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Willie Nelson, Norah Jones Celebrate Music of Ray Charles

AP

He may have seemed an unlikely country star, but in 1962, soul singer Ray Charles broke new ground with ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,’ an album which spent 14 weeks at No. 1 — on the pop chart.

The influence of Ray, who died in 2004, continues to resonate with stylists in every musical genre, which is one reason he is being celebrated with a unique tribute album from a trio of genre-defying performers. ‘Here We Go Again: Celebrating the Genius of Ray Charles’ features Willie Nelson and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, along with singer Norah Jones.

In 2008, Willie and Wynton collaborated on an album, ‘Two Men With the Blues,’ following it in February 2009, with a two-night stint in the Rose Theater at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, where they were joined by special guest Norah Jones. During the second night’s performance, the trio offered an homage to the music of Ray Charles, paying special tribute to his songs about the highs and lows of love.

On March 29, the iconic Blue Note label will release recordings from those shows. ‘Here We Go Again,’ includes songs familiar to country fans, such as ‘Cryin’ Time’ and ‘Busted,’ along with other tunes popularized by Ray Charles, including ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So,’ ‘Hit the Road, Jack,’ and ‘What’d I Say.’ Naturally, the tunes are delivered in a number of musical styles, from country ballads to waltzes to swing. In addition to trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ quintet — tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, pianist Dan Nimmer, bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson — Willie’s longtime sidekick, harmonica player Mickey Raphael, is featured.

“You have to love all kinds of music to put your own interpretation on [the songs],” says Willie, who in 1985 sang with Ray on the most successful single he ever had on the country chart, the No. 1 smash, ‘Seven Spanish Angels.’

Of Ray’s ‘Modern Sounds’ collection, which resides on many ‘best of’ lists and has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Willie notes, “He did more for country music with that one album than any of us could have done because he opened country songs and country music to millions of his fans and brought a whole lot of people together.”

Willie is among the performers at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this coming May. Later that month, he’ll join the Country Throwdown tour, with Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser and more.

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