Clip: Underappreciated Ray Price finally gets his due
Underappreciated Ray Price finally gets his due
By Michael Corcoran
Cox News Service
Published November 8, 2006
MT. PLEASANT, Texas -- The woefully underrated Ray Price, who revived
country music not once, but twice, has every right to be bitter.
He's rarely lumped in with the titans of twang, who have more
colorful, mythical names such as Lefty, Buck and Merle, and yet Price
is perhaps more influential than anyone in the country field besides
his former roommate Hank Williams.
As a bandleader, Price has given gigs to such up-and-comers as Willie
Nelson, Johnny Bush, Johnny Paycheck and Roger Miller and yet the
Cherokee Cowboys name does not pack the nostalgic clout of Bob Wills'
Even after beating back the Elvis explosion in the 1950s by inventing
the country shuffle, then helping usher "the Nashville Sound" to
prominence the next decade, Price wasn't inducted into the Country
Music Hall of Fame until 1996.
"Well, it's about time," Price said when he finally received the award.
No one could begrudge Price his vitriolic toast, followed by the sweet
chug of redemption. After all, the singer, still performing regularly
at age 80, had been so vilified by country music traditionalists when
he brought strings and choral backing to country radio in the '60s
that he moved from Nashville back to East Texas in disgust in 1970.
Never mind that such lush ballads as "Make the World Go Away," "Danny
Boy" and "For the Good Times" expanded country's fan base; Price
became a sellout in the eyes of those who wanted to keep country in
Revolutionized country music
Meanwhile, the mainstream music fans he helped drag over to the
country aisle, had no idea that Price revolutionized country music in
1956 by introducing the highly danceable 4/4 shuffle on "Crazy Arms,"
which spent 20 consecutive weeks at No. 1. Another little known fact
is that in 1963 Price recorded the first country concept album, built
around Willie Nelson's "Night Life."
Dozens of books have been penned about Hank Williams, who died at age
29, but none have been written about his former protege, whose career
took off only after he stopped walking in Hank's musical boots.
If Price does decide to write his memoirs, he's already got a title in mind.
"I'm gonna call it `For the Good Times ... My Ass!' he said last
month, sitting in his tour bus parked in a garage on his working farm
12 miles outside Mt. Pleasant. The constant crowing of roosters --
Price has raised gamecocks for more than 30 years -- sounds like a
laugh track in the background, as Price self-effacingly reflects on
his five-plus decades as a recording artist. Through it all, he has
remained tight with Nelson, who got his first songwriting gig as staff
writer for Price's Pamper Music publishing company in 1961 and also
played in the Cherokee Cowboys for a year and a half. Even after
Nelson got a $20,000 check when his "Hello Walls" hit big for Faron
Young, he toured with Price for $50 a night.
"I took Willie out on the road as my bass player and after a few gigs
he said `I bet you didn't know I'd never played the bass before,'"
Price recalled. "I said, `I knew the first night.'"
"Willie's been a great friend through thick and thin," he continued.
They're so close that when Price was busted in 1999 for possession of
marijuana -- "Willie weed" -- eyebrows remained level. "I helped him
when he was starting out and he's helped me out quite a bit through
Price, Nelson and Merle Haggard have just recorded an album of the
songs that inspired them when they were growing up. "It's the best
thing I've heard in years and years," said Price, who sings a couple
of songs by Bob Wills, who inspired him to make his music danceable.
"In Nashville in the '50s, they didn't use drums -- we had to sneak a
snare onto the Opry. But in Texas you had to have drums because the
Texas Playboys did."
Enter Elvis, the `Hillbilly Cat'
But the music scene was about to change in a big way. At a 1955 show
in Memphis, Price got a threatening glimpse of the future when Elvis
Presley, the swiveling, yelping "Hillbilly Cat," shared a bill with
the Cherokee Cowboys and nearly stole the show. By the next year,
rockabilly was the hot, new sound of the South, and such Price
contemporaries as Hank Snow, Webb Pierce, Kitty Wells and Red Foley
saw their popularity plummet. Country radio stations were switching to
rock, and Nashville artists such as Marty Robbins and Little Jimmy
Dickens recorded rock 'n' roll material to try to attract younger
fans. Showing his East Texas stubbornness, Price stuck to his
"Ray Price kept the Texas in country music in the '50s," said
Wimberley writer Joe Nick Patoski, who's working on a Nelson
biography. In doing so, Price was one of the only Nashville stars to
see his fortunes rise during the heyday of rock 'n' roll. With the
dancehall sensations "Crazy Arms," "I've Got a New Heartache," "My
Shoes Keep Walkin' Back To You" and "Heartaches By the Number" laying
the groundwork, the "Ray Price beat" was the sound every country band
was going for.
But nobody could sing it like Price, whose smooth, powerful tenor was
built to be heard over the loud, rowdy, rarin'-to-dance Texas
"Ray's just a natural singer," said former Wills fiddler Johnny
Gimble, who first backed Price on sessions at Jim Beck's studio in
Dallas in 1953. "He's also a master at picking songs. Ray just knows
what he wants and what the people want."
Price found "Crazy Arms" while touring Florida in early '56. It was
originally cut by a California woman with a lifeless voice, but Price
could hear that the song had potential. "That's a hit, son," he said
to the deejay who played it for him. Price took the record with him to
Nashville, where a recording session had been set up. First thing,
Price wanted to change the tempo from the standard 2/4 to 4/4,
creating a "walking bass" sound. Price said he based that shuffle
sound on the rhythm of dancers' feet. He also played Wills' "Faded
Love" for fiddler Tommy Jackson as an example of the single string
style he wanted for the track. By melding elements of western swing
and honky-tonk, Price created a new sound, one that is still in vogue
with country traditionalists.
Along with "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets and "I
Got a Woman" by Ray Charles, "Crazy Arms" is one of the pioneering,
landmark records of the 1950s.
"When I'm playing drums and the front guy turns around and shouts out,
`Ray Price,' I know it's gonna be a full-on 4/4 shuffle," said Tom
Lewis of Heybale! "It's my favorite groove to play. It's so swingy and
smooth, yet hypnotically repetitive. ... It's a sound that gets into a
true hillbilly's soul."
James White of the Broken Spoke in Austin, which has hosted Price
several times, said, "You could always count on keeping your date
happy by taking her to a Ray Price show. Whether you came to dance or
listen, Ray Price was true Texas music."
Price and Williams hit it off instantly because "we were both country
boys, trying to make a living in the music business," Price said. In
the affable, easy-going Price, perhaps Williams, who was older by
three years and about two dozen hits, could see the innocence that he
had lost long ago.
The two ran into each other for the last time in Dallas, two days
before Williams played his final public performance at the Skyline
Club in Austin on Dec. 19, 1952. They made plans to have lunch in
Ohio, where they both had gigs, on New Year's Day 1953. That's the day
Williams was found dead of heart failure brought on by an intake of
alcohol, morphine and choral hydrate.
More realistic career path
While his mentor's life and music have become mythological in stature,
Price's career has followed a more realistic path. He's toured
constantly though, at 80, his schedule is down to a handful of shows a
"I'm just lucky that I can still sing," Price said. "I've never done
anything special for my voice -- I smoked for 35 years -- so I guess
it's just a gift from God."
In recent years, Price has had a heart attack and an aneurysm; he's
selling the farm he has owned and proudly worked on since 1970 to move
closer to his doctors. But the voice, though not quite the sturdy,
honey-coated tenor of "Release Me," "Danny Boy" and "For the Good
Times," still croons, still swoops, still soars above musical
boundaries. In September, Price drew several encores, just like Hank
Williams in 1949, when he played a sold-out show at the Nashville's
Nashville is catching up in its long overdue recognition, and Price
couldn't be more appreciative. The Country Music Hall of Fame recently
unveiled a 1,000-square-foot exhibit, "For the Good Times: The Ray
Price Story," consisting of memorabilia, artifacts, photos, stage
clothes and the like. Price said he and wife Janie, who he calls the
ultimate packrat, had a great time going through boxes to find stuff
for the exhibit.
"I guess it all started with my 80th birthday," Price said. "I guess
this is my year. . . . Finally," he added with a laugh.
Bitter? Nah. Ray Price knows he has had it good, that his career has
gone as far as it could, saddled by that bland name of a football
coach or bank manager. He's the Tony Bennett to George Jones' Frank
Sinatra in the pantheon of Texas country singers.
"Listen, I don't sing about drinkin' and fightin' and cheatin' and all
that," he said. Maybe that makes him tame, he acknowledged, but "the
only thing I've ever done is sing my kind of song for my kind of
Sometimes from such simplicity comes innovation. "You make your mark
in Texas music by doing something different," said Casey Monahan of
the Texas Music Office, "and Ray Price's mark is huge."