Jennifer Hudson is scheduled to be a guest performer at the 2021 CMA Awards. The torch song crooner’s appearance is related to one of her highlight moments from the past twelve months: portraying singer Aretha Franklin in Respect, a biopic on the legendary artist’s life and times. Intriguingly, the Detroit-born and Memphis-raised Franklin’s connection to country music — and its impact upon her iconic career as a soul vocalist — are essential to understanding her career.
When @ArethaFranklin tells you to win an Oscar, you go for just that! Watch this #cmtHot20 exclusive for an inside look at upcoming biographical film ‘Respect’ in which @IAMJHUD portrays the one and only Aretha ⭐ pic.twitter.com/baqwUh8qXG
— CMT Hot 20 Countdown (@cmtHot20) August 11, 2021
Country music’s roots are based deep within the folk and gospel traditions. Thus, as the daughter of iconic Baptist minister and civil rights leader C.L. Franklin (who began singing in his church), Aretha certainly has precedence in a corner of country’s lineage. To wit, upon her 2018 passing, Willie Nelson called Franklin “the greatest gift and the voice of a generation. She could turn any song into a hymn,” and Faith Hill — who partnered with Franklin on the album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love in 2006 noted as well, “GLORY, GLORY, GLORY to the ALMIGHTY!!! The choir of angels now have the greatest voice of all time to lead.”
Moreover, note that like other vaunted artists who were based and recorded in Memphis, including Rufus Thomas, Issac Hayes, and Al Green, growing up listening to the Grand Ole Opry was as key to their musical development as hearing blues and jazz recordings. In fact, before gaining her artistic superstar footing with 1967’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You),” she covered Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” while working in the vein of recording more traditional standards. Even still, when continuing her breakout with her cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” in 1967, she also covered Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” on the album Aretha Arrives in 1967. From there, she added a take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle on My Mind” in 1969. This maintenance of a soul-to-country tie by Memphis-developed artists also allowed for moments like Issac Hayes covering Campbell’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” in 1969, plus Green performing Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away” on his 1973 album Call Me.
Even deeper, in a Rolling Stone story penned after Franklin’s death, it’s noted that country producer Billy Sherrill — famed for his work with Tammy Wynette — began his career in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Franklin recorded her breakout album I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Loved You). Thus, linear ties between Sherrill and Franklin existing after that, including Barbara Mandrell’s Sherrill-produced 1971 cover of Franklin’s “Do Right Woman,” and Jody Miller’s take on “Natural Woman” are clear homages to her excellence. As well, the idea of Wynette’s 1968 hit “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” bearing the same rhythmic hook and women’s empowerment spirit as Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” is noted, too. “It seemed as if every record released by Sherrill’s most famous collaborator, Tammy Wynette, was some sort of answer record to one of Aretha’s,” notes the article.
Aretha Franklin was a unique artist whose roots spanning from Detroit to Memphis, and then down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, allowed her style to be defined as much by smooth Motown vibes as it was Stax’s gut-bucket rhythms. Moreover, her extension into Muscle Shoals allowed for country’s blend of the sanctified church and soulful rock to become apparent. Therefore, when looking at the breadth and scope of what country music has come to diversely embody as a sound, so much of it — from Tammy Wynette to Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood to Mickey Guyton, Tim McGraw to Chris Stapleton, and more — is found uniquely, and best, in Franklin.
When watching November 10th’s CMA Awards, the idea that the Queen of Soul is being feted on one of country’s most celebratory stages may seem strange. But consider that the impact of three chords and the truth expands far past a twanging guitar, ten-gallon hat, and a pair of boots, and it makes sense. When viewed through the lens of Aretha Franklin’s life and art, country music supersedes stereotypes and encapsulates excellence.