides such as “Dallas Rag”, a jazzy workout by the Dallas String Band; Georgians Peg Leg Howell and Eddie Anthony roaring through “Turkey Buzzard Blues”; and the Memphis Sheiks’ invigorating version of “In The Jailhouse Now”.
Disc two, The Soul Country Years, makes the case that, even when playing within their expected genre, black rhythm & blues acts routinely borrowed songs from the country repertoire. There’s a voluminous history of such country-related moments within the R&B tradition — it would’ve been easy to have traced this path for the entire three discs — but the mere 20 selections here provide an excellent overview.
Occasionally, these recordings actually sound like “country” music; if you’re not paying attention (and maybe even if you are), the first few bars of Solomon Burke’s “Just Out Of Reach” could pass for the best of the Nashville Sound. More typically, though, country songs have inspired some amazing R&B-styled covers (Wynonnie Harris’ raucous “Bloodshot Eyes,” for example, recorded at King Records, which made a habit of such country-soul interplay).
Along the way, the songs point to the places where black and working-class white history and culture have run together rather than simply parallel. Arthur Alexander’s “Detroit City” mourns a rural-to-urban migration that black Americans could relate to every bit as much as poor Southern whites. The Staple Singers’ rootsy “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” and The Orioles’ exquisite “Crying In The Chapel” highlight a shared tradition of faith. Joe Tex’s nightclub-cover of the Roger Miller-penned “Half A Mind” — including the ad-lib, “Roger Miller would’ve said ‘Be doo be doo be doh'” — assumes the audience not only knows who Roger Miller is, but knows him well enough to get a joke about his tendency to scat.
Maybe the real gift of this collection, then, is how it shows that there has long been a significant black country music audience. This point is underlined in moving liner-note essays by Ron Wynn and Claudia Perry, but it especially comes through in the stories and songs of the many black country singers on disc three, Forward With Pride. Stone-country performers such as mainstream trailblazer Charley Pride (who gets four cuts), Stoney Edwards (three tracks, including the classic “Hank And Lefty Raised My Country Soul”), Linda Martell, and Cleve Francis all grew up in black homes and communities where country music was played and/or listened to on a regular basis, places where people’s devotion to the music that touched their souls refused to be limited by social expectation.
Near the set’s conclusion, Ted Hawkins howls through a searing version of Webb Pierce’s “There Stands The Glass”. Distinctions between gospel, country, blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll fall away, leaving behind the American music of Etta James’ thesis. The same thing happens on James’ own version of the country standard “Almost Persuaded”, which is drenched in rock, gospel and soul. In fact, it happens on every cut here, in different ways. Those differences are important to note, but the triumph of From Where I Stand is that, for once, the similarities connecting these differences are shown to be every bit as significant.