SOLOMON BURKE at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (July 8), 8 pm. $49.50-$69.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
Solomon Burke is going country. For those only familiar with the legendary belter's many classic R&B recordings, the whole notion of the celebrated King of Rock 'n' Soul recording a country album may seem strange, if not completely preposterous.
However, his forthcoming Buddy Miller-produced Nashville disc (set for release by Shout! Factory September 26), on which Burke can be heard duetting with some of Music City's finest women singers, including Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin, is by no means a precedent-setting move for the 70-year-old song stylist.
In fact, Burke's first national hit after signing to Atlantic in 1960 was his cover of the country standard Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Empty Arms), two years before Ray Charles's so-called "pioneering" country crossover smash I Can't Stop Loving You.
It was because of Burke's long-standing connection with country music that while speaking with him just prior to the 2002 release of his Don't Give Up On Me (Fat Possum/Epitaph) album, I suggested that he consider recording a country album as a follow-up project.
At the time, Burke seemed intrigued by the concept but was just hoping his current album would be well received. But clearly, the idea stuck with him.
"Oh, I remember that," recalls Burke with a chuckle. "If this album doesn't sell, we're gonna need to blame this crazy idea on somebody, so it might as well be you. We could've saved a lot of money if I just came and sang these songs at your house.
"You know, I originally recorded Just Out Of Reach on a dare. When I signed to Atlantic, I stipulated that I couldn't be called a rhythm and blues artist, because of my religious convictions. That's how I came to be referred to as a 'soul' artist: the King of Rock 'n' Soul. So for my first session, I was given four country tunes to record, and they said, 'Since you're a soul singer, put some soul on these.'
"I had no problem with that, because I'd grown up listening to Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers. They were my favourite singers as a kid. Of course, Atlantic wasn't dealing in country music back then, so Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler were convinced that recording a country tune would be the end of my career. That was 1960, and here I am, still stumbling along."
When you hear Burke refer to his new recording as "a dream come true," it sounds like he genuinely means it. Evidently, the decision to work with musician's musician Buddy Miller as producer and to record the sessions in the cozy surroundings of Miller's home studio made this Nashville experience one the most memorable of his 51-year career.
"I had the opportunity to perform with Buddy for the first time at the Ryman Auditorium for the Americana Music Association Awards show last year. I didn't have my band with me, so Buddy stepped up and had no problem playing all of my songs. It occurred to me then that if I were going to do a country album, this would be the guy to make it with. That certainly proved to be a wise choice.
"The whole time I spent with Buddy and his wife, Julie, was an incredibly warm and comfortable experience. What a wonderful way to do an album, like, 'Hey, c'mon over to my place and let's make some music.' It was great to get away from the lined walls, padded floors and heavy doors of conventional studios. Instead, there were birds singing at the window and friends were stopping by to hang out. It was real."
Some of those friends wound up on the album contributing vocals, and in some cases writing songs for the occasion as well.
"Everyone was so beautiful, so kind and gracious. Dolly Parton wrote Tomorrow's Forever, which we sang, and I've been an Emmylou Harris fan for a long time now, so to be able to sing George Jones and Tammy Wynette's We're Gonna Hold On was oh so exciting. I had no idea I'd ever get a chance to perform with any of these talented women, so getting to record duets with them was a double delight."
And Burke isn't done dreaming yet.
"Now that I've done this country album with the ladies, I'd really like to do one with Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Mel Tillis and maybe George Jones. Would that be amazing? I could get on my horse and just ride off into the sunset after that."