In June 1964, a country music fan in Jamaica who regularly listened to Nashville’s 50,000-watt radio station WSM sent a letter to the editor of Billboard, who proclaimed it the first such correspondence they had ever received from someone tuning into the country station from the Caribbean island nation. Yet with two Tennessee stations carrying a powerful clear-channel signal over thousands of miles — the other being Nashville’s WLAC, which programmed country music mainly on Saturdays in the early Forties — the hillbilly and early Countrypolitan sounds most associated with Music City had been available to, and popular with, Jamaicans for decades.
Like country, reggae is more than just a musical genre; it is a way of life, encompassing food, fashion, dance, language, and social interaction. Since July 1st, 1994, when it was first introduced in Kingston, Jamaica, International Reggae Day has honored Jamaican music and culture with a global media event for fans around the world to join in the celebration. As International Reggae Day turns 25 this week, we look back at 10 classic country songs transformed by popular reggae, ska, and rocksteady artists, vibrant examples of the cultural cross-pollination that takes place when country’s torch and twang meets reggae’s irresistible rhythms.
“Occupation (Ring of Fire),” Skatalites
Having owned Cinnamon Hill, his family’s Jamaican vacation home overlooking the Caribbean, since 1975, Johnny Cash embraced a much-needed serenity there and a deep affinity for Jamaica’s people. The feeling was mutual, as evidenced in this ebullient ska interpretation built around the distinctive mariachi horns of the 1963 Cash version.
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“Stand by Your Man,” Merlene Webber
Three years after Tammy Wynette’s signature version came this breezy take awash in reggae rhythm and strings in which Wynette’s tearful tone is eschewed for a more carefree approach. Webber would first be heard on a strings-less version incorrectly credited to another acclaimed Jamaican singer, Cynthia Richards.
“Snowbird,” Dennis Walks
One of the most-covered country-pop hits of the late Sixties, this smash from Canadian Anne Murray easily made the trip thousands of miles south, by way of jubilant production from Harry Mudie, instrumentation by Mudie’s All-Stars, and Walks’ smooth, romantic vocal style.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” Toots and the Maytals
Transplanting this John Denver classic from West Virginia to West Jamaica is Toots Hibbert, the infinitely soulful lead singer of one of reggae’s most important bands. The landscape might look and sound different, but it’s the spirit of its people that shines through in this quintessential celebratory recording.
“Jambalaya,” Pluto Shervington
Cajun country-meets-Jamaican reggae and calypso in this slickly produced rendition of one of Hank Williams’ best-loved tunes. From Shervington’s 1974 LP, Ramgoat Liver, this owes more than a little inspiration to the Carpenters’ country-pop version at the time, but it’s still vibrant and fun.
“Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Ken Parker
While many of the country songs covered by reggae acts date from the Sixties to the present, this Carter Family standard is one of the oldest to earn a tribute. With a background in sacred music, Parker’s 1972 take is suitably reverential and deeply moving.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Beres Hammond
Sure, there isn’t much anyone could do with this iconic country weeper to make one forget George Jones’ mastery of the Bobby Braddock-Curly Putman lyrics. But Hammond comes mighty close with a country-soul vocal drenched in, but never overpowered by, the bass-heavy instrumentation. Plus pedal steel!
“Is It Really Over,” Max Romeo
Max Romeo released one of reggae’s masterpieces with his 1976 album War Ina Babylon, which was produced by the mercurial genius Lee “Scratch” Perry. Four years earlier, Romeo cut a lovely version of Jim Reeves’ weeper “Is It Really Over” that emphasized his silky smooth vocals and underpinned them with walking bass and percussive guitar strums.
“He’ll Have to Go,” Roy & Enid
The smoothed-out Countrypolitan of Jim Reeves was a popular choice for cover songs among Jamaican reggae and ska performers. In 1968, the duo Roy & Enid (featuring blind singer Roy Richards and Enid Campbell, the latter formerly of the duo Keith & Enid) took on Reeves’ “He’ll Have to Go,” dousing it with heavenly harmonies, a bouncing bassline, and loads of percussion that take a little sting out of the heartbreak.
“King of the Road,” Freddie McGregor
“Big Ship” singer Freddie McGregor puts his spin on Roger Miller’s breezy “King of the Road,” which appeared on the 2011 compilation Reggae’s Gone Country. It’s a more modern recording than some of the Sixties roots tracks elsewhere on this list, but McGregor embraces Miller’s laid-back cool and signature wit with a backing track that features a splash of mandolin and fiddle.