Inspiring folks from Elvis Presley to Roger Waters to Billy Joel, Ray Charles was a musical force to be reckoned with. He’s in the Playboy Hall of Fame, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Georgia State Music Hall of Fame, the National Black Sports & Entertainment Hall of Fame … really, he’s in pretty much every music-related hall of fame there is — jazz, country, rock, gospel, and R&B. And then there are the awards — the Grammys, Kennedy Center Honors, National Medal of Arts, Polar Music Prize, and more. “I was born with music inside me,” Ray used to say. “That’s the only explanation I know.”
Ray’s name first appeared on a Billboard chart in 1949 with “Confession Blues” and he would go on to repeat that feat in every decade that has followed, through the posthumous release of 2013’s Rare Genius. No other singer has ever charted a new release in eight different decades. Ray did. Across that span, his biggest hit was 1962’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which spent five weeks in the top spot while his Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music album spent 14 weeks at the top, as well. “Hit the Road Jack” and “Georgia on My Mind” also made it to number one, as did the “Seven Spanish Angels” duet with Willie Nelson from Ray’s Friendship LP. Both the single and the album, once again, topped the Billboard country charts in 1985. Stevie Wonder once said, when it was suggested that he make an album of Ray’s tunes, “I didn’t know that Ray Charles was blind and when they said, ‘You should do this album about Ray Charles,’ I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘Because he’s blind.’ I said, ‘No, he’s just great.'”
Singer/songwriter Will Hoge agrees with Stevie on that one. Hoge grew up listening to Ray Charles, with that Modern Sounds LP marking a particular turning point. Like Ray, Hoge puts a premium on maintaining both accessibility and authenticity in his work even as he shares big stages with the likes of Keith Urban and Sugarland or watches the Eli Young Band’s rendering of his “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” reign supreme on the country charts. Through it all, Hoge keeps it real. On his new (and ninth) studio album, Smalltown Dreams, Hoge combines his own loves of rock and country into a firebrand style of storytelling that is big and bold, though never feigned and never false.
Ray was one of the original genre hoppers dabbling in R&B, gospel, blues, pop, country. What was it, in your mind, that made him not only be able to do all of that so very well, but to sell it, too?
Well, for one, he’s Ray Charles and he can sing a Chinese food menu and it would sound like a million dollars. There’s that. He has that going for him. But, more importantly, I think at the end of the day, it wasn’t an act. There’s nothing grosser than an artist that goes, “Man, you know what I could do? I could make some money if I went and made an R&B record.” And then goes, “Everybody’s making rock records now. I should make a rock record.” Or, “I should go make a country record.” That’s disgusting. And it’s always transparent and flops.
I think the thing that Mr. Charles did is, he was really a fan of all of those things, so it was always sincere. He was always playing what he loved and playing what he knew. He delved deeply into those things. It wasn’t something that was on the surface with him. And I think that, ultimately, is what people gravitate toward is that reality in there.
Another part of it might be, too, that his melodies and arrangements feel wide open and welcoming. They’re almost grandiose, but not overly so and not formulaic. As different as your music is from his, you have quite a few tunes like that, as well. What’s the secret to striking that balance?
I think that, with him, it is that situation of … again, it’s a realism thing. There’s nothing that I think people like less than somebody that comes in and has this … you mentioned “formulaic” and I think that’s it. When you go in and there’s this guy or girl who’s doing this big vocal thing and it’s obvious that it’s put on just to show off … there are people that like it, but it doesn’t seem inviting. And I feel like, with Ray, you got these vocal things that he would do or these melodic arrangements that were really tricky and sometimes really big and drawn out and things like that, but it was, again, something that I think he really felt. If you saw him play on Thursday, and then you saw him play again on Saturday, I don’t know that it would be the exact same thing. It wasn’t an act. It was something from his soul. And it’s pretty attractive and pretty inviting, if you think about it.
It definitely feels like he’s feeling it and you’re just along for the ride.
Now, in the thick of the Civil Rights movement, sometimes Ray stood up to segregated situations and sometimes not. As a fan, do you separate out his art from that kind of activism or is it all one thing that you admire?
I don’t know. That’s a different time for me. That was before I would’ve been exposed. The only thing that I know about is there were rooms he wouldn’t play because of the segregated audience. Now, whether he also did those things, I don’t know.
But there was a time, years later, with him, when he got flak for doing a Pepsi commercial. Or he got flak for playing for a group of Reagan supporters, at one point. I read a quote from him and his thing was, “Look. Republican dollars spend the same as Democrat dollars do.” [Laughs]
I’m somewhat politically active and, in my music, I’ve made those stands on things like that. And there are certainly things that I wouldn’t play for, people that I wouldn’t play for. But I like that mentality. This is also a man who grew up during segregation. If somebody’s going to pay him $1 million to come and sing his songs … he doesn’t have to endorse their product. Ray was the first one, to me, who made commercialism have the slightest inkling of being somewhat cool. I feel like, if anybody before Ray Charles and plenty of people after him would do any sort of corporate stuff, you’d go, “Oh, man. What a sell-out!” But there was something about Ray doing “You’ve Got the Right One, Baby” that you were still like, “Wellll … I don’t know. I hate Pepsi, but I do like Ray Charles.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] And almost as by-product of his coolness and vibe and bringing everybody along, he led the racial integration of pop music.

On top of that, he was one of very few early African-American artists to step into country. Why was having Ray in country music important? And why do you think more haven’t followed?
Again, we go back to that first thing of, I think that, with Ray, it was real. It gets tons of flak. All of a sudden modern country music, if you watch an awards show, it’s all about collaborations. And they’ll have — and I’m so bad at this because I don’t know much about contemporary R&B music — but they’ll have “Iggy Azalea Performs with Little Big Town.” If they’re fans of one another, then that’s something.
It was Ariana Grande, but yeah…
Exactly. Willie Nelson and Ray Charles doing “Seven Spanish Angels” together is cool because, at the end of the day, you know that Willie was listening to Ray on his bus back in the day. And you know that Ray heard “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or whatever and was going, “My God, this is an incredible song.” And he was piddling around on the piano learning to sing it. I don’t know if, say, Ariana Grande is in her tour bus rocking out to “Pontoon.” [Laughs] I don’t imagine that she is. So I feel like there’s a sort of put-on, charlatan thing there which you didn’t get when Ray comes to do country music because he loves it. And he loves the stories. And he said it from the very first interviews.
That record was a game-changer for me, as an artist. And I think it opened … musically, it knocked down a whole lot of doors in this town and otherwise. But also, racially. I mean, you get a lot of people that didn’t think a black guy should be doing this music — until you heard it. And, all of a sudden you go, “Oh, holy shit, man. This is real.” And it changes your whole outlook on things. That’s a pretty special thing, if a musician can do that.
Plus, Willie and Ray were chess partners. That’s some street cred, right there.
That’s as street cred as it gets! Yeah.
I don’t know whether it was despite his success, or because of it, but he bounced around from one label to another … Swing Time, Atlantic, ABC-Paramount, his own Crossover label, Atlantic again, Columbia … Do you think folks didn’t quite know what to do with him or was he maybe just too much to contain and he had to keep moving — like a shark?
I think it’s probably a combination of those two things. I think an artist like that who wants to do what he wants to do and can be, obviously, headstrong about it and also great in it … record companies are notorious for being fearful. That’s one of their biggest things — “Will that work?” “Well, I don’t know.” That’s the question you get from the get-go any time you go into one of those meetings with anybody at a record label. There’s never a statement of, “By God, we’ll make this work.” No. Even if they love you, it’s always, “I don’t know. Will this work?”
I want to imagine that Ray was the guy who went, “Motherfucker, I don’t care. I’m going to make it work! This is what I want to do.” And he did. He found a way to do that, whether it was with a different label or his own label or whatever it was. I think he continually changed and I think that’s why he was a viable artist for all those decades.