Where does Charlie Rich fit in? The simple answer is he doesn’t in the easy kind of way of a Johnny Cash or a Hank Williams. Still, he had nine number one country hits and eight more that hit the top ten. Enviable by any standard. Yet he still seems like an outsider, a outsized talent not recognized in his own time. From his hits and his career dating from the mid 1950s thru his final album in 1995 though that’s clearly not exactly true.
The truth lies in the way history, at least country music history, is discussed. Country music can be broken into infinite camps, but really at the end of the day there are only two sides; the commercial side with it’s current roster of hits heavily rotated and marketed by industrial strength record labels and powerhouse corporations that have no sense or need of the history before it and the traditional or alternative side slavishly devoted to its own history and brutish in who gets voted posthumously into the club. Under those terms and conditions the commercial side have never actually heard of Charlie Rich and if they happened, accidentally, on a dusty relic of the Silver Fox they would brush past it quickly to see the collection of missing sleeves from Kenny Chesney’s shirts. The traditional set may still give a nod to Charlie’s Sun Record rockabilly sessions, allowing that they too have heard of him, but by the time he recorded on Epic and RCA Victor his countrypolitan albums sound lush with strings and background singers and are on the other side of the world from the rough and tumble records of the Outlaw movement. So meaning, more or less, posthumously not admitted.
Charlie himself didn’t help the situation. He was aggressively clubbish himself possibly going further than any other single country singer when he burned on stage the card announcing the country music artist of the year rather than reading the name John Denver. It wasn’t his high water mark.
Today marks the 1973 release of Behind Closed Doors. It’s a masterpiece of uptown country. It’s a late night soul record that stands next to Coltrane & Hartman’s 1963 self titled boozer, Ray Price’s Night Life and Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. It stands as one of Billy Sherrill’s masterpieces too, along side Stand By Your Man and I Am What I Am. Like most of Sherrill’s work it’s heavily produced and filled with swelling choruses and strings, but the man also understood the solo voice as well, if not better, than just about anybody. His singers are never lost in the mix. Charlie here shines over all the songs, his piano too is way up front and the sad honky tonk ballads tumble one after another.
As I said before the commercialites have never stumbled across this album and I really can’t imagine they ever will. The real reason for it’s obscurity though, despite critical acclaim and three top ten hits, two of them going to number one, is the traditionalists still can’t accept the Nashville Sound. With no base the album has essentially been killed. Listen to it though and place it in the context of great soul records like What’s Going On or Otis Blue. Behind Closed Doors belongs in that company, should be next to them on the shelves. Listen to the opening slip notes of the title track, Charlie’s voice sliding up into the sly love song:
Behind Closed Doors, Charlie Rich
Listen to the great lines like “why would a Sunday kind of woman want an everyday kind of man like me?” Or the absolute lack of irony in the pervading sadness of You Never Really Wanted Me. The album pours out of Charlie’s heart like whiskey neat, smooth and tough.
Charlie is quickly becoming the best country singer no one has heard of and that’s a shame. The two of us have spent plenty of nights together and after awhile I kind of feel like we know each other and it makes me sad to think he’ll only be referenced in books and footnotes. He’s the best kind of salve. That doesn’t mean he’ll completely fix you, but he’ll give you a hand up and at least hold you while you work it out for yourself.
Best listened to alone on vinyl late at night on a third or fourth old fashioned.