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'Rhythm Country & Blues': A Harmonic Convergence : Television: The latest installment of PBS' 'In the Spotlight' documentary series shows the making of an album by genre-busting duets on classic songs.

March 05, 1994|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Sam Moore was a boy in Miami in the 1950s, he had to sneak around the house in order to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.

"It was a real Christian family," he says. "But I'd get under the covers and turn the radio on and listen to Hank Williams and Hank Snow and Tex Ritter. I loved all that stuff."

Two decades later, a young Travis Tritt found himself having to go through similar subterfuge to listen to R&B records in his home in Marrietta, Ga.

"My mother was a devout Christian and it was music I think she didn't understand," he recalls. "I remember the first time I bought a Joe Tex record and got it home and played it on a real low volume, but I ended up getting caught anyway."

A black urban kid into country music? A white rural boy into soul?

Not only was it natural to them, but as they ultimately became music stars themselves--Moore as half of the great '60s soul duo Sam and Dave, Tritt as a current country leader--they took a lot of their cultural border crossing influences with them.

"There's a lot of similarities in both types of music," says Tritt. "They speak for the average everyday individual. It's been said in the past--and I tend to agree--that country music has sort of been white man's blues all along anyways."

That, to a large extent, is the point of "Rhythm Country & Blues," the latest installment of PBS' "In the Spotlight" music documentary series, which airs at 9 p.m. Monday on KCET-TV Channel 28 (and at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday on KVCR-TV Channel 24, and at 10 p.m. March 13 on KOCE-TV Channel 50). The show is built around the making of the new album of the same name, a unique project in which country and R&B stars spanning several generations were paired in genre-busting duets on classic songs.

The excitement of this sharing is easy to see in the faces of the performers, caught in studio as they worked with their designated partners: soul veteran Al Green teaching Lyle Lovett a few tricks as they worked up Willie Nelson's "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away," Vince Gill meshing perfectly with Gladys Knight on "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," a giddy Tritt pushed higher and higher as he keeps up with Patti LaBelle's vocal acrobatics on "When Something Is Wrong With My Baby," Moore smiling and bouncing as he sings with Conway Twitty (his last recording before his death) on "Rainy Night in Georgia."

The sessions also featured pairings of George Jones and B.B. King, Natalie Cole and Reba McEntire, Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood, Little Richard and Tanya Tucker, Chet Atkins and Allen Toussaint and the Staples with Marty Stuart.

But the show is more than just a look at the making of the album. It's about the whole history and development of two parallel kinds of music.

"It's basically the tale of two cities, Nashville and Memphis, two cities not many miles apart, but they may as well be much farther," says David Horn, the executive producer of the "In the Spotlight" series for New York public station WNET. "They both became major recording meccas for two distinct styles of music--Memphis for rhythm & blues, Nashville for country."

Elvis Presley became the king of rock 'n' roll by melding the two styles, and Ray Charles' ventures into country music remain landmarks. Their efforts opened the door for the likes of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who led the next generation of rock stars by borrowing equally from soul and country. The show traces the common elements in the genres back to their beginnings--their roots in poor, rural, Southern immigrant cultures--and how they overcame segregation and bigotry to come together at several key junctures.

"Gospel and religion are certainly an influence in both," Horn says. "What is revealed here is how much one group listened to the other group, how much one learned from the other."

Even George Jones, who grew up "so far back in the sticks of East Texas" that he was in his teens before he ever saw a black person, sees country and R&B as essentially the same.

"The story of their songs are a lot like country music," he says. "We all had the Depression and hard times and the things in our environments, and it was just a way of expressing our feelings, and country music did it just a little different than they did.

"We sing a lot with heart and feeling and soul like they do with rhythm & blues, and that's the reason they're so together."

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