What is "Country Soul"?

A basic look at the style that hardwired two shades of gospel

Ray Charles' landmark 1962 LP "Modern Sounds in Country and Western"
Ray Charles' landmark 1962 LP "Modern Sounds in Country and Western". pricegrabber.com

What is "Country Soul"?

"Country Soul" resulted from the shared genealogy of gospel in both soul and country music; although white gospel and Black gospel styles began life with major stylistic differences, they had merged somewhat by the 1950s, and, added to that fact, whites were by then hearing recorded Black gospel at a much greater frequency than ever before. The result, oddly enough, worked to the reverse of then-current musical trends: country-soul was in actuality the triumph of country gospel traditions seeping into soul music. Although there were some white proponents of the new sound (Joe South, Charlie Rich), the typical "country soul" song was done by a Black soul artist, usually with tinkling country piano, gospel harmonies of either tradition, and lead guitar lines that sounded high and twangy like country while playing what was essentially blues. Country-soul songs were also often grounded in stately church organ and likely to, as with country music, deal with more complex and fatalistic depictions of romantic relationships in their lyrics.

The new genre arose primarily in the South, where strong religious beliefs made gospel highly influential to both Blacks and Whites, and where musical miscegenation was, ironically, more likely to take place than in other areas of America. Although artists like Arthur Alexander and Solomon Burke had already begun tentatively exploring this style by 1960, Ray Charles' landmark 1962 album Modern Sounds In Country and Western is often considered the commercial breakthrough of the genre. The style lasted well into the early Seventies, with several spinoff genres like the more gospel-heavy and emotional "Deep Soul," the grittier, bluesier "Southern Soul," and the later, funkier variant known as "Swamp Rock." Eventually, like most soul variants, it was killed off by disco and subsequent dance movements.

Also known as Country-Soul, Swamp Rock, Deep Soul, Southern Soul

Famous examples of "Country Soul" music:

"Warm and Tender Love," Percy Sledge

A Percy Sledge heartbreaker, in this case less tragic than most -- but still emotionally deep and committed to fidelity. 

The song which heralded the real arrival of whatever it was The Genius was up to, a mix of country, soul, gospel, and sweet pop.

Typically rustic in its imagery, a late-period country-soul smash that, like a lot of country, finds big meaning in the little details.

Country-soul's anthem to the world, a diplomatic mission to find spirituality in what it calls "rock n' roll." Nearly blasphemous to some in its desire to be "saved" by commercial music.

"Games People Play," Joe South

South was a genuine mix of blue-eyed soul and country songwriting chops, which, combined with his humanist stance, got him several hits in the hippie era.

"You Don't Miss Your Water," William Bell

One of the deeper country-soul smashes, lyrically a barstool weeper but emotionally moving at a deliberate crawl like the best gospel.

"Patches," Clarence Carter

Written by General Johnson of Chairmen of the Board, and delivered in his signature near-sob by Mr. Strokin' himself.

"Dark End of the Street," James Carr

Also taken into the Top 40 by Percy Sledge, Carr's original version is somehow even more tortured and raw.

"Rainy Night in Georgia," Brook Benton

Penned by Tony Joe White, a swamp-rock legend in his own right, it restored the "babblin' Brook" to the charts in a new, mature mode.

"Just Out of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms)," Solomon Burke

Perhaps the king of country-soul, Burke knew where to find the dividing line between pathos and anguish.