National R&B charts, thanks to a radio format long skewed young and urban, haven’t cared for years. But for a sizable working-class, middle-aged and older black audience spread through the deep small-town South and also inching into Ohio, Missouri, California and beyond, the music called Southern soul or soul blues -- what used to just be called soul music, period -- is as current now as it was back in the days of Johnnie Taylor and Tyrone Davis and Z.Z. Hill, if not Otis Redding and Clarence Carter. These are cheating songs and party songs for grown folks doing the slide at hole-in-the-wall neighborhood bars, roadhouses and family barbecues in the park.
Since the music tends to come out on sparsely distributed mom-and-pop labels (Ecko from Memphis, pretty obscure in its own right, is likely the best known), keeping up with it isn’t easy. Here’s your chance: Twenty key tracks from the past couple years, ranging from onetime black chart stars like Latimore and Bobby Rush (who actually veers in a more upscale and citified blues direction on his current album) to longtime chitlin’ circuit mainstays (Sir Charles Jones, Carl Marshall, Ms. Jody, O.B. Buchana) to relative newcomers Equanya and Sweet Angel. Tre Williams and the Revelations are actually based in Brooklyn, and the playlist’s final two songs -- gospel numbers from Texas’ funk-rocking The Relatives and Mississippi’s a cappella Como Mamas -- stretch the genre’s definition even more. But they’re all still country enough to fit right in.