From Chicago to Nashville

I listened to three albums from my tour through the vinyl catalogue, each requiring more than one listen. The three albums are Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles from 1962, Chicago V from 1972, and Tracy Chapman’s self-titled album released in 1988. These three albums are pretty distinct, but they also have some commonality that threads through them.

I will not follow chronology but rather the sequence I found in my in-box. As I tap this blog out, Chicago is up first and on the turntable. This album is interesting from several different angles. It is Chicago’s first single album release. Notable, isn’t it? The fifth album and the first release on a single slab of vinyl. Their first release, Chicago Transit Authority, was a double album that made one hell of a splash for their inauguration. Then came Chicago, their second double album but released simply as Chicago. It has since become known as Chicago II in deference to the string of albums to follow it that are all named Chicago with a Roman numeral. Chicago III is also a double album, with II and III garnering immense praise from fans and critics alike. Then came Chicago at Carnegie Hall, also known as Chicago IV. This recording was the first live album and fourth album overall. It was initially released as a four-LP vinyl box set and was also available for a time as two separate two-record sets.

And then came Chicago V, the album on my turntable. This album contains the twelfth and thirteenth singles to chart for the band, as well as the album being considered the Best Small-Combo LP in Playboy magazines Jazz & Pop Poll for 1973. The album received generally good accolades, getting a 4 out of 5 from ALLMUSIC. It charted at #1 on Billboards 200 list and is certified Gold, Platinum and Double Platinum.

But Norman, this is all very interesting, but this is mostly stuff I could read on Wikipedia. And you are absolutely correct; here is the link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_(band)

As I listened to this, I heard a link from the jazz-infused rock and roll of 1972 rushing straight into the modern jazz I am listening to coming out of New York, London, and Africa. I think Chicago was way ahead of the curve and broke ground for countless other music groups walking the line between genres. I love the horn work; they had some tight playing going on and bouncing off each instrument as they moved along. I don’t hear big solos, but I hear good musicians playing together, which can sound better than a five-minute solo if it is cut right. And Chicago cut it just right, and they cut it fast. This album took just over a week of studio time, cutting it right the first time.

I like this album because I can sit back and get lost in its groove, or I can work on a blog, for example, and have this playing as the soundtrack. I can pause at the tight passages or tap my foot along with the beat, and I can play it over and over. It is that good.

Chicago V, give it a listen, especially for the jazz fans out there. I think you will find it a good listen.

The next musical morsel is the self-titled album by Tracy Chapman. This album hit number 1 on the Billboard charts and garnered immense critical acclaim. From Wikipedia: “Just two weeks after its release, the album sold one million copies worldwide, becoming a big commercial success.[4] In total, it sold over 20 million copies worldwide and is one of the first albums by a female artist to have more than 10 million copies sold worldwide.”

I fell in love with this album from the first time I heard it until the last time I heard it, which was yesterday. Chicago is still hogging the turntable but should be done soon. There are certain albums by certain musicians that can grab onto me for reasons that are beyond my reasoning ability. Chicago V is back in the catalogue, Tracy Chapman is Talkin’ About a Revolution. This album grabbed way out of proportion to my general listening back in 1988. I listened to If I Should Fall from Grace with God by The Pogues. 

Naked by the Talking Heads is an album that has stayed in my listening profile forever. People by Hothouse Flowers is a band that I enjoyed seeing live and on record. The Indescribable Wow is an excellent album by Sam Phillips. The list goes on and on, but these are not folky protest albums, which is what I hear when I listen to Tracy Chapman. She single-handedly revived folk music in the era of metal and hard rock; not an easy task, but this album shot to number one and stayed there. It would be best if you went to Wikipedia to fully appreciate the impact of this album as far as sales and accolades go.

A lot has changed in my life since 1988. I became an ordained pastor as an evangelical Christian and then left the faith. I sold a large portion of my music catalogue twice. Thick as a brick, I didn’t learn my lesson the first time. I got married to a beautiful woman who supports my music endeavours, and we have stayed married for better, for worse, yadda yadda. We have a son, a terrific young man who inherited my passion for all things musical. Pre-Covid, we were averaging a concert every week, and our catalogue gives us ample music to choose from.

All this to say that a lot has changed but not my appreciation for Tracy Chapman, the album. I must say “the album” because none of her subsequent albums kept me listening to them, just her first one. Perhaps it is my association with the black community; she is black, and many of her lyrics fall into the category of protest songs. Maybe it is because of George Floyd and the countless other black people who suffer needlessly. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I know that I love this album and the song ‘Fast Car’ is one of the best car songs.

The third side of this musical triangle is Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music by Ray Charles. The title should serve as a shot across the bow. You will not hear traditional country and western music on this album. You will hear Nashville Country. You will hear lush orchestral arrangements and backing chorus instead of fiddle and banjo playing. This album is in a whole new category of musical genres. It has more R&B than traditional Country & Western music. Ray Charles didn’t start the trend towards the marriage of country and western music with other genres. Still, he broke the bubble that ushered in the movement of slick productions, studio musicians and lush instrumentation for the Nashville Sound.

I understand the significance of this record, not just for country and western music but for a black artist playing C&W music. Having said that, I must say that this album has not sustained its listenability for me. I have always kept my heart close to more traditional Country and Western music. Moving the music forward, I have listened to Outlaw Country music through its many revivals, Texas Country, Tulsa sound and other musicians who held traditional country and western music close to their hearts. An interesting anecdote: I enjoy the music of Sturgill Simpson and his breakthrough album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which pays homage to Ray Charles and his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. I also enjoy the more traditional albums from Sturgill Simpson, especially his Cuttin’ Grass Sessions.

Ray Charles and his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music are on a long play record, but I won’t be playing it long.

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