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Issue #9: Tina Turner, country music and the original sin of genre
Turner's solo debut was a country album by its own definition; by others, less so.
By Natalie Weiner
"Soul singers singing country music is nothing new," Bobby Womack told the Los Angeles Times in 1974. "Ray Charles was doing it in the early '60s. I was playing in his band then, so I know all about his country period. I think it was his best period. He showed that people dig good ol' soulful country music when it's done right."
The legendary singer and fellow icon Tina Turner had both just put out country albums, a move certainly not unprecedented for Black artists already successful in other genres: the Pointer Sisters released their notable crossover single "Fairytale" that year as well, and Al Green's classic Call Me, which includes versions of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and "Funny How Time Slips Away," was released the year prior — just two of many examples from the previous decade or so.
Yet in spite of that, Turner's choice of debut solo album was still unusual enough to turn a few heads. "Can you imagine Tina Turner doing a country album?" one incredulous critic queried. (Many contemporary sites are mining this same tone in the wake of Turner's passing for the inevitable clicks it generates). Others wrote off Turner's Tina Turns The Country On as a matter of course. "While soul artists have done country material for some time, the effort hasn't always been successful," wrote Tusla World music critic Tom Carter in 1975. "Tina has as much business doing country as Tammy Wynette doing opera."
Why, a decade after Ray Charles had (temporarily, it seems) torn down the walls of genre and left artists of all styles and skin colors mining country music for pop hits in his wake, were people still singing the same tired old tune? Why do we have to keep rehashing it today, fifty years and countless Black artists singing and writing and playing on country songs later?
Yes, Tina Turner's first solo album was a country album. We don't have much insight as to why she elected to record songs by Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Snow; we can only infer, then, that it was because she liked them. "The music I heard on the radio when I was a kid was mostly country and western," she writes in her autobiography I, Tina, recalling her childhood in Nutbush, Tennessee (chronicled vividly in her self-penned hit "Nutbush City Limits," released the year prior).
It's shameful that her decision was deemed surprising then and that it's still — to most people — surprising enough now to be clickbait fodder. It's proof of how deep this poisonous notion of race-as-genre goes, how impossible it feels to extract it by the root from our understanding of music; how its delineations are used to keep people out rather than invite them in.
Turner and her peers — in this case, Black artists successful in soul, rock, R&B and in some cases even jazz who take forays in country — are perennially deemed "not country enough" or somehow stretching the genre's boundaries too far to such an extent that their releases are never even considered within the genre in the first place: Tina Turns The Country On was nominated for an R&B Grammy, like Charles' Modern Sounds Of Country And Western Music before it. White artists who expand country music's sound palette and songwriting, though, still typically get radio play and healthy sales pushes by their labels, even if traditionalist critics decry their experiments. Where the latter gets a slap on the wrist for whatever their rebellion against the country canon may be, the former is still so taboo as to be immediately dismissed (why Beyoncé would bother having anything to do with country after the stupid fracas following her perfect performance with the Chicks at the CMAs, I don't know). The divide becomes starker when you consider that the only thing harder than trying to pivot from R&B into country is trying to make it in Nashville as a Black artist in the first place.
Turner spent much of her towering career happily, successfully ignoring that deeply racist divide that plows straight through the heart of American song. She was a rock star, a term that comes with a less forceful but still knee-jerk and incorrect association with whiteness; one of her most iconic songs is a CCR cover. Go listen to some Tina Turner and repeat the mantra that was clearly plain as day to her: Pop music genre was made up to sell records to racists, and the only person who can say what kind of music you're making is you.
Tina Turner's Country Discography
Tina Turns The Country On (1974)
"Bayou Song" (P.J. Morse)
"Help Me Make It Through the Night" (Kris Kristofferson)
"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" (Bob Dylan)
"If You Love Me (Let Me Know)" (John Rostill)
"He Belongs to Me" (Bob Dylan)
"Don't Talk Now" (James Taylor)
"Long Long Time" (Gary White)
"I'm Moving On" (Hank Snow)
"There'll Always Be Music" (Dolly Parton)
"The Love That Lights Our Way" (Fred Karlin, Marsha Karlin)
From various compilations:
"Good-Hearted Woman" (Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson; the hook was, apocryphally, pulled word for word from an ad Jennings saw for an Ike & Tina show — semi-related, Waylon and Tina both covered "Honky Tonk Woman")
"Stand By Your Man" (Tammy Wynette, Billy Sherrill) (talk about a gut punch)
"Loving Him Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" (Kris Kristofferson)
"We Had It All" (Donald Fritts, Troy Seals)
"Lay It Down" (Gene Thomas)
"If This Is Our Last Time" (Dallas Frazier)
"If It's Alright With You" (Kenny O'Dell, Larry Henley)
"Soul Deep" (Wayne Thompson)
"You Ain't Woman Enough To Take My Man" (Loretta Lynn) (this is stellar)
"Freedom To Stay" (Bill Hoover)
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