It’s easy to associate country music in the 1970s with outlaw country; many landmark titles we’ve explored already are a testament to that movement. But it was also a decade that gave way to a lot of crossover pop-country, sticking to conventional Nashville Sound standards of the previous decade but refining them for the better. After all, one must remember that outlaw country wasn’t a war against the mainstream; it was a war against the industry. Personally speaking, I think the mid-to-latter half of the decade gave way to some of the best pop-country of all time, especially before the Urban Cowboy movement kicked in and sweetened those refined, organic edges way too far. Even still, it wasn’t a perfect era, and while that aforementioned war didn’t quite rage on in the way it’s often romanticized today, our next discussion does center around that core … possibly. Onward!
Do I introduce Charlie Rich by crediting him as a genre virtuoso – one who started in rockabilly, then R&B, jazz, and finally, country – or do we just start with the elephant in the room?
Make no mistake, after all: Rich’s infamous incident at the 1975 CMA Awards in which he burned the card announcing John Denver as the Entertainer of the Year doesn’t overshadow his work, but it is nearly the first thing that comes to mind when his name gets brought up, for better or worse, depending on perspective. We’re not going to focus too much on that, and for two reasons. For one, Rich’s own son, Charlie Jr., has attributed the incident to him being a bit too heavily medicated that night and having his own mischievous, harmless fun. And two, addressing the traditionally debated “why” of it – whether Rich burned it because he saw Denver as an outsider to the genre who didn’t belong or because he saw a lack of honesty in his music – is the sort of tired argument that rarely leads to fruitful discussions.
This isn’t the part, then, where I segue into why Rich was a hypocrite for genre-hopping in the same manner. That doesn’t do justice to his background, an Arkansas-born boy who grew up loving the jazz, R&B, and blues music on piano, and had the sort of velvet tone and soulful bent to fit better within a lounge than a honky tonk.
Or, so it seems. After moving to West Memphis in 1956, Rich began to take his musical interests a bit more seriously. And like any aspiring musician in Memphis during the era, all roads eventually led to Sun Records, albeit as a songwriter and session pianist, rather than as a solo act, until he cut his first singles a year later for a Sun subsidiary, Phillips International. And while the next decade wasn’t too much better in terms of commercial success – Rich hopped around other labels like Groove, an RCA subsidiary, and Mercury/Smash – it was, by Rich’s own account, a satisfying time period. His sound shifted between his melting pot of influences, but the key resided in his piano-playing skills and soulful vocal work. And no matter what, “soul” was probably the term within that melting pot that likely fit him and his work best.
Of course, that melting pot also included country music, and as the ‘60s roared on into the ‘70s, Rich got to showcase that side of his persona, first through a Hank Williams tribute project, and then through his involvement with producer Billy Sherrill. In the last edition of this series, I called Sherrill the king of countrypolitan, and his penchant for string sections and lush backing vocals in his productions provided an easy fit for Rich’s warm, tender tone. Naturally (or again, perhaps ironically), Rich wasn’t welcome in Nashville at first, labeled as an outsider with a rock ‘n’ roll background looking to cash in on the burgeoning crossover movement. And even when success did come, it still felt a bit too short-lived for an underrated talent mostly remembered for just that lucrative era. But starting in 1972, Rich was a country artist, and his breakthrough release is the subject of today’s focus.
This is where things get tricky, though, and why I wanted to establish Rich as an underrated talent with a breadth of fantastic material which precedes his true country career. Because with him, his two most iconic country classics are featured in one package, first with “Behind Closed Doors,” this album’s title track, and then with “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” And both singles are representative of what I love about the pop-country crooners of this era and their material: It’s tastefully presented with some actual weight and gravitas in the beautifully understated, earthy piano chords, where the naturally warm elegance is enough to establish the intimacy of the former track and the melancholic swell of the latter one. Couple it with Rich’s knack for fantastic melodic hooks, and you’ve got some of the finest ever pop-country to exist.
But it’s also an album where, outside of those iconic singles, I’m a lot less impressed. Part of it is because the production, while tasteful in its mostly restrained stabs at country, soul, and pop and certainly beautiful in tone off of its richly layered pedal steel and string accents, is mostly uniform throughout and can start to run together without the added benefit of more compositional or melodic variety. And really, that’s a fitting way to describe the writing. Don’t get me wrong; “Behind Closed Doors” and “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” offer fairly simple sentiments in their own right, but there’s a plainspoken maturity that comes through with class and can manage to feel sensual on the former and dramatically urgent on the latter. But when digging into the other material … well, “If You Wouldn’t Be My Lady,” “We Love Each Other,” and “I’m Not Going Hungry” are not only much much broadly oversold in their sickly sweet compositions, but also more reliant on lukewarm, lovestruck platitudes. Even for as tempered and wonderful of a vocal presence as Rich is and for all of the Floyd Cramer comparisons I can make to his approach, he can’t help but oversell the sentiments, which goes double for the overblown melancholy of “You Never Really Wanted Me.”
And yes, I understand that part of that is the natural tipping point of this sort of crooner material, and those with more of a forgivable ear might be able to stomach it better. But for me, there’s a schmaltz to the remaining material that doesn’t do Rich justice. He’s not convincing enough to sell the dangerous outlaw mystique set up in “Sunday Kind of Woman,” and “Peace On You” is a ridiculous kiss-off where he continuously warns an ex-lover that she’s not getting into heaven because she cheated on him, and he’s apparently got a line straight to the Lord almighty to confirm that or something. It’s a case of an interesting premise and absolutely cloying execution. Of course, it’s got nothing on “I Take It On Home,” Rich’s breakthrough single about a man who pats himself on the back for resisting the urge to cheat. Good for you, buddy.
But look, that’s not to say the album isn’t without its decent material outside of those two iconic singles. “’Til I Can’t Take It Anymore” plays to more straightforward country-soul not just sonically, but also in how Rich plays the role of the earnest fool to an excellent degree, even though he knows his unrequited love is, well, just that. And when he’s actually tasked with playing the role of the one left behind on “Nothing in the World (To Do With Me) as he tries to cheekily brush it off like it’s nothing, he’s convincing in that lane in a way that feels lived-in and sincere.
But that’s the weird thing about Rich’s ‘70s country output. At his best it’s phenomenal stuff, but there’s a certain heart and core missing here that just doesn’t feel as consistent as his previous offerings. And yet, even then, the natural talent on display is enough to elevate the material to a slight degree, and above all else, he should be remembered most as a stylistic, genre-bending talent who had a natural soul about him, even on his lesser material. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to hear more of it.
Join me next time on World Records, where we’ll discuss another side of the crossover country-pop coin, with Kenny Rogers and The Gambler.
3 thoughts on “World Records, No. 8: Charlie Rich – ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (1973)”
Great write up Zack, I don’t know much of his music outside of the hits. Knowing a bit about Sun Records I was aware of some of his history. I had completely forgotten about the arson incident! He really was a chameleon and talented enough to wear many skins.
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Thanks for reading, Randy!
Hi Zack – I’m not too familiar with Charlie Rich outside of the two hits here, both of which are really good. I had the same thoughts on the rest of the album in that there is nothing that really stands out and it does tend to run together. The “Nashville Sound” is not my favourite subgenre of country music, but I do like it when it works well; it just doesn’t work too well for me for most of this album.
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