To the untrained eye, the musical styles of rural whites and urban blacks have only their poor roots in common. Unearthing a fraternity between Country and Rhythm & Blues is a bit like searching for an etymological relationship between Welsh and Sanskrit. You have to go back a long way, probably to the invention of the guitar, but it's there. At the risk of being reductive about it, Country is a descendant of Celtic and central European folk music, the issue of the jig and the polka. R & B has its roots in Gospel, blues and jazz.
Never the twain did meet, or not until Al Teller, the music entertainment group chairman of MCA, realised he had a lot of highly marketable artists of both persuasions signed to the label. Thus a concept became a notion, became a project, became a first-rate exploration of US musical culture.
Before the shortlist of songs was drawn up, and the names of the singers married together, a producer was signed. Don Was was the obvious choice. 'In the Sixties, Detroit was the R & B capital of America,' he says. 'But it was also the home to all these white migrant auto workers from Kentucky, so there was a tremendous amount of Country there. You would find John Lee Hooker and Jack Scott were both local. I used to put my hair in my hat to go and see Merle Haggard.'
Each duet on Rhythm Country and Blues was formed on the basis of an artist expressing an interest in working with someone else. Travis Tritt, for example, wanted to sing with Patti LaBelle, and Tritt chose 'When Something Is Wrong with My Baby'. Some voices obviously went together: Trisha Yearwood and Aaron Neville met and meshed on 'I Fall to Pieces', and Lyle Lovett and Al Green on 'Funny How Time Slips Away'.
If a cursory listen suggests that this was always going to be a triumph, Was says: 'At first it could have been a train wreck: we didn't know how well it would work. But you put great singers together and they find a common ground. I stand behind the integrity of the vocal performances completely, and to me that's what the record is about: great singers doing great songs.'
Any project calling on the talents of so many huge names ought by rights to have brought clashes of egos by the caravan load, but apparently everyone was so in awe of everyone else that good behaviour and an almost academic sense of mission abounded. As if to illustrate the division between Nashville and the R & B cities, most of the pairs had not even met before.
No song needed more than two takes, even though the cameras were rolling and recording was live with a band. 'It's where great music comes from,' says Was, 'where the band can feed off the singer, the singer can in turn feed of the band. It requires a certain type of singer to be able to pull that off.'
It could be argued that the preponderance of standards from the R & B catalogue suggests superior wealth in lyrics and melodies. There's little room for doubt, though, that the names who have given it its exposure are the huge country stars.
Garth Brooks isn't there, but the presence of Yearwood, McEntire, Vince Gill, Clint Black and Tanya Tucker, generally dueting with R & B stars much older than themselves, has taken the album to the vast audience which has made Nashville the boom town of American music.
Was doesn't buy the theory that Country and R & B are poles apart. 'I think in the end it's probably a question better addressed to musicologists, but to me there never seemed to be a great difference either in chord structure or from a melodic standpoint or in terms of song content. The differences are subtle shades of phrasing.' Gaping or subtle, on Rhythm Country and Blues the differences have disappeared altogether.Reuse content