Pay the Devil, an album-long foray into country music, shouldn't come as a surprise to Van Morrison fans. It's a logical extension of his love affair with American music. Certainly blues, R&B, soul, and jazz have been at the forefront, but one can go all the way back to the Bang years and find "Joe Harper Saturday Morning," or songs on Tupelo Honey that touch country. More recently, You Win Again, with Linda Gail Lewis, offered two Hank Williams tunes and "Crazy Arms." The Skiffle Sessions with Lonnie Donegan offered traditional Southern tunes including Jimmie Rodgers' "Mule Skinner Blues." Morrison's lyrics have also referenced country music blatantly. Pay the Devil comes from direct sources of inspiration: his father's skiffle band and Ray Charles' historic forays into country on the two volumes of Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music in 1962. The evidence lies in three cuts on this disc, all of which Charles recorded: Curley Williams' "Half as Much," Art Harris and Fred Jay's "What Am I Livin' For," and Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart." Morrison's a cagey one: his own mercurial versions of these nuggets are more traditional than those of Charles, yet are steeped in similar production styles that offer a clear nod to the late artist. While there are no horns on Pay the Devil, the layers of strings on top of "fiddles" and honky tonk pianos -- as well as earlier pedal steel styles -- are giveaways. And then there is the voice. Like Charles, Morrison is a soul singer no matter what he sings and he digs into these tomes with fire and the uncommon sweetness of tone and limited timbre that Charles did. But Morrison re-creates these tunes in his own image too.
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