Friday, June 21, 2024

Happy Birthday, Ray Price

Originally published in 2006

ray_price2The 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. Yet Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band does not pack the nostalgic clout of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys or Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours.

Even after beating back the Elvis explosion in the 1950s by inventing the country shuffle, then helping usher “the Nashville Sound” to prominence in the next decade, Price wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 1996.

“Well, it’s about time,” the East Texan 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, who still performs regularly at age 85, 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 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 coveralls.

Dozens of books have been penned about Hank Williams, who died at age 29, but none have been written about his former protégé, whose career took off only after he stopped walking in Hank’s musical boots.

If Price, who played the Paramount Theatre a couple weeks ago, decides 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 in a 2006 interview, sitting in his tour bus parked in a garage on his working farm 12 miles outside of Mount Pleasant. The constant crowing of roosters – Price raises gamecocks – sounds like a laugh track in the background as Price self-effacingly reflects on his five-plus decades as a recording artist. “Come by after the show (in Austin) and we’ll twist one up and smoke it,” he said to a reporter.

Through it all, Price has remained tight with fellow elderly pot smoker Willie Nelson, who got his first songwriting gig as staff writer for Price’s Pamper Music publishing company in 1961. Even after Nelson got a $20,000 check when his “Hello Walls” hit big for Faron Young, he played bass with Price for $50 a night.

Like most Texas musicians of the time, Price was heavily influenced by Bob Wills and still sings a couple of Wills tunes every night. “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,” he said of the influence to keep his music danceable.

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 “Hillbilly Cat,” shared a bill with the Cherokee Cowboys. By the next year, rockabilly was the hot, new sound of the South and such Price contemporaries as Hank Snow, Webb Pierce and Kitty Wells saw their popularity plummet. Country radio stations were switching to rock, as were some Nashville artists, but Price stuck to his honky-tonk guns.

“Ray Price kept the Texas in country music in the ’50s,” said Wimberley writer Joe Nick Patoski, who wrote the Willie Nelson biography “An Epic Life.” 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” and “My Shoes Keep Walkin’ Back To You” laying the foundation, the “Ray Price beat” was the sound every country band was going for. And still is.

But nobody could sing it like Price, whose smooth, powerful tenor was built to be heard over the loud, rowdy, rarin’-to-dance Texas crowds.

“Ray’s just a natural singer,” said former Wills fiddler Johnny Gimble. “He’s also a master at picking songs.”

Such writers as Bill Anderson (“City Lights”), Roger Miller (“Invitation To the Blues”), Harlan Howard (“Heartaches By the Number”) and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) had their earliest big hits when Price cut their songs.

Price found “Crazy Arms,” which spent a remarkable 20 weeks at No. 1 in 1956, when a DJ played the badly sung original version for him. “That’s a hit, son,” Price said, hearing past the braying, off-key vocals. Price’s innovation came when he changed the tempo from the standard 2/4 to 4/4, creating a “walking bass” sound. 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 a sound that gets into a true hillbilly’s soul.”

He was born Noble Ray Price in the rural East Texas community of Perryville in 1926, but growing up he bounced between his father’s farm and Dallas, where his mother lived with her second husband, who owned a clothing business. His musical tastes followed a similar city/country dichotomy. His favorite musicians were Bob Wills and Bing Crosby.

Then he heard Hank Williams on the radio in 1947, soon after Price got out of the Marines and was attending college in Arlington with aims of becoming a veterinarian. He started singing on the Big D Jamboree in 1949 and met his idol, Williams, in 1951. Helping a fellow country boy out, Williams got Price on the Grand Ole Opry in January 1952, necessitating a move to Nashville.

At the time, Williams’ wife, Audrey, had filed for divorce and the singer was going through tough times. He moved into Price’s house in Nashville, and for the last year of Williams’ life, as the legend drowned his loneliness in drink, Price was his best friend and musical sidekick. Once on tour in Norfolk, Va., Williams tried to outfox his concerned keepers by ordering tomato juice from room service and mixing it with rubbing alcohol. When he got violently ill, Price stretched his 20-minute opening set to almost an hour, then played even longer when Williams was unable to go on. This happened more than once.

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 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 drug- and alcohol-induced heart failure.

“He was the nicest guy you could ever meet,” Price said, “but that alcohol just got ahold of him.”

Hank’s music kept a hold on Price, who took over leadership of Hank’s Drifting Cowboys band.

But after fielding one too many backhanded compliments (“You sound more and more like Hank every day”), Price decided he needed his own musical identity. He found a band in Houston called the Western Cherokees and merged them with a couple remaining Drifting Cowboys and dubbed them the Cherokee Cowboys. Not above gimmickry, Price and the band often came out wearing Indian headdresses with their Western suits.

But it would be “Crazy Arms,” not crazy outfits, that finally set Price and the Cherokee Cowboys apart. “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.”

In recent years, Price has had a heart attack and an aneurysm; he and wife, Janie, are selling their ranch of thoroughbred horses and fighting cocks to move closer to his doctors. But the voice, though not quite the sturdy, honey-coated tenor of days gone by, still croons away musical boundaries.

“I’m just lucky that I can still sing,” said Price, who smoked for 35 years. “I guess it’s just a gift from God.”

There are splashes of bitterness in the words of the country pioneer whose new records haven’t been played regularly on country radio for almost 30 years, but for the most part, Ray Price knows he’s been blessed. After all, 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. If that makes him unhip, so be it. “The only thing I’ve ever done is sing my kind of song for my kind of people,” Price said

Sometimes from such simplicity comes innovation.

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