Ever since the fifties, country music has influenced soul music. That’s no surprise. After all, many soul singers grew up in the southern states, listening to the country music coming out of Nashville, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Back then, country music was King. There was no alternative to the country music being played on radio states in the South. All there was, was country music. Ruling the airwaves were Hank Williams, George Jones, Webb Pierce, Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard. They provided the soundtrack to the lives of those living in the southern states. This just so happened to include a generation of soul singers. Their voices, delivery and style were influenced by country music. As such, country and soul music became inextricably linked. Proof of this is the latest compilation of country soul from Kent Soul, Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2, which was released on 27th May 2013.

Just like Behind Closed Doors: When Country Meets Soul, which was released in June 2012, the songs that feature on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 were originally recorded by country singers. For many aspiring soul singers living in southern states, they must have heard several of the tracks that feature on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 when they were growing up. Whose to say that a young Otis Redding didn’t hear the Cowboy Copas version of the Tennessee Waltz? Maybe Isaac Hayes heard Hank Williams heartbreaking delivery of I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You? For all we know they could have influenced their musical careers? Whether that’s the case or not, many years later, these artists were now covering the songs they’d heard growing up.

Apart from Otis and Isaac, Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 is crammed full of contributions from soul music royalty. This includes Queens of Country Soul Etta James, Bettye Swann and Esther Phillips and The Sweet Inspirations. Among the rivals for the title of King of Country Soul are James Carr, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Joe Simon, ex-Temptation David Ruffin and Johnny Taylor. There’s also contributions from Hank Ballard, Eddie James and Millie Jackson. Most of the music on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 was released between 1962 and 1976. The exception are James Carr’s Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong and Orquestra Was Featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson’s Forever’s A Long Time. They’d weren’t released until 1995 and 1996. Both are hidden gems, worthy of their place on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2, which I’ll pick the highlights of.

There’s no better way to open Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 than with The Sweet Inspirations’ But You Know I Love You. Rousing, uplifting and joyous describes this fusion of country soul and gospel harmonies. It’s the best version of But You Know I Love You. Not only does it surpass Kenny Rodgers and The First Edition’s 1968 version, but Bill Anderson’s 1969 version, which reached number two. No wonder. After all, look at the personnel involved in The Sweet Inspirations’ 1969 album Sweets For My Sweet, which this track is from. It was produced by Tom Dowd, and features the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section. Although they provide the perfect accompaniment to The Sweet Inspirations they steal the show and in the process, set the standard of music on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2.

If anyone asked me what country soul sounds like, I’d play them Hank Ballard’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. It epitomizes and defines what country soul sounds like. Released in 1970, it was written by Kris Kristofferson, who was enjoying the hottest spell of his career. It gave Ray Stevens the first hit of his career in 1969. Then Johnny Cash took the song to number one on the country charts later that year. Of the three versions, Hank’s is the most moving. Produced by Lelan Rogers, a pedal steel, punchy bass, Hammond organ and cooing, sweeping harmonies accompany Hank’s heartbroken vocal. This emotive backdrop is perfect for Hank’s vocal. His vocal is filled with hurt, emotion and loneliness as he lays bare his soul, for all to hear. 

Further proof of the hot streak Kris Kristofferson was enjoying as a songwriter between 1968 and 1979 is Help Me Make It Through The Night. Originally recorded Bill Nash in 1969, Joe Simon covered the track in 1971. It featured on The Sounds Of Simon, his first album for Spring Records. Produced by John Richbourg, the tempo is slightly quicker than other versions. That doesn’t matter. Veering between sultry and seductive, to pleading and needy, Joe breathes new life and meaning into a familiar song.

Another artist who produced the best music of her career at Spring Records was Millie Jackson. Sweet Music Man, which was written by Kenny Rodgers, who released the original version in 1977. Kenny and Brad Shapiro produced Sweet Music Man, a track from her 1978 album Get It Out’cha System. Against a dramatic backdrop, a feisty Millie unleashes a tirade of emotion, anger and frustration. Mixing power and passion, Millie makes the song her own, surpassing the faux country of the original.

When it comes to country soul, one of the giants of the genre was James Carr. Proof of this is the music he recorded for Goldwax Records. Blessed with talent, only poor health stopped him from becoming one of soul music’s most successful artists. So, for a producer looking to cover a song made famous by the late, great George Jones, James Carr was the go-to-guy. Here was a singer that was George’s equal. The song was Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong, which gave George the sixty-eighth hit of his career. James’ version recorded not long after this, but Goldwax became insolvent and the song lay unreleased. Sadly, nobody heard the song until 1995. Righting that wrong were Kent, who released this hidden gem. It’s worth the twenty year wait.A crestfallen James delivers a captivating vocal, which demonstrates why, when it came to country soul, James Carr was a giant.

One of the most underrated, but hugely talented soul singers is Bettye Swann. That’s why I’ve been championing her music for many years. So, I’m pleased to see Don’t You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2. It was released on Capitol Records in 1969, four years after Ray Price recorded the original version. Sadly, Bettye’s cover version didn’t replicate the success of Ray’s version. That’s a huge shame, as Bettye version is a enthralling mixture of emotion, sadness, hurt and desperation. 

From the get-go, Bobby “Blue” Bland’s I Hate You is laden with emotion and drama. That’s even before Bobby’s hurt-filled vocal enters, accompanied by cooing harmonies. Released in 1975, on Bobby’s Get On Down album. This was two years after Ronnie Milsap’s original version was released. However, it was fitting Bobby covered this track. He was a a hero of Dan Penn, who penned the track with Leroy Daniels. While Ronnie’s version gave him the first hit of his career, I prefer Bobby’s version. It’s a bristling with emotion and tension, caused by a relationship gone awry.

David Ruffin’s Statute Of A Fool, is a cover of a track originally recorded by Jack  Green in 1969. It featured on David’s 1975 album Who I Am. The track has a quite different sound to most of the tracks on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2. Instead, it has a much fuller, orchestral arrangement, courtesy of producer Van McCoy. He builds the drama to an elegant crescendo, above which sweeps David’s heartfelt, rueful vocal. Filled with regret at love lost, a rueful David ponders what might have been.

My final choice from Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 is Dorothy Moore’s Funny How Time Slips Away. Written by Willie Nelson, and originally recorded by Billy Walker, Dorothy’s 1976 version sees the song given a makeover. It too, has a much fuller, orchestral sound. That was the fashion in the mid-seventies. This was a track from her debut album Misty Blue, whose title-track gave Dorothy the biggest hit single of her career. Much as I like Misty Blue, I much prefer this track. Here, Dorothy’s captivating, dramatic and powerful vocal veers between bravado and sadness at she remembers the love she lost all those years ago.

Although I’ve only mentioned nine of the tracks on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2, I could just as easily have mentioned any number of other tracks. This includes contributions from Otis Redding, William Bell, Johnny Taylor, Pat Lundy and Clarence Carter. Then there’s contributions from Queens of country soul Esther Phillips and Etta James. Compiler Tony Rounce has concentrated on quality. Not once was I forced to reach for my trusty remote control. That’s unusual. Usually, I’ve got to resort to that several times in a twenty-three track compilation. So congratulations go to compiler Tony Rounce. Tony also deserves credit for his lengthy and informative sleeve-notes. They’re akin to a minor work of art. Not only do they tell the story behind each track, but chart the changes in country soul.

The music on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2, covers the period between 1962-1976. This allows you to hear how country soul evolves. By 1976, the traditional country soul sound, has been replaced by a much more fuller, orchestral arrangement. With lush strings key to the sound, this is reminiscent of Philly Soul. This works. Mind you, David Ruffin and Dorothy Moore’s voices are perfectly suited to this sound. Not every artist, would suit this sound. Mostly though, the music on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2 has that unmistakable country soul sound. This is a delicious fusion of musical genres. Occasionally there’s the welcome addition of gospel harmonies. This includes on The Sweet Inspirations’ But You Know I Love You, which is one of the real highlights of Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2. That was the perfect way to open Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2. After that the quality kept on coming. Indeed, the quality continued for another twenty-two tracks. Quite simply, there’s neither faux pas nor filler on Sweet Dreams: Where Country Music Meets Soul Volume 2, just quality country soul all the way. Standout Tracks: The Sweet Inspirations But You Know I Love You, Hank Ballard Sunday Morning Coming Down, Millie Jackson Sweet Music Man and Bobby “Blue” Bland I Hate You. 


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