I spent the summer after graduation working at the record store, and then I loaded a U-Haul trailer with all my stuff and moved from Kansas to Seattle. I had a degree in English, and it was 1998, and I didn’t want to stay in Kansas; the decision was pretty easy.
I gave all my co-workers at the record store a blank tape and asked them to make me a mix to listen to as I drove across the country. My friend Eric gave me two: first, one full of indie rock and power pop, and then a few days later, a second one labeled “Music From Before We Were Born,” because, as he told me, “I realized that first tape was full of dumb stuff that only I like.”
It took three days to drive to Seattle, and I didn’t listen to that second tape until the second day of the trip, during the Boulder-to-Twin-Falls stretch. The first side was full of British Invasion stuff—bands like the Kinks, the Left Banke, and Badfinger. In the middle of Wyoming, the least populous state in the Union, the tape switched over, and in the brief pause between sides, I could look out and see a whole lot of nothing going by—scrub brush, oil refineries, the occasional billboard for a truck stop called Little America.
The second side started with a guitar twang and a voice I recognized as Johnny Cash’s: I hear that train a-comin’ / it’s rollin’ ‘round the bend.
Oh, I thought. The second side’s all country. Like a lot of suburban kids who didn’t want to think about class, I’d disdained country music for pretty much my entire life. The town where I’d gone to college had a substantial country music fan base—enough to host a music festival each year called “Country Stampede” and for Garth Brooks to stop in while on tour (my roommate and I had hit his tour bus with a water balloon slingshot, if that gives you any sense of our attitude towards it). Country music, as far as I was concerned and as far as I knew, could be ignored as a bunch of line dancing, tobacco spitting, boot scooting morons.
But I was in a transitory moment on that drive. I was, as I had heard Grateful Dead fans say of people who just need to hear the right show, ripe. I was crossing borders, and the songs on that tape—Johnny Cash, George Jones, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams (senior! How had I never heard him?)—were songs of loss and loneliness and heartache that I understood for the first time, out there on the lonesome highway, as I moved away from one part of my life towards the next part.
On the B-side of his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Ray Charles sings the second verse of “Careless Love”:
Well, you know that I once was blind, but now I see
I say that I once was blind, but now I see
Whoa, you know I once was blind but I’m so glad, so glad I see
That that old love has made a fool of me
Charles started to lose his sight around age four or five, and by age seven, was completely blind, thanks most likely to glaucoma. By 1962, at a time when Elvis making terrible movies (his album from the same time as Modern Sounds was Pot Luck with Elvis, which you haven’t heard of) and the Beatles had just blown their big audition at Decca, Ray Charles was already moving all over the musical map. On the heels of “What’d I Say?,” he released a blues album, a jazz album, and a big band album, and more importantly, he exercised a level of creative control that most artists didn’t, regardless of color.
They didn’t call him the Genius for nothing.
Those lines from “Careless Love” point to the genius of the Genius. It’s a song that predates recorded music, and, in a way, our need to categorize it. Buddy Bolden played it in the clubs of New Orleans, Pete Seeger in the coffeeshops of the Village, T. Texas Tyler in the honky tonks. It’s a song that doesn’t recognize borders, in part because that idea of the learned lesson, the knowledge that comes from suffering, is as close to universal as any other idea humanity has figured out over the years.
And yet, there’s something amazingly audacious about Ray Charles’s decision to walk into the whitest space possible and plant his flag. When Modern Sounds comes out, the Civil Rights Movement is occupied in Albany, Georgia, trying and failing to desegregate that city’s facilities. James Meredith’s enrollment at Ole Miss the same year will spur riots by the white establishment. Next year’s March on Washington and the 1964 Civil Rights Act seem a long way off.
Maybe Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music isn’t as novel an album as it seems. Maybe it’s a declaration of capture and takeover and occupation. No Ray Charles album before it used that title—Modern Sounds—but here he was, declaring that the songs of loss and heartbreak could now be sung by him just as well as any white man. This was the sound of the time, the sound of 1962, the sound of all the genres and borders and barriers vanishing.
Ray Charles stakes his claim to the whites’ music, and it becomes a hit. I heard a tape while crossing the country, between the chapters of my life, and the way I thought about music changed. Normally, I think we overestimate the power of music; for all the emotional effects it has on us, it doesn’t save lives, and it doesn’t change the world.
We live in an era where it’s easier than ever to hear music—no more tracking down a copy in an out-of-the-way store. Music should no longer spur possessiveness, the dark side of fandom, the idea that the music that we hear somehow belongs to us, and no one else can have it. Yet it still does; from country to hip-hop to punk, debates over who is allowed into that space still burn. For some reason, we’re still invested in keeping those fences up.
Music can’t change the world, but every song is an invitation into a space for a few minutes. In 1962, Ray Charles recorded an album of country and western music, saying, in effect, I belong here, too. In 1998, I heard 45 minutes of carefully chosen songs on a tape and stepped into that space as well. And now, in a time when we’re talking about borders and what they mean, about who can step across that line and who can’t, about people suffering for their attempts to access a space that others think belong to them and them alone, we might listen to an album, a song, a note held in the air, realize what fools we’ve been, and see once more.