When Ray Charles released A Message From the People in 1972, America was still reeling from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. The Civil Rights movement had made unprecedented progress during the Sixties, ending legal segregation for good and kickstarting a new era of tolerance. Not everyone seemed to get the message, though, and for many Americans – particularly those in black communities – the country was still divided.
A Message From the People marked a call for unity. Track titles like “There’ll Be No Peace Without All Men as One” preached that message clearly, but it was Charles’ reinterpretation of “America the Beautiful” that packed the biggest punch. Produced by Quincy Jones, “America the Beautiful” added gospel overtones and soulful sway to its source material, pushing Charles’ audience to view the song in a new light.
Nearly half a century later, the Band of Heathens are gearing up to release A Message From the People Revisited. The album revisits (and reimagines) Charles’ original recording, funneling those songs through the Heathens’ own prism of Texas twang, barrelhouse blues and border-town boogie. It’s a timely release, too, arriving during a tense, contentious time in which the band’s own state has been turned into a battleground, with most of the fighting centered around the crisis at the Mexican-American border. To that end, the guys are encouraging social justice initiatives by donating the album’s profits to a charity.
On “America the Beautiful” – still the album’s crown jewel, as well as its final track – the Band of Heathens mix the stomp of a roots-rock band with Stax-sized soul. There’s upright piano, swirling organ and a full choir, all centered around an elastic vocal performance that would’ve made Charles proud. In his absence, Quincy Jones has become a champion of the Heathens’ performance, saying, “It’s a great interpretation, and I admire their spirit to give it to charity.”
“Ray saved for us his most powerful message and the perfect coda; the definitive version of ‘America The Beautiful’ is absolutely glorious,” the band responded in a statement of their own. “It is quite simply the apotheosis of soul.”