When Motown Went Country: The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop

The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop, released in 1965, is a fascinating glimpse into the musical history of America and the business ambition of Motown records itself. This album mixes country covers with original songs and shows that no matter the genre the harmonies of Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard reigned supreme (sorry I had to) over all the other girl groups of the era. 

The inspiration for this album was the success of Ray Charles’ foray into country music. In 1962 Charles released ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music’ – an album that transcended racial barriers and celebrated the power of the song over considerations of anything as narrow as genre. Growing up with this music and playing in a ‘hillbilly’ band as a kid meant that Charles understood and had a connection with country music:

“…words to country songs are very earthy like the blues, see, very down. They’re not as dressed up, and the people are very honest and say, ‘Look, I miss you, darlin’, so I went out and I got drunk in this bar.’ That’s the way you say it. Where in Tin Pan Alley will say, ‘Oh, I missed you darling, so I went to this restaurant and I sat down and I had dinner for one.’ That’s cleaned up now, you see? But country songs and the blues is like it is.”

Charles’ album became a critical and commercial smash: selling across pop, R&B and country markets and winning a Grammy award. It made country music cool but also showed that good albums could unite all listeners, regardless of the racial divisions in society. It was no surprise then that Motown records saw an opportunity to hitch a ride on Charles’ country bandwagon.

Motown Records wanted to appeal to the masses, to be a truly all-American label. They were successful on the pop and R&B charts but that wasn’t enough. In fact Motown even had a short lived country imprint, hoping to capitalise on this market. Berry Gordy also thought that recording country songs might be a way to encourage more people to buy Motown albums and therefore increase the financial success of the label. And who better for this task than the stars of the Motown roster: Diana Ross and The Supremes? But this would not be a straight country covers record, as Motown continued the practice of using its own in-house songwriters (you could argue that the decision to go for mainly unfamiliar originals by Clarence Paul is one of the reasons the album did not find success).

The album opens with Funny (How Time Slips Away), a ballad which showcases the group’s beautiful harmony and Diana’s sweet lead vocals. This song fits well into the Patsy Cline tradition of vintage country heartbreakers, maybe so because it was written by Willie Nelson and you can’t get more country than him.

The second song My Heart Can’t Take it No More had been released as a single in 1963 and had flopped spectacularly. This song inspired the Supremes experiment in country music but was also an indicator of the indifferent audience reaction to come. It’s a shame in a way as this is a wonderful weepy waltz and there is some nice country guitar on this too.

It Makes No Difference Now is one of those rare Supremes songs which features all three members on lead vocals. It’s great to hear each girl being given an equal chance to shine. That being said this song is proof that no matter what story people might tell (or what a Hollywood film might want you to believe) Diana Ross was undoubtedly the most talented and original singer in the Supremes.

You Didn’t Care, You Need Me and Tears in Vain were written by Clarence Paul and continue the similarly slow style of the opening songs. Tears in Vain is the only stand out, where Diana channels all the pain of heartbreak into her delivery, wondering: were the nights I spent crying over you really worth it? There’s nothing better than than country music to express the pain of lost love.

Tumbling Tumbleweeds is one of the few upbeat numbers on the album and turns the country song into a fun gospel-inspired harmony. Lazy Bones has the most ‘country’ lyric and it does feel a little strange to hear Diana Ross singing about fishing. The slow languid style of singing conjures up a feeling of a blistering hot day in the South. Babydoll is a cute little pop song, closest in sound to their other hits and also notable for being one of two songs on this album co-written by little Stevie Wonder. Mary Wilson takes lead vocals on Sunset and the opening sounds remarkably similar to I Only Have Eyes for You – with its odd music and vocal arrangement. The album finishes with the ridiculously fun toetapper (The Man With The) Rock and Roll Banjo Band, which had been a b-side to one of their earlier singles and co-written by Gordy himself. Maybe I’m in the minority but I love this little novelty song and would have liked to hear more songs in this style. Plus the banjo playing is sweet as hell.

Overall this album probably has too many average songs that sound a little similar for it to ever be remembered as anything more than a disappointment. These songs weren’t country enough, pop enough or distinctive enough to appeal to the wide market Motown hoped for. Charles’ crossover success turned out to be the exception, not the rule. In the end this album is one of the few commercial failures in the Supremes’ discography, reaching only number 79 on the charts and not containing any hit singles. Fifty years later this album may seem like a curious release but you can’t help but admire the ambition of the project if not the outcome. The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop is still an enjoyable if slightly uneven listening experience.

For an in depth discussion of this album and The Supremes’ back catalogue you should check out the Diana Ross project, which I found and consulted when writing this post. This is an amazing blog covering all Diana’s albums across her career and really is a comprehensive and thoroughly researched site. I am hugely impressed with the track reviews and analysis which gives a genuinely insightful look into Ms Ross’ music.


3 thoughts on “When Motown Went Country: The Supremes Sing Country, Western & Pop

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  1. That was a very enjoyable read ! Their version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is included on one of my playlists, “Still More Country Than…” https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLkY8-UOMZQ0_oKLgk-UJUBkktwMC5dpZD

    Much ink has been spilled about the incursion of other genres into country music in recent years, so it is interesting to look back a few decades, when country music was “hot,” and influencing other genres.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes but weirdly now mainstream country artists are becoming more pop rather than the other way around! We need another Ray Charles to come along and show everyone how great traditional country songs are. Thank you for reading and I will check out your playlist xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. In the late ’80s the owner of a used records store in Ferndale, MI, gave me a cassette tape of this Supremes oddity- Sunset is my favorite cut. (Ah, the good old days when music fanatics would congregate in brick and mortar shops). Your excellent analysis triggered this memory.
    Great songs defy categorization- the premise behind Brother Ray’s “Country” LP- but it’s complicated and you’ve done a fine job identifying the issues.
    There was always a “push-pull” at Motown. Mr. Gordy driven to sell records while presenting his African American artists as good, clean all-American youngsters. He wanted Middle America.
    But the Funk Brothers were making funky noises behind that marketing sheen. BG took chances, mostly they paid off but sometimes not. “It is what it is.” Personal relationships aside, he made the right choice with Diana Ross- I’m thinking of her voice riding atop Jamerson’s bass during “Love is Like an Itching,” or the frantic guitar octaves providing the morse code call for help in “You Keep Me Hanging On,” the funky guitars beginning “Love Child.” At the high end Diana Ross, Jamerson on the bottom. Thank you Michelle

    Liked by 1 person

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