Thirty-six years later, it still seems strange at first that two of the most important albums by Ray Charles, the man who pretty much invented soul music, would be Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music and its sequel. But now, as then, there's no denying the potency of Charles' approach to country, in part because of its sheer unlikelihood. An innovator, not an imitator, Charles pooled the catalogs of the C&W songwriting houses of the early '60s, selecting material for his country albums from hundreds of songs before settling on two dozen he felt he could turn into Ray Charles numbers. That he did this without compromising their origins is undeniable: From the swing arrangement of "Bye Bye, Love" through the balladry of "You Don't Know Me" and the first album's mammoth single, the Don Gibson-penned "I Can't Stop Loving You," Charles explores the common ground between country and soul in singular fashion. In the process, he coaxed fans of country music into buying an R&B album, and vice versa, during a time of racial strife. Though the degree to which this was a first tends to get exaggerated, as the liner notes to this four-disc collection of Charles' C&W work point out, no one quite pulled it off to the degree he did, creating a vibrant, unique fusion. Disc one of the comprehensive The Complete Country And Western Recordings 1959-1986 gathers together both volumes of Modern Sounds, which alone makes it indispensable, but it's difficult to find fault with much of the other three discs, either. A 1959 cover of Hank Snow's "I'm Movin' On" foreshadowed the great experiment of '62, and from that point on, country became another style in Charles' repertoire, and songs made famous by Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, and others began to pop up on his albums. For a span of 10 years or so, or about halfway through the third disc, it worked extremely well. From the early '70s through the early '80s, Charles largely abandoned country music, returning in '83 and '84 with country albums that suffer somewhat from being a bit too straightforward. Charles is a fine singer in any genre, but he's at his best giving country music his own twist. But a little late-career laxness aside, this is a consistent collection that perfectly captures an important chapter for a remarkable musician.

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