The Night Country Got Its Soul Back: Chris Stapleton & Justin Timberlake Resurrect Country’s Great Rhythm & Blues Legacy

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“Sing it,” you could hear someone shout from the bandstand urging Chris Stapleton on during “Tennessee Whiskey.”

“Break it down one more time,” Justin Timberlake commanded the rhythm section during “Drink You Away.”

It was the night Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake took Nashville to church at the Country Music Association Awards. The two pretty much upended the formula of country pop and made Jason Aldean with his pyrotechnics and Florida Georgia Line, trying hard to be coiffed, seem downright silly. As Nashville producer Buddy Cannon said later on Facebook, “the pendulum swings.” It only took about eight minutes for it happen.

When the show’s co-presenter Brad Paisley introduced the duo, he talked as if he was revealing something new when he talked about “the Nashville sound meets the soul of Memphis.”

For Stapleton and Timberlake, they knew better. It was apparent the two had grown up listening to the great soul singers. In the electrifying and transformative moments, they unearthed a great tradition and liberated the sounds of a forgotten golden era in which rhythm and blues were synonymous with the soul of country music.

“Tennessee Whiskey,” written by David Allan Coe and made popular by George Jones, is a quintessential country song. Jones laments hitting rock bottom but saved by the redemptive power of love. Coe stepped onstage at Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois to sing with Jones back in 1985.

When Stapleton started singing “Tennessee Whiskey,” I wasn’t even thinking of George Jones. I just assumed Stapleton was going to sing the next chorus of the great Etta James songs “I‘d Rather Go Blind.” James is one of the greatest American singers who happens to be both a member of the Blues Hall of Fame and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her song “I’d Rather Go Blind” is an R&B staple and has been covered by everyone from Rod Stewart and Christine McVie, to B.B. King and Beyonce. Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” is less than a tribute to Coe and Jones as it is a debt to be repaid to James. And therein lies why Stapleton is suddenly resonating, having unlocked the genetic musical code ingrained in our DNA.

“Before It Was Politically Incorrect To Love More Than One Genre”

During the 1960’s, a number of songs shared time on the country, R&B and pop charts. It was a cultural force in integration in the deep south and bridged the racial divide in ways that were transformative.

A key writer of that era was Dallas Frazier who has penned some 500 songs in his storied career, that began with his autobiographical tale of the great migration west from Oklahoma during the depression in “California Cottonfields” made popular by Merle Haggard. Frazier’s writing blurred the line between country and R&B and the writer told Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale on The Buddy & Jim Show on SiriusXM how much he loved Dixieland, blues and black music. “I didn’t lock myself in to be faithful to one genre,” he says. “Before I learned it was politically incorrect not to love one more than one genre, I was spoiled.”

Frazier describes himself as a country boy who took up the trumpet in fifth grade. It exposed him to a world of songs and arrangements and influenced him for a slew of rhythm and blues songs that were later recorded by Percy Sledge, Charley Pride, O.C. Smith and Elvis Presley.

Of his favorite records he wrote is Charlie Rich’s “Mohawk Sam” from 1965. “He hooked it,” he exclaims. “He absolutely hooked it.” It is said that this was one of Elvis Presley’s favorite songs and that he played it when he was introduced to the Beatles.

Percy Sledge, best known for “When a Man Loves a Woman” covered one of Frazier’s best known songs, “True Love Travels on A Gravel Road.” Twenty years ago, the song was remade by British musician Nick Lowe who described Sledge’s version as a little more jaunty and his own a little more downbeat. “I love those sort of gospel-y words,” he said of the song. “I love that thing where R&B meets country.”  

The Highwaymen thought so too and did a version with the song’s verses covered by Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and ending with Waylon Jennings.

Another was the swinging  “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” by O.C. Smith about a woman with 14 children who is abandoned by her worthless husband and turns to prostitution to support her large family. It was originally released by country singer Johnny Darrell and a decade later reached a wider audience on Kenny Rogers’ self-titled second album. Merle Haggard also did a version himself.

On a guest appearance on the Johnny Cash Show, Cash donned his acoustic guitar while singing with O.C. Smith and his young son O.C. Junior. Cash gave the song its trademark storytelling sound. When the younger Smith took one of the verses Cash elicited a young man’s falsettos that echoed all the way to the Bridgestone Arena on a Wednesday five decades later when Timberlake hit his high notes.

Frazier describes a hilarious story the first time he met Charley Pride. Pride had a number one song with “All I Have To Offer You (Is Me)”.

“He sounded so country,” Frazier recalled. “People had no idea he was black.”

“It was kind of a joke but when I saw him, I said ‘Charlie, I always thought you were one of us.’

Pride laughed and said, “’Dallas, I thought you were one of us.’”

“Can I Put a Little Memphis In Here?”

The night after Stapleton and Timberlake owned the CMA Awards, one fan on You Tube seemed to sum it up perfectly. Keenya “SuthurnNaturalBelle” Williams commented: “I’m a country girl and this song right here…Whew they just took me back all through them country, blues, and gospel roots all mixed into one song. #justintimberlake and #chrisstapleton showed they tail on this one. Man that band was on point, those modulations, guitar licks were phenomenal, and let’s not forget them horns. My new favorite country song, DAGNABIT and I don’t even drink…Hahahahahaha!!!!!”

Perhaps the road that led from Nashville to Memphis can be traced back to the landmark album Elvis Presley released in 1969 called Elvis In Memphis. Presley, who had just staged his comeback on an NBC television special bypassed RCA Studios in Nashville and was attracted to the soul sound of the American Sound studio’s house band, the Memphis Boys. Presley came out swinging with Frazier’s “Wearing That Loved On Look” and swung for the fences with Mac Davis’ “In The Ghetto.” These and his cover of “True Love On a Gravel Road” would be among his biggest hits. Pure country soul never sounded so good.

A more recent Nashville to Memphis connection can be heard on Jim Lauderdale’s new double album ‘Soul Searching’ which features two volumes, one recorded in Nashville and one in Memphis.

Lauderdale’s desire to do soul songs, which on the surface might seem unexpected, but Lauderdale has never been conventional. He’s full of history and a musical chameleon, moving back and forth between genres in country, bluegrass, and whatever strikes his creative fancy at the moment. He talks of his love of records recorded at Stax Studios and Royal in Memphis where he recorded ‘Soul Searching.’ The funky rhythmic lines, scorching horn arrangements and all-girl background vocals are as authentic as they are stunning. The studio, which celebrates its sixtieth anniversary next year, has been home to the greats like Al Green, Ike & Tina Turner, Chuck Berry and others. Lauderdale recorded the companion volume at RCA Studio A where Elvis Presley, George Jones and Dolly Parton recorded many of their classic records.

“There are vibrations from music that’s been made and still exists in those studios,” Lauderdale told me.

The Intervention & Its Aftermath

“Can I put a little Memphis up here?” Justin Timberlake asked the enthralled audience before launching into “Drink You Away.” Timberlake seemed like he came to be with Stapleton at the Bridgestone Arena for an intervention, leaving any remnants of boy band past in the dust instead to summon the great Sam Cooke.

Nashville producer and songwriter Buddy Cannon was ecstatic commenting on Facebook: “There was so much electricity on stage during The Stapleton/Timberlake performance at The CMA Awards it is a miracle that the stage didn’t explode. I just watched that clip for the first time and, as I thought when I was in the audience feeling it, I have never seen and heard a more energized performance in my life.”

A few days later he was posting again.

“I don’t consider myself an expert on anything. I don’t care about names of musical genres. I do know when a music moves me. The Stapleton/Timberlake performance did that. All this “It ain’t country” crap seems to me to be just a soap box for people who aren’t content to not bitch about something. I like to listen to some B. B. King, George Jones, Rolling Stones, Vern Gosdin, Randy Newman, George Strait, the Beatles, Kenny Rogers And The First Edition, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Del McCoury and lots of other artists that do not have to fit under a genre name but can still fit into a same box. Whine, whine, whine. Why can’t you just not like what you don’t like and stop trying to demonize it.”

It’s all good and for me, I still have Etta James on my mind and memories of that video of Johnny Cash and O.C. Smith and O.C. Junior hitting those falsettos. The greatest gift provided by Stapleton and Timberlake is reminding us all of where we came from and the bounty of gifts that continue giving.

It all goes to show there still is some soul in what sometimes feels like a company town. For one night, it was nice to see the assembly line had come to a halt to savor storied history and a future with possibilities. Just maybe the factories are going to be retooled.

Get Chris Stapleton tickets here.
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About Steve Wosahla

Steve Wosahla's interviews and reviews have appeared in Song Hits, Rock, Good Times, Circus, the Messenger-Press, New Haven Register, Soap Opera Digest and the New York Times. He is a member of the Americana Music Association and lives in Bristow, VA. You can follow him on Twitter: @swosahla.
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