Sam Moore Sings the Praises of Country Music

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There aren’t many performers who can say they’ve graced the stage during induction ceremonies at both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sam Moore is one of them.

His era-defining work with the soul music duo Sam & Dave landed him in the Rock Hall a couple of decades ago, and his history with Ronnie Milsap — which dates back to Milsap opening for Sam & Dave on the predominantly black R&B circuit — got him on the bill during Milsap’s portion of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s medallion ceremony late last month.

Joining Moore for a jovial rendition of Milsap’s hit “Lost in the ‘50s Tonight” was Vince Gill, who quipped that they ought to call their act “Sam & a Paler Shade of Dave.”

Gill first harmonized with Moore on a Conway Twitty cover that Moore selected for one of his solo albums. Twitty, too, is one of Moore’s former duet partners. And earlier this year, Moore added Marty Stuart and Carolyn Routh, lead singer of bluegrass group Nu-Blu, to that list.

The only country stylist Moore missed out on singing with was his friend, the late George Jones. That was supposed to happen at Jones’ final concert which, of course, turned into an all-star tribute to his memory.

Moore has always sung with down-home, gospel-trained grit and applied it to all sorts of material. Lately, though, he’s been delving deeper into his kinship with country.

CMT Edge: One of the first things you said when you got onstage at the medallion ceremony was, “You’re probably wondering why I’m up here.” Do you really think that’s true at this point? Over the past few years, you’ve made your connection to country music pretty explicit.

Moore: You’re right. … But the younger people wouldn’t have understood that: “OK, we know Ronnie but what has Sam got to do with it?”

People forget that Ronnie Milsap played the R&B circuit long before he came to Nashville. I figured he might’ve opened a show for you and Dave back in those days.

I had heard the song, but I hadn’t seen him.

You mean the first single Milsap had out.

Yeah. It was really churchy and really funky and soulful. Never in my wildest would I have thought that was a white man doing this.

You have a gospel background, a long tenure in R&B and, more recently, have done a lot with country. How do you relate to the stylistic moves that Ronnie Milsap has made during his career?

At one time, Ray Charles and I, we were tied [in terms of having] crossed [over into] every genre, including jazz, soul, R&B, gospel. Then I did a thing with Conway [Twitty].

On the Rhythm, Country & Blues album.

Rhythm, Country & Blues, yes. The main thing was, Ray and I was tied. So when this came up about [me singing] “Jesus & Jones”

A bluegrass song.

Yeah. I called my god-daughter, who is the president of Ray Charles Enterprises. I said, “Guess what? Your boss man, I’m gonna pass him. … Ray didn’t get a chance to do bluegrass, but I did!” Bluegrass, you’ve gotta be very careful if you’re gonna attempt it. Now, I don’t say do it, because it’s in a class of its own. … [Nu-Blu] had been at the honorary to the Possum.

The George Jones tribute show you performed at last year?

Mm-hmm. … They came all the way to Arizona, where I was, and I listened to the song. Oh, my God. Then I said, “OK, I’m gonna do it.” As we recorded, we did track after track after track. I eventually said, “I’m gonna try something. Let’s just try it one more time.” [I added] that little bit of gospel. I said, “If you want to take it out, you can.” They said, “No, no, no!”

That Rhythm, Country & Blues album came out 20 years ago, but I still see it mentioned from time to time as a significant collaboration between R&B and country legends. What about that concept made sense to you?

It was a good concept. I got a call saying, “Would you have any problem singing with Conway Twitty? … I knew his work. And I’m going, “Conway. Wow, man.” I thought we were gonna do one of his songs … because he’s real soulful, you know? MCA came back with, “They would like you to do ‘Rainy Night in Georgia.’”

What you hear on the CD, the interplay, that was real. They left it in purposefully. They had to call us to stop because we were running our mouths. … After he passed, his fan base accepted me, and it started from there.

People talk about that being your first foray into country. But didn’t you record “Tennessee Waltz” before that?

I did. … After Dave and I had split, I did a solo album with Atlantic, and “Tennessee Waltz” was on it.

Did you look at it as you interpreting a country song?

You know what? The reason I had done it was because I had seen Sam [Cooke]. Sam had done it live at the Copa. I saw him, and I said, “You son of a gun. You beat me to it. …Well, I’m gonna get a new arrangement and do it my way.” He said, “OK, fine. Go do what you gotta do.”

Later on, you recorded Conway Twitty and Garth Brooks covers for another of your solo albums. Why did you feel like those songs suited you?

I was going back, getting stuff that I was comfortable with. I really didn’t wanna do the stuff that they were writing today. Hey, come on. Here’s a man in his 70s up there talking about, “Where’s your woman?” And she’s 14 or 15 years old. No way. … I had been doing [Twitty’s] “It’s Only Make Believe” onstage, and the Garth Brooks thing [“We Shall Be Free”], that was chosen by [producer] Randy Jackson.

Vocally, it doesn’t seem like that much of a leap for you because of the way you feel things, your Southern-accented delivery.

Well, if you go back and listen to some of that stuff that Dave and I did, that has a little bit of country in it, little bit of gospel. Isaac [Hayes wrote] a lot of that stuff. When I first went to Memphis to record — I wouldn’t lie to ya — Dave and I were introduced, and they attempted to get us to sing a country song.

What song was that?

“Jody Ryder [Got Killed].” I went, “What?” … It’s not that I didn’t like it, but I had my head set to do something else, like Jackie Wilson or Clyde McPhatter, Sam Cooke, one of those balladeers. I’ve always loved country, and I’ve always wanted to do it, and I got that from Ray.

I’m not looking for no superstardom now. I’ve been there and done that. I’ve had a wonderful career, off and on. I’m 79 years of age, and you know what? I’m having more fun with people that I enjoy and respect.

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