The writing’s been on the wall for a while: R&B is the next sonic influence to croon its way into country.
“You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly,” Ray Charles was once quoted as saying. Historically, country, soul, blues, and R&B all grew from the same branch, highlighting songwriting and musicianship, with artists like Charles at the crossroads. Willie Nelson once said that Charles “did more for country music than any other living human being.”
“You take country music, you take black music, you got the same goddamn thing exactly.” – Ray Charles
This was in large part due to Charles’ 1962 album titled Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. The album, regarded as one of Charles’ finest works, featured the single “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Originally written by country writer Don Gibson and recorded in 1958 by Kitty Wells, the song lived at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 5 weeks for Charles. Wells’ version peaked at #3 on the Billboard Hot Country charts. Conway Twitty also topped the charts with it, and Martina McBride performed it in Charles’ style at the Opry in 2006. A slew of others have recorded it, including Roy Orbison, Frank Sinatra, Van Morrison, and Count Basie.
The genres share more than just sonic history; SoulTrain.com wrote in 2012 that both are currently suffering criticism for their recent departure from traditional styles and values; compare Charles to Trey Songz and Twitty to Florida Georgia Line.
Now they’re experiencing a reunion, aided in large part by songwriters and vocalists like Shane McAnally, Sam Hunt, Chris Stapleton, Brett Eldredge, and Thomas Rhett, and the result, a fusion of rhythm & boots, is hitting airwaves with a vengeance.
Brett Eldredge, whose debut album Bring You Back featured soulful vocals, released his latest single, “Lose Your Mind,” a vocally reaching uptempo that samples Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Thomas Rhett, who is touring and rumored to be collaborating with Eldredge, brought a Motown-esque feel to the top of the country charts with the groovy “Make Me Wanna.” Rhett followed it up with the swinging “Crash and Burn,” a sonic melting pot co-written and vocally backed by Stapleton. Stapleton, who recently released his critically acclaimed debut album Traveller, may in some ways be the poster child for the merging of styles; his debut single “What Are You Listening To?” croons and withers, a song steeped in blues and soul that could be sung by Nina Simone. “Hangover Tonight,” Gary Allan’s latest single which also features Stapleton as a co-writer and backing vocalist, practically drips R&B, with funk and Motown stylings as well. Recent releases by Jason Aldean and Canaan Smith also wink at R&B roots.
Sam Hunt may be the biggest name taking the infusion to the masses. Hunt has been criticized since his debut for not being ‘country’ enough, with his hip-hop rhythms, tracked drum loops, and cowboy-boot-less fashion sense. But if Hunt, who has managed to hang onto his country credit with his Georgia drawl and his storytelling acuity, is seen by country sticklers as an outsider, he’s one that has been quickly embraced by the mainstream. His second single, “Take Your Time,” hit #1 at country radio, and receives play in Hot AC, Adult Contemporary, and pop radio formats. His debut EP, X2C, featured four songs including the single “Leave The Night On,” which topped country airplay, and “Ex To See,” “House Party,” and “Break Up In A Small Town,” which charted at radio without any promotional push. Hunt’s debut album, Montevallo, is certified Gold, and dabbles heavily in crooning vocals and his signature hip-hop sing-speaking, from the sultry “Speakers” to the tumultuous “Make You Miss Me.”
Hunt, and his frequent co-writer Shane McAnally, have been popularizing this style long before Montevallo hit stores last year. “Come Over,” recorded by Kenny Chesney and written by Hunt and McAnally with Josh Osborne, is smooth talking and assured in its vulnerability, with uncharacteristically rhythmic verses and plaintive choruses. The song was a Platinum certified #1 for Chesney. Chesney’s “Somewhere With You,” which McAnally wrote with J.T. Harding, and Keith Urban’s “Cop Car,” which Hunt wrote with Zach Crowell and Matt Jenkins, pave the way as well.
Cross-genre collaborations are also nothing new. Justin Bieber and Rascal Flatts joined forces in 2011 on the pop/country/R&B infused ballad, “That Should Be.” The song simultaneously fits in both worlds – stripped to its bones and sent to extremes, it’s a song that could be released by Usher or Carrie Underwood.
This year, Chase Rice added his name to the mix as well, going a step beyond influenced styles and recording a cover of an R&B song. “Ride,” which appears on the ‘Party Edition’ of Chase Rice’s album Ignite The Night, is a song released by R&B artist SoMo in late 2013. Written by SoMo and producer Cody Tarpley, the song peaked at #10 on Billboard’s Rhythmic Songs chart and #20 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hot Hip-Hop chart last year. Rice has been performing the song live, serenading a girl to it at each performance, and recently released a video for the song as well, in which SoMo stars.
The future seems ripe for rhythm & boots; Eldredge and Rhett’s collaboration could easily push the limits of this sound, as well as each of their sophomore albums (Eldredge’s Illinois is expected September 11), and Hunt, McAnally, and Stapleton are critically and commercially in high demand.