There’s no difference between singing a country song in a western suit and then going around behind the curtain and walking out the other side with a tux on and singing the same country song with a pop arrangement. It’s the same thing.
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 sixty-something 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 guitar — 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 two of Price’s 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 recording of “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.
On numbers like these, the small string section Price had for the date — two of Price’s own veteran players, augmented by a pair of CMSU students who read their parts from music stands — lent the performances a dramatic urgency. Critics today praise Price for his great honky-tonk sides, while his later countrypolitan work is dealt with in disappointed dependent clauses. But the majority of the country audience, if record sales and concert draws reveal anything, hasn’t cottoned to such distinctions. Like Price, they just like what they like.
So it was with typical brashness 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.
Just months after that Central Missouri State concert, Price was in a Los Angeles recording studio, cutting his new album. Now, after two years of searching for a label willing to support it, Prisoner Of Love is about to be released on Buddha/Justice. The news angle is going to be that 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 record, produced by Justice head Randal 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, featuring strings and, on a couple of tracks, brass, are courtesy of David Campbell, whose work has appeared on recent albums by everyone from Linda Ronstadt, Elton John and Aerosmith to Beck (Campbell’s son), Counting Crows and Green Day. 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. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is an excerpt of the full article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazine’s back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazine’s 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Alden’s award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstock’s 1998 “Artist of the Decade” piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warren’s 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantin’s deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
• Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
• Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
• Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
• Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
• Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
• Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
• Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
• Ray Price, by David Cantwell
• Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
• Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
• Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
• Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
• Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
• Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
• Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
• Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
• Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
• Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
• Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
• Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
• Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
• Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
• Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
• Wilco, by Paul Cantin
• Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
• Iron & Wine, by William Bowers
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, dropping the clue that is 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.”
In The Encyclopedia Of Country Music, Daniel Cooper writes: “When Ray Noble Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, many noted that the honor was long overdue.” One of them was Ray Price. “Thank you,” he said, accepting the award from Kris Kristofferson in front of a national television audience. “It’s about time.”
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, a predictable development. Ray used Hank’s Drifting Cowboys for most of his early recording dates, and when the two men toured together, Ray would sometimes stand in for Williams when Hank was too drunk to perform. It was partly upon the strength of Price’s recording of “Weary Blues (From Waiting)”, a song Williams wrote specifically for his protégé, that Price first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. When Hank’s wife Audrey left him for good, the two men even become housemates for a time.
Despite these enviable connections, Price’s initial recording career was a bust. As the ’50s began, he released four unremarkable singles, none of which charted. Then his recordings of “Talk To Your Heart”, which at least had the virtue of sounding merely influenced by Hank rather than wholly imitative of him, and “Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes”, which was a nearly note-for-note (yet sloppier) copy of Skeets McDonald’s smash from the previous year, each 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 Hank’s death and sounding as Hank-like as ever, did no better than his first four.
As Price emphasizes in a story he’s told repeatedly through the years, it was at this point that a fan’s compliment — “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. Of course, since he had for several years sung Hank’s songs at Hank’s gigs and had toured with Hank’s band, all the while singing in Hank’s style — even hunching over the mike in mimicry of his mentor — this was surely not the first time Price had heard such a comment. 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.”