With Election Into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ray Charles Returns to One of His Earliest Loves

by Jim Casey

With his election into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Ray Charles is returning to one of his earliest loves: country music.

The Country Music Association, which is responsible for electing/inducting members into the Country Music Hall of Fame, made the announcement on August 16. Ray was elected in the Veterans Era category.

It’s been a long time coming for Ray, who died in 2004 at the age of 73.

Of course, Ray Charles needs no introduction. The man is a legend in every genre he tackled during his 50-plus-year career, including R&B, jazz, gospel, pop, and, yes, country music. It feels good that Ray is finally entering the Country Music Hall of Fame. Ray was influenced by a number of country stars as a youth, including Roy Acuff, Eddy Arnold, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Snow. Even more so, Ray’s music influenced a bevy of country stars, including Elvis Presley, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, and Ronnie Milsap, among others.

Country Roots

Ray’s love affair with country music pre-dates his landmark 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which every music lover should own. Even as a child in Greenville, Florida, in the 1930s, Ray relished listening to the Grand Ole Opry. It was the only time his mother would let him stay up past 9 p.m.

As a teen in 1947, Ray enjoyed a six-month stint playing piano—and learning to yodel—in a country band, the Florida Playboys. Of course, by the early 1950s, Ray began making a name for himself on the R&B charts with iconic tunes like “I Got a Woman,” “A Fool for You,” and “What’d I Say,” among others. But in 1959, Ray dropped a revealing hint about his future country crossover appeal when he released a cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.”

In the early 1960s, Ray scored No. 1 hits on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Georgia on My Mind” and “Hit the Road Jack.”

Firmly established as a pop/R&B star, Ray made a peculiar move by label standards: he recorded Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. The album featured 12 country songs—including “Bye Bye Love,” “Hey, Good Lookin’,” and “You Don’t Know Me”—recorded as big-band ballads. Ray’s cover of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” reached No. 1 on the pop charts.

With one album, his first to reach No. 1, Ray had single-handedly expanded country music’s reach. But he wouldn’t stop there.

Ray Makes His Mark

More albums followed, including 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 2, 1965’s Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues, and 1970’s Love Country Style, among others.

In 1984, Ray released, Friendship. The 10-song offering featured Ray dueting with country’s biggest stars, including Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, George Jones, and more. Ray’s collaboration with Willie Nelson on “Seven Spanish Angels” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, while the album hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart.

Over the course of his career, Ray recorded more than 90 country songs. And if you’re looking for them, check out Ray’s 1998 compilation album, The Complete Country & Western Recordings, 1959-1986.

“I remember in 1955 when I heard ‘I Got a Woman,'” said Buck Owen’s in the aforementioned compilation album’s liner notes. “It blew me away. I was playing at a Bakersfield club called the Blackboard, and I started doing the song there. I became a huge Ray Charles fan, and have been ever since!”

It seems Buck’s admiration was mutual. Ray recorded Buck’s “Crying Time” in 1965 and “Together Again” in 1966.

“With his recording of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist,” added Willie Nelson.

Ray was inducted into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame in 1986. With his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year, Ray will join a revered cadre of artists, including Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, who are in both.