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Solomon Burke

Shout! Factory

Before Ray Charles released Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, his flirtation with Nashville drew sidelong glances from the R&B community. Lord knows why: 45 years after its release, his fusion of soul and country is as pedestrian as “Hit the Road Jack.” When, at 66, “King of Rock and Soul” Solomon Burke enlisted some achy-breaky all-stars—producer extraordinaire Buddy Miller, American neo-traditionalist Gillian Welch, and her Dollywoodness—for his first full-fledged country record, failure wasn’t in the forecast, but there was a 99 percent chance of mediocrity. Well, Burke’s release is anything but mediocre: This is one Philadelphia native who’s comfortable in spurs. Before he lent his versatile voice to backseat classics like “Cry to Me,” he broke the Billboard chart in 1961 (a year before the release of Charles’ feted country effort) with the single “Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms),” a by-the-numbers tear-jerker that even Patsy Cline couldn’t sell. Unbelievably, Nashville sounds as good and fresh as this early hit. “That’s How I Got to Memphis” parries Don’t Give Up on Me, Burke’s overproduced, tragically hip 2002 Anti-/Fat Possum/Epitaph release: The stark acoustic guitar and upright bass of Nashville’s opener perfectly complement Burke’s testifying while telegraphing his no-nonsense approach to 14 off-the-cuff tracks. Recorded at Miller’s home studio in East Nashville, this LP documents a gang of incredible musicians hanging out and having the time of their lives. The informal atmosphere kickstarts honky-tonk rug-cutters like “Seems Like You’re Gonna Take Me Back” as well as Welch’s gospel-inflected “Valley of Tears.” Welch—and Emmylou Harris, and the Pattys Griffin and Loveless on their respective contributions—is wise enough not to bogart the limelight. When Burke calls out “C’mon everybody!” in the subdued, “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”–like refrain of Welch’s composition, it’s no rock-star move. Here, it’s a preacher’s sincere shout for support from a timid choir. Nashville’s only real miss is “Tomorrow is Forever,” Burke’s duet with Dolly Parton. Everyone’s favorite 9-to-5’er hijacks the track with her trademark vocal histrionics, battling Burke as if to take back her own song. Be thankful Bruce Springsteen didn’t lend his voice to a cover of his “Ain’t Got You” in another duel for the spotlight—Burke would’ve had a miniature “We Are the World” on his hands. To everyone’s credit, Nashville rarely devolves into musical one-upmanship. Instead, Solomon’s subjects are content to pay tribute to the King. —Justin Moyer