Fiddles, Not Violins
The Secret to Ray Price and San Antonio Rose
"You will clean it up, won't you?" he presses. Price turns to the entourage of sidemen and tour crew and notes slyly, "Boy, I know that when a reporter tells you that, it's juuusst right!"
What Price has to fear, outside the printing of some off-guard raw language or an occasional bawdy aside, is mysterious. Certainly he doesn't seem too worried about the publication of tart observations like, "Well, Nashville is Israeli-occupied territory," but maybe Price is feeling fearless now that he knows he'll finally be entering the Country Music Hall of Fame this year, alongside Patsy Montana and Buck Owens.
"I was beginning to wonder if they was gonna wait until I died!" says Price before muttering about problems with at least one member of the nominating committee. Price's nomination is timely, though, coming as it does in a year which has seen Koch International reissuing two of his Sixties landmark albums; the Bob Wills tribute, San Antonio Rose, and the similar vintage Nightlife album. Anal-retentive-to-the-extreme German reissue house Bear Family has also compiled one of their notorious billion-CD box sets on Price containing every hiccup the artist committed to tape during his heyday.
Then again, even without such retrospective interest, Price should've been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame years ago. His contribution is undisputed. One listen to his landmark 1956 recording of "Crazy Arms" tells the entire tale: There had been honky tonk music before, but not like this. Claiming the sound was a fluke of instant studio inspiration, Price's secret was the use of massed, double-stop fiddles (not violins -- fiddles!) and a toughened rhythm section. Because of this, "Crazy Arms" created a groove that kicked as hard as the nascent rock & roll sound which was then kicking traditional country music, and remained on the charts 45 weeks.
Yes, Price had hits prior to that, chiefly the now-standard "Release Me," but he had no identifiable sound. Instead, he was mostly notable as Hank Williams' protege. Price had met Williams while attending what would later become the University of Texas at Arlington where he studied veterinary medicine, and recorded a few singles for the tiny Bullet label. When Price joined Dallas' Big D Jamboree, he was introduced to Williams, who took a shine to the young country neophyte and convinced him to move to Nashville.
"Hank got me on the Grand Ole Opry," Price recalls, "and then I lived with him about a year before he died. I lived upstairs, he lived downstairs. Hank only had one problem: It was only with drinkin'. It wasn't with drugs.
"We was big buddies. But he was working an awful lot, and I was really looking after him more than anything else, 'cuz he was a bad alcoholic. But not like most people think. He never would work when he went to drinkin'. He'd stay in the hotel room. Then the promoter would have so many people there and would lose so much money, they would go and drag him down there drunk. And that's when he would make drunk appearances. In other words, he was a human, like anybody else."
Price's first records under his Columbia contract featured the backing of Williams' Drifting Cowboys, and despite their quality, they cut a little too close to Hank's groove for notability. Price also "made one tour with Hank in '52. We played some dates in Virginia and South Carolina, New Year's Eve and everything. He didn't make the first two dates," Price laughs.
"Hank Williams," he continues, "was the hottest damned thing in the world, as far as country music, and they put me out there to fill in for him -- in front of about 10,000 people in Norfolk. So, I didn't know what I was gonna do. I was scared to death. I started doing this song -- I had to use his band -- and I didn't know what key I did anything in. Went out there cold, and I told 'em the key on the song, and hell! It must've been two keys too high! The name of the song was `I Made a Mistake, and I'm Sorry.' And I got up to the `I Made a Mistake' part, then I sang, `...and I'm too damn High!'" he laughs.
"I stopped, and the people went ape. I could've done anything after that. Anything! It didn't make no difference. They was with me, God love 'em."
Quickly sobering up, Price adds, "But yeah, I guess I was Hank's best friend. Everywhere he'd play, he'd tell everybody about me and to look out for me, that I was gonna be Number One someday. I didn't even know he was doing it until after he died."
It took awhile. It took Price's hiring the Western Cherokees, a hard-driving Texas honky tonk/Western swing outfit, away from Lefty Frizzell in 1954 and renaming them the Cherokee Cowboys. It also took "Crazy Arms," with its hardened bass-and-drum pulse wed to a walking bass line. With further hits like "Heartaches by the Number" and "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," the Ray Price Sound caught on quickly. In fact, the sound became so inescapable, it even crept its way into the pop mainstream via a Nashville-cut: Elvis Presley's early Sixties hit, "She's Not You."
"Elvis and I was buddies!" Ray yelps. "I used to play... I believe it was the Lakeside Ballroom in Memphis every Friday night, years ago. And at intermission, Elvis would play, just him and his guitar. He was a nice kid, a really nice kid. But what he went through," Price adds, suddenly grim, "for what he got, I wouldn't have done it. Shit, he was locked up all his life. I don't believe in that."
Sam Phillips once said that if Presley had been allowed to walk the streets of his own hometown without being bothered, he'd still be alive today.
"That's right. But that's the way it was. He had a big fight with Tom Parker. He wanted to go to town and get him some ice cream, then go to a movie. Tom Parker said, `You do, and when you get back, our deal's up. I'm gone. You agreed that you would stay hid all the time out of public as long as we're in the business.' Now, that actually come about. And [Presley] believed him. 'Course Tom Parker was nobody without Presley, know what I mean? He was a smart man in the business, because he'd handled Eddy Arnold, and I think Hank Snow. But I'm talking about the big money way. Tom Parker was nothing 'til Presley."
Price pauses, then allows himself a slight bit of swaggering: "But we knocked `Heartbreak Hotel' off the Number One spot (on the country charts) with `Crazy Arms.'"
The hits kept coming and Price gained a reputation for having an ear for budding songwriters. Among those he gave breaks to: Harlan Howard ("Heartaches by the Number"), Mel Tillis ("One More Time" and "Heart Over Mind"), and Bill Anderson ("City Lights"). With "Invitation to the Blues," Price put royalties in the pocket of his drummer, an upstart songsmith by the name of Roger Miller. The Cherokee Cowboys, in fact, became as much a breeding ground for future country stars as Ernest Tubb's Texas Troubadours, whipping into shape a number of young bucks, such as steel legend (and now occasional Don Walser sideman) Jimmy Day. When Donnie Young abandoned the bass guitar slot in the Cherokee Cowboys to play with Johnny Paycheck, his replacement was a recent arrival in Nashville named Willie Hugh Nelson. It's Nelson's rhythm guitar which graces San Antonio Rose.
By Price's guess, the 1961 San Antonio Rose was one of the first tribute albums ever released. It certainly predates Merle Haggard's own Wills salute, A Tribute to the Best Damn Fiddle Player in the World, by nearly 10 years. Unlike Haggard's record, though, which sought to faithfully recreate the Texas Playboys sound (and in the process helped spearhead the Western Swing revival), Price's record saw him taking Wills' classics like "Roly Poly" and "A Maiden's Prayer" and making Ray Price songs out of them -- treating them all like "Crazy Arms." Price shrugs it off, muttering "That's how we try to do all of them." But this is Price's genius, and the mark of a true artist: Never ape someone else. Create something of your own. Reach inside, find something uniquely yours, rub that all over the material, and leave it standing as 100 proof Price.
After a time, it was hard to find 100 proof Ray Price records anymore. Records like "For the Good Times" found Price going the Eddy Arnold route, testing the MOR market with string-laden ballads that smacked more of a Vegas showroom than a honky tonk. Those weren't fiddles you heard on Ray Price records, anymore. Those were violins.
"I've always done my hit country songs," Price protests. "And we've always done them with the old sound, even when I worked with the symphony. I just leaned a little more toward the old sound later on, when it started getting hard to hear anymore."
It probably began with the duet album Price cut with Willie Nelson in 1980, also titled San Antonio Rose. The following year, a PBS broadcast featuring seminal Fifties honky tonkers showcased a Ray Price who looked as if he was out for blood. There was a lean, hungry look in his eye, and he leaned into Vintage Price standards like "Crazy Arms" and "Heartaches by the Number" and nothing else for 15 minutes, singing with strength, clarity, and the joy of a man freed from a dungeon after 25 years. Price mopped the floor with his contemporaries. The man was back.
Unfortunately, that was 15 years ago, and today times are tough for Price and his ilk -- at least in the eyes of Nashville. Although he still does over 100 dates a year, drawing "as good crowds as we ever have," Price has been without a record deal for some time now. This, however, hasn't stopped him: He's just cut a Spanish language disc in San Antonio with his musical-director of the last 30 years, Blondie Calderon. That it's heavy with ballads of the "Por Los Tiempos Buenos" variety, is neither here nor there.
Price has also begun work on a country album that will most likely be released on an indie label he and Calderon are setting up, though at this point they still need to raise funds for both ventures. Strangely enough, one avenue of fundraising may come in the guise of hot sauce, taken from an old Calderon family recipe and marketed as "Ray Price's Burning Memories." Meanwhile, what spare time isn't eaten by fishing excursions on his land near Mt. Pleasant might find Price writing his memoirs, which the singer jokes he'll title For the Good Times, My Ass!
"Actually, I'll probably title it The Way It Really Was, Price adds, levelly, "because I was there when it happened. I know what went down, and I know what people did. And it ain't gonna be one of them kiss-and-tell jobs."
Depending on the writing skills of either Price or (should he choose that route) his ghost writer, those non-hot-sauce burning memories of his should make fascinating reading. After all, Price has seen a lot of history, and created enough of his own to finally land in the Country Music Hall of Fame. And you can sense in his restlessness, which is odd in a man of 70, that Ray Price is itching to create even more history. So long as he fights the urge to hire violin players rather than fiddle players, that should be no problem.