Artists gathered at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday evening (Oct. 9) for a special salute to Ray Charles, the musical icon who established himself as a legend in the R&B and soul formats as well as bringing his unique voice to the country stage with his groundbreaking 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Some of country's brightest stars offered performances in tribute to Charles, for both solo performances and special collaborations with soul and R&B artists, in an event that Ray Charles foundation president Valerie Ervin says has been five years in the making.

"I kept going, 'I want it done! I want it done! I want it done!'" Ervin explained backstage with a laugh before the event. "It has been [a passion project for me] for the past five years, but it just wasn't the right time. And then the Opry sat down and said, 'Let's do it.'"

Ervin goes on to say that her vision of the tribute was as a celebration of the music Charles  brought to the world, and the ways in which he brought artists of different backgrounds together: "Country music, first of all, because that was at the forefront of his love, and where he started singing. He loved the way country music brought everyone together."

Together, the producers of the show arrived at the idea of bringing out country and soul artists to perform duets, speaking to the overarching appeal of Charles' music. Country star Cam teamed with two soul artists during the show: She performed "Don't Tell Me Your Troubles" with acclaimed performer and songwriter Leela James, as well as a harmony-rich duet, "Here We Go Again," with R&B singer Allen Stone.

"Not only is [Ray Charles] one of the greatest musicians of all time, but he got there by overcoming so many things in his own life. And then once he dominated the soul genre, he said, 'You know, by the way, genres aren't real. They're created to segregate us. And I'm gonna prove it to you,'" Cam related backstage before the show. "It takes someone with massive amounts of talent and huge bravery to say, 'I'm gonna make something that's gonna appeal to everybody,' and he did it.

"I'm really proud of country music for having a moment like this," she adds. "It's a really important time for everybody to start showing that we're making moves to be together."

The evening was packed with artists who didn't appear to have much in common -- musically or otherwise -- coming together for stellar performances. Ronnie Milsap brought out up-and-coming soul and country singer Jessie Keys for a rendition of "You Are My Sunshine," Charlie Wilson and LeAnn Rimes teamed for "Crying Time," and Chris Young kicked off the evening with a very special opening performance alongside superstar group Boyz II Men.

"It's just been a really surreal day," Young said of his collaboration with the R&B trio. "Now we get to go out onstage and sing some Ray Charles music. You can't really top that!"

He went on to say that as excited -- and a little starstruck! -- as he was by his performance with Boyz II Men, it was his solo song, "I Can't Stop Loving You," that had the deepest resonance for the country star. "That's one of the songs that my grandfather used to sit at the piano and play, " the singer recalls. "So there's a little bit of a personal connection to it, and obviously it's just an incredible song."

Young wasn't the evening's only performer with family ties to their song choice. Lukas Nelson also took the stage for a moving performance of "Seven Spanish Angels," a hit that his dad, Willie Nelson, recorded with Charles in 1984. Travis Tritt also offered a performance with a personal tie-in, "I Am Moving On," which he had Charles had collaborated on in the past.

Darius Rucker, who gave a rousing rendition of "Don't Change on Me," also served as the event's host. "As a Grand Ole Opry member, I am moved to see the Opry recognize Ray and the magnitude of his contribution to country music," Rucker explained to the audience. "Both the Grand Ole Opry and Ray shared the same vision -- to bridge musical genres."

The event's performers also shared that sentiment. "There's not a whole of [these opportunities] where you get asked to be a part of an event honoring someone as iconic as Ray Charles," Young adds. "Just singing anything tonight is so special, because it's all about saluting Ray and his music and his influence on not just everybody here, but so many people who are gonna see this."

Young goes on to say that Charles' universal appeal -- and the ways in which he touched the lives of so many -- is what makes him such an important legend to both the country world and music in general. "I doubt there isn't anybody, anywhere who's [never heard] a Ray Charles song," he continues. "I don't think that exists."

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles will air in February of 2019 on public television stations across the country.

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