Before he took the stage of Central Missouri State University's Hendricks Hall on November 15, 1997, Ray Price had proved he could still sell out the house. The old building was packed to the last row of the highest balcony, mainly with the forty-, fifty-, and sixtysomething fans forgotten by contemporary country radio.
Onstage, Price proved he's still a singer's singer. Wearing a tuxedo and backed by his legendary band, the Cherokee Cowboys -- featuring his longtime pianist and bandleader Moses Calderon, as well as the great (and now late) Jimmy Day on pedal steel -- Price moved through a remarkable 21-song set of "old country songs."
He focused primarily on his greatest hits: a medley of "Crazy Arms" and "Heartaches by the Number," a bluesy "Night Life," beautifully gentle readings of "Burning Memories" and "A Way to Survive," and glorious, string-backed versions of his two biggest smashes, "Make the World Go Away" and "For the Good Times." Each of these was crooned with commanding, thoughtful, flawless phrasing; he expressed nearly as much with the pauses as with the lyrics themselves. Even on the version of his controversial 1967 hit "Danny Boy" that ended the evening, Price was still able to belt it out, not once backing off the mike or taking the easier, lower note in a song that demands perfection.
The small string section Price had for the date lent the performances a dramatic urgency. Critics today praise Price for his great honky-tonk sides, while his later countrypolitan work is met with disappointment, but the majority of his audience, if record sales and concert draws reveal anything, hasn't cottoned to such distinctions. Like Price, they just like what they like. It was with typical brashness, then, that Price paused during "For the Good Times" to address his fans.
"I've been fighting for these things for years," he said, raising his arm extravagantly like a magician once again pulling a rabbit from his hat. "Ladies and gentlemen ... strings."
On cue, four violins sent the melody soaring. The audience applauded with conviction, as Price nodded and smiled in approval. A few months later, he was in an L.A. recording studio, cutting a new album.
Now, after two years of searching for a label, Prisoner of Love is out on Buddha/Justice. Ray Price, 74-year-old honky-tonk hero and country music legend, has made a flat-out pop record. As if he hasn't been doing that for 35 years.
Actually, the album, produced by Justice head Randall Jamail, brings together the pop and country sides of Price's art as well as anything the singer has ever done. On the country side, most obviously, is Price's country croon, close kin to Hank Williams, Eddy Arnold, and Tommy Duncan. There are backing vocals by Mandy Barnett, guest shots by guitarists Jesse Dayton and Junior Brown, and as always, fantastic country songs: a version of his classic hit "I've Got a New Heartache," a recording of his own composition "Soft Rain," a new Hank Cochran tune called "The Only Bridge You Haven't Burned," and a song that could serve as the theme song to Price's entire country-pop career, Harlan Howard's "Uptown Downtown (Misery's All The Same)."
On the pop side, most obviously, is Price's pop croon, a dear relative of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett. The album's swinging, jazzy arrangements are courtesy of David Campbell, whose work has appeared on recent albums by everyone from Linda Ronstadt to his son Beck. And, for the first time in his career, Price has included classic pop compositions: standards such as "Prisoner of Love" and "Body and Soul," an absolutely devastating version of Lennon & McCartney's "In My Life," and a "Fly Me to the Moon" that very nearly matches the famous versions by Bennett and Sinatra. Price has heard that one before.
"People say, are you trying to be like Sinatra? No! I'm trying to be like me," he laughs. "Well, why'd you do 'Fly Me to the Moon'? 'Cause it's a good song! Man, I just try to sing it the way I feel it. I don't try to be like anybody else. If I try that, it don't work.
"Everybody, all my fans, love the old songs, and nobody's recording them anymore, so we thought we'd take a swing at giving them something they want to hear. What we're doing now is a little something different. But," he adds, revealing the key to making sense of his seemingly divided career, "the truth is it's something I did years and years ago before I first started."
Can't argue with that. No one in the post-Hank era, save maybe Elvis Presley, has had a greater impact on country music than Ray Price. He is, to borrow from Kristofferson's Hall of Fame introduction, "the living link between the music of Hank Williams and the country music of today."
In fact, Price's early Columbia recordings were often little more than Hank imitations. He used Hank's Drifting Cowboys for most of his early recording dates; when they toured together, Price would sometimes stand in if Williams was too drunk to perform. Price's recording of "Weary Blues (From Waiting)," a song Williams wrote specifically for his protégé, helped Price first land on the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. When Hank's wife Audrey left him for good, the two men even became housemates for a time.
Despite such enviable connections, Price's initial recording career was a bust. As the Fifties began, he released four unremarkable singles, none of which charted. Then his recordings of "Talk to Your Heart," sounding merely Hank-influenced rather than wholly imitative, and "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes," nearly a note-for-note (yet sloppier) copy of Skeets McDonald's smash from the previous year, cracked the Top 5 in 1952.
These records were derivative, but in hindsight, their success may have saved Price's career long enough for him to have one: His next five singles, released in the months following Williams' death and sounding as Hanklike as ever, did no better than his first four.
At this point, a fan's compliment that "you sound more like ol' Hank every day" prompted Price to decide he needed to be more than a clone of someone else's legend. Perhaps it wasn't the comparison that troubled Price, but the way five failed singles told him the comparison was becoming a liability.
"It hit me at the right time," he now says. "I finally heard it."
Whatever the reason, when Price next entered the studio in late 1953, he took his first serious step toward a sound of his own. Though still recording with a core group of Drifting Cowboys, Price now encouraged the band to lace their honky-tonk with touches of Western swing.
Price also sang differently. Like legendary Western swing vocalist Tommy Duncan, he was more likely to croon, even hinting in a couple of spots at the vibrato that would soon become a calling card. His voice sounded fuller, less pinched. "Release Me," a two-sided Top 10 hit with the Cajun romp "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)," dangled a possible future in front of Price, though it took him a while to bite. Over the next two years, Price released eight singles (three hits, five flops), for the most part all variations, again, on the classic Williams theme.
Still, even as he hedged his bets in the studio, Price continued to inch toward a distinctive sound on the road. He replaced the Drifting Cowboys with the remnants of Lefty Frizzell's band and dubbed them the Cherokee Cowboys. Slowly, the mainstays of a new sound began to emerge; Van Howard provided guitar and high harmonies, Jimmy Day signed up on pedal steel, Pete Wade played lead guitar, and in the studio, Tommy Jackson's single-string style fiddle was earning more and more of the spotlight. When the group entered Bradley Studios on March 1, 1956, nearly all the elements of the classic Ray Price sound were finally in place.
"Crazy Arms," learned from a demo tape provided by songwriters Ralph Mooney and Charles Seals, was the record that elevated Price from footnote to legend. The contrast between the out-of-control lyric and Price's tightly wound delivery is what sells the song emotionally. It was the music, though, that got people to crank their car radios and rush the dance floor. What made "Crazy Arms" a great leap forward was the crazy rhythm -- 4/4, not the 2/4 expected of country songs -- put down by session bassist Buddy Killen and company.
"Back then it was hard to get the bass to pick up," Price told The Journal of Country Music in 1992, "so I thought it might be a good idea to have an acoustic and electric bass double on the same note."
It was a good idea. The new rhythm, soon to be known as the Ray Price Beat, made the singer's career. "Crazy Arms" bumped Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" -- another of those rockabilly records that had been exploding since Elvis burst on the scene the year before -- from the top of the country charts, and parked itself there for five months.
In the decades since, "Crazy Arms" and the hits that followed have been credited with saving traditional country music from the onslaught of rockabilly. "I've Got a New Heartache," "Wasted Words," "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," "City Lights," "Invitation to the Blues," "Heart Over Mind," "Pride," "Night Life," and on and on -- these hits became the template for honky-tonk in the years between the rise of Elvis and Beatlemania.
Price shaped the direction of country music in other ways, too. He recorded the breakthrough hits for some of its greatest songwriters (Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson), and his support played a crucial role in the careers of Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall, and Buddy Emmons, all of whom gained invaluable experience as Cherokee Cowboys.
Price's early Sixties albums, particularly San Antonio Rose, Night Life, and The Other Woman, further solidified his reputation. In retrospect, it's easy to see how the Bakersfield sound, Outlaw country, the New Traditionalist movement, and significant segments of today's broad alt.country community all owe a heavy debt to the Ray Price sound.
Price's place in country music history is as rock-solid as the honky-tonk sides that earned it. But then, as the story goes, he threw it all away. In 1967, Price released a pop version of "Danny Boy," backed not by twin fiddles but an entire string section. For more than 30 years now, Price has persisted, more or less, in this supper-club pop vein.
The approach produced many artistic and commercial successes for Price -- his 1970 crossover hit with Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" is the most obvious example -- but his later pop work is routinely dismissed in country music annals with harsh words such as "schmaltz" or even "betrayal." The hits kept coming, and even today Price sells out more than 100 dates a year, but some folks, it appears, never forgave him for those strings.
"The one time I tried to see Wills there was so many people I couldn't get in," chuckles Price.
His access to their music was provided mainly by the occasional record and by radio. Besides broadcasting country music, radio exposed Price to the wide world of Depression- and WWII-era pop music. He paid particular attention to Bing Crosby, the period's superstar.
"Crosby was the big thing," he remembers. "I used to love to hear him sing."
Near the end of the war, Price spent a stint in the Marines in San Diego, then Oklahoma. He returned to Texas, where he eventually began veterinary studies at North Texas Agricultural College. Just for fun, he began singing out with friends at little joints such as Roy's House Cafe, mainly doing versions of his favorite entries on Your Hit Parade.
"I was doing a lot of pop singing then," he says. "I wasn't in the business, I was just doing it in college. We had a little group and then we'd sing in different little places, some of the free venues and things like that, just to be doing it. I was enjoying it 'cause I never thought about being on records.
"Most of all, it was just slow love ballads, 'Prisoner of Love' and things like that. I was a fan of a lot of the pop cats. Like the Ink Spots, of all things, and the Mills Brothers. And of course Nat King Cole was a great singer, and Louis Armstrong, and a lot of the other singers. Bing Crosby especially. That's the kind of music I like to sing."
He liked singing it so much that, with the encouragement of friends, he quit school to pursue a singing career in 1948. There wasn't a lot of call for pop singers in North Texas, so he wound up pursuing his new vocation on radio shows like the Hillbilly Circus and the Big D Jamboree.
In 1949, a friend hoping to get his songs published asked Price if he'd be willing to sing the demos, and the pair headed to the studio of Dallas engineer Jim Beck. Beck liked the singer more than the songs, and soon signed Price to record the two sides, which, when sold to a Nashville independent in 1950, became his first single. The record, "Jealous Lies" with "Your Wedding Corsage" on the flip, did so poorly that it might as well never have been released -- except that it solidified Price's ambitions.
"After I got the contract and recorded, it lit the fire," says the singer.
"Jealous Lies" is a bad record. Yet viewing this first single in conjunction with the young musician's attraction to midcentury pop music as the literal and aesthetic starting points of the Ray Price story provides a new shape to that saga. Seen through a pop lens, evolutions in the Price sound can be heard not as betrayals but as fulfillments. In this way, innovations are understood as savvy compromises while once-clear distinctions begin to blur. The details of the story remain the same, but they build to different crescendos.
"I don't care if Bing Crosby was singing in front of that band, he'd sound like Hank Williams," Price says today.
"Release Me," hitting the country charts in spring 1954, began the process of returning Price to the pop crooning that was his first love. There's still a good deal of Hank in his delivery, but also moments where he sounds more like a twangy Bing Crosby -- that is, like Tommy Duncan -- than Williams. Musically, the arrangement also leans toward Western swing, itself strongly linked to big-band jazz.
As time passed, Price refined his new delivery. In 1955, he cut "Let Me Talk to You," which he sang in a big, nearly bel canto style, his vibrato hinting at the way Tony Bennett sang "Cold, Cold Heart" or, in 1953, "There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight." By the time Price recorded his signature number "Crazy Arms" in 1956, his Crosby-and-Bennett by way of Williams-and-Duncan vocal style was nearing perfection.
Rock & roll had invaded country by then, too, so in a canny maneuver, Price borrowed the 4/4 time already associated on country radio with the rockin' attack of Presley, Perkins, and Johnny Cash. "Crazy Arms" topped the country charts all summer, climbing to No. 27 on the Honor Roll of Hits pop chart. Over the next decade, Price released hit after hit with his new brand of post-Elvis honky-tonk.
Almost as soon as he had achieved consistent success on the country charts, Price began experimenting with poppier sounds. On various 1957 recordings, Price was a Nashville Sound star, a singing cowboy, a jazz singer. On a second try at "Let Me Talk to You," he employed fiddle work that sounded suspiciously like a violin, and was more indebted to the early dramatic style of Tony Bennett than ever.
"Tony Bennett is a great, great singer," Price says. "I've loved him for years and years."
At first, these variations from the Ray Price Beat remained secrets of the studio. But when he released "I'll Be There (When You Get Lonely)" later in the year, it climbed to No. 12 on the country charts. A few months later, Price released Four Hits by Ray Price, an EP of Nashville Sound covers, each a major crossover hit. By this point, his pop side wasn't a secret anymore.
Strings had been used on a country music session at least as early as 1955, when Eddy Arnold re-recorded "The Cattle Call" in New York City. By the time Price included strings on sessions half a decade later, however, they were still nearly unheard of in country music, a few years of the Nashville Sound notwithstanding.
The result, 1960's Faith album, was a reverent, often dramatic, affair and Price's most explicitly pop recording to date. Throughout, Price's tenor soars in a way that recalls the pop music of his youth, while the hushed arrangements anticipate Elvis' gospel album, How Great Thou Art, released later in the year.
Over the next few years, Price released a number of hits in his classic shuffle style -- "Heart Over Mind," "Pride" -- and also paid tribute to Bob Wills on the San Antonio Rose album. In hindsight, these years can seem as if Price was momentarily treading water, hesitant to get in over his head with the country-pop blend he'd been building toward for a decade. But after the hard shuffle of "Walk Me to the Door" and the slow ballad "Take Her Off My Hands," each with orchestra-enhanced arrangements, became a two-sided hit in early 1963, Price's inner pop singer surfaced as never before.
The album he set it loose upon was Night Life, revered today as a honky-tonk classic. In the context of Price's career, it should also be noted as one of his earliest and most cohesive arguments that country and pop are, in some important sense, "the same thing." Price accorded "Lonely Street," a pop hit for Andy Williams in 1959, a prominent position on the album; he belted out "Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women" like Louis Prima, and on yet another version of "Let Me Talk to You," Price was as pop as at any moment in his career. The title track, with Buddy Emmons' bluesy, hornlike pedal steel swapping sad tales with Pig Robbins' morose piano, feels like a honky-tonk version of Sinatra's saloon classic "Only the Lonely."
In the wake of Night Life, four of Price's next six chart entries included prominent string arrangements. The most significant and successful of these was his recording of Hank Cochran's "Make the World Go Away," which went to No. 2 in 1964. Price originally recorded the song as a shuffle, but ultimately released a version with overdubbed strings and a backing chorus.
In striking contrast to the strings swirling extravagantly about him, Price sings his first line, "And get it off my shoulders," quietly. Because he opens close to a whisper, he can build to a scream. By the time he unleashes the line again at the choruses -- "just get it off, off of my shoulders!" -- the listener can feel just how dangerously the world is pressing down upon this man, and how much power he has granted to the woman he believes can relieve the weight. It's vulnerable, desperate, beautiful pop music.
Price's version squeezed onto Billboard's Hot 100; just two years later, a similar but considerably less-impassioned version by Eddy Arnold rose to No. 6 on the pop charts. And then, after one final burst of Night Life-styled honky-tonk in '65 and '66, he cut "Danny Boy," the record that had been trying to come out of him for years.
"Every year at the disc jockey convention," Price recalls, "Columbia and all the record labels would have their shows each night for the disc jockeys to showcase their talent. And always I closed the Columbia show with 'San Antonio Rose.' But [one year], I went out and closed the show, and stopped it, with 'Danny Boy.' And for three years [afterward], I would close the show with 'Danny Boy,' and all of the disc jockeys said, 'Come on, man, record that song, record the song.' Finally I did. Clive Davis [then a Columbia executive] was the one who let me do 'Danny Boy.' And after I did it, they ostracized my butt right out of the business."
Well, not exactly. "Danny Boy" was a No. 9 country hit, far more successful on radio than, say, "Night Life" had been, and the subsequent album went to No. 3. But it definitely met resistance at country radio. Its five-minute length probably didn't help much, and what's more, the music was nothing like what he'd killed the house with at the deejay convention.
The Ray Price Beat was gone, replaced with an arrangement that, in the quietest spots, was nothing more than bass and piano. In the loud spots, an enormous wall of strings burst out of the silence like sunlight breaking through clouds. It was beautiful, like so much of Price's music, but in a new way. And, despite all the clues, it was not what people expected. Characteristically, Price dug in his heels at the objections, pushing forward with the sound he knew had been in him all along.
Price sings "Danny Boy" with both restraint and exuberance. His voice starts low and tentative, soars to a place he had been taking us for years, and then beyond that to a place he'd only dreamed of. His voice sighs, cracks, and as he rises up to the final lines, he grants this hoary old tale of love beyond the grave a dignity and power that can't be denied. "You will call and tell me that you love me, and I shall sleep in peace 'til you come," he cries. In that moment, you can hear a singer gripping the limits of his very own legend, then letting it go for something he loves more.
"It's hard for me to make the distinction between country and pop," he has said consistently to anyone who'll ask, "because music is music."
Despite being accused in some quarters of betraying country music for pop, Price had country hits in the two years following "Danny Boy" at only a slightly less successful rate than the years immediately preceding the switch (three Top 10 records and four in the Top 20). The three albums released after "Danny Boy" all went Top 10, and this was before he recorded "For the Good Times," the 1970 country chart-topper and No. 11 crossover smash that has defined him ever since.
"I would say 'Danny Boy' and 'For the Good Times' are the best songs I've ever got to sing," offers Price.
"For the Good Times" ushered in perhaps his career's most successful period; in its aftermath, Price ruled the country charts, scoring four No. 1 hits and two No. 2s in just over three years.
"For the Good Times" is representative of the era, in both its stunning sound and its expression of complex adult emotion. Cam Mullins' strings intensify the melancholy mood, assisting in the seduction and cushioning the inevitable blow. The clopping, pulsing drum is clearly country in feel, ticking away the final moments of the love story at the heart of the song. Like nearly everything Price recorded in these years, "For the Good Times" sounds like a man speaking to you, commanding, and ultimately earning, your emotional commitment.
After Price left Columbia in 1975, he continued to chart into the Eighties, even as he bounced from label to label -- Myrrh, ABC/Dot, Monument, Dimension, Viva, Step One. He even had a brief return to the spotlight on a 1980 Columbia duet album with Willie Nelson. The singles were less frequent and successful, though the quality of these records, particularly his singing, was as impressive as ever.
All in all, Price's post-"Danny Boy" years add up to a 35-year legacy of masterful crooning. Yet he is still asked to justify his abandonment of honky-tonk. "Why must you always try to make me over?" Price wonders aloud on the very first track to his first post-"Danny Boy" album. He could be singing to a lover, but the question could also be aimed at the country music world itself. "You're trying to reshape me like your old love, in the image of someone you used to know ... Take me as I am or let me go."
Prisoner of Love gazes over a career brimming with soulful music and not a few traps. Yet what's perhaps most amazing at this late date is the album actually demands that Price's career be heard with fresh ears. The seamless way with which he moves from pop standard to country classic and then back again underlines the point that, to him, the music remains the same. Price's remarkable singing manages to make a wide-ranging body of work seem entirely of a piece.
"I want to be remembered as a real nice person," he says, "and a hell-ay-cious singer. "When I sing, I want it to sound like I'm just talking to you. I'm not singing it; it's just something that I've come up with. That makes the song more real, a better reading. Every song I sing, I feel. I like to make it sound real, that's what I work for."
You can hear this approach throughout Prisoner of Love. In the way he invests "In My Life" with a lifetime's worth of devotion. In the way he makes the title track embrace a trap he knows he can't escape. In the longing he pours into the Nat King Cole hit "Ramblin' Rose." In the way Price devotes himself to every stubbornly romantic word of "If It's Love," a new song by Hank Cochran's son, J.R. And maybe most of all in the way "Eighteen Again" and "What a Wonderful World" double each other's power by arriving back-to-back. All these songs are surrounded by David Campbell's exceedingly lush and sympathetic string arrangements.
"Now, the reaction I get from the strings is: more, more, more!" Price says.
As always, Price's voice provides meaning to all the pomp and circumstance.
"This is my 50th year in the business, and if I'm ever going to expand and try new things, I got to do it now. I just want to expand and maybe get some new fans and please old fans ... You can [rest on your laurels] if your head stops, but I can't do that.
"I'm still searching for that place, I'm still trying to master my craft ... [I want] the best sound that could ever be. That's it."
Copyright © 2018 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.