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What We Can Learn From Charlie Rich

Written by Adam Sheets on . Posted in Articles - Music

The key to making great music is being yourself. The one thing that Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and Snoop Dogg (Lion?), to name a few examples, had in common was that they all made the music they wanted to make unlike some of the lesser names in their respective genres who merely rode the wave of what was hot at the time.

Every great artist is a product of their influences. While Jimmie Rodgers was the Father of Country Music, his music was just as indebted to the blues as it was the white Southern and Appalachian folk ballads that were captured on record by the likes of Uncle Dave Macon and Charlie Poole. Likewise, Waylon Jennings, being a product of both the Hank Williams school of country and the Buddy Holly school of rock and roll, managed to create a unique sound that changed country music at a time when it had become a tired formula. Influences exist in every artist, but more and more these days it seems as if producers and major labels are keeping those influences in the background in an effort to follow the hottest trends.

Which brings me to Charlie Rich.

Since this site is generally devoted to country music, I'm assuming that those of you who know of Charlie Rich know him best for "Behind Closed Doors" and "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World." But if I were writing for a different site with a different focus, those songs would be seen as mere footnotes.

You see, Charlie Rich understood three things: that his music was a amalgamation of R&B, country, pop, jazz, and gospel that couldn't be easily defined and didn't fit neatly into any radio format, that every genre of music changes constantly, and, finally, that if you build it, they will come.

In 1960, after a stint as a songwriter and session player for Sun Records, Rich had his first hit with "Lonely Weekends." This particular hit happened to be on the pop charts. He recorded for numerous labels throughout the decade and had several more hits, most notably "Big Boss Man" and "Mohair Sam" and even the singles which were not big sellers are highly valuable today to soul and R&B collectors.

Then in the late '60s he signed with Epic Records, eventually recorded the two songs we all know him for in 1974, and, after a career slump and semi-retirement, recorded one final album that was embraced by blues and jazz audiences and all but ignored in the country market.

If you haven't heard a lot of Charlie's music, you're probably thinking that he was simply willing to go where the money was and change his entire sound every ten years or so, but you're only partly correct. He did indeed go where the money was and to the audience that he thought would embrace him, but it was always because the genre of music he had last had success in had changed, not because he had. In other words, "Behind Closed Doors" would have fit in very well as the B-side of "Lonely Weekends" or "Mohair Sam." That is why Charlie Rich is never listed as one of the key figures of country, pop, rock, or soul. Yet his name must be on the list of key figures in American music in general.

The biggest lesson that we can learn from Charlie Rich is that if you're being yourself, somebody will listen. It's not easy, of course. In between Charlie's periods of success there were long dry spells when it probably seemed like nobody was listening. But I truly believe that there is an audience for anybody who plays by their own rules. Two other notable examples in country music (excluding those usually mentioned as outlaws) are Freddy Fender and Doug Kershaw.

In conclusion, the world doesn't need or want to hear another Elvis Presley, another Roger Miller, or even another Charlie Rich. They all had their own style which they perfected without your help. So listen to them, listen to their influences, listen to those who were influenced by them. Then go make your own music.

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