Call of a Cherokee Cowboy ...
He reckons he did 88 shows last year, but that doesn't mean RAY
PRICE, 82, is near ready to call it a day
Posted March 4, 2008
By Andrew Dansby, Houston Chronicle
On a cold, wet February day, Ray Price lowers the
window of his truck and looks out with sad, defeated eyes.
Price hates being inside. On a day like today, he's worse off
outdoors. The weather is hard on his 82-year-old body, which moves
slowly. Usually in a Manuel suit onstage, he wears bulky flannel over
a corduroy shirt today. A red and white ballcap covers an enviable
head of hair. Those eyes Àú framed by cavernous lines and pillowy
pouches, but still blue to the point of invisible Àú often drift to
some far-off place around his 200-acre Mount Pleasant ranch.
"I try to keep moving around," he says. "The only time I'm indoors is
if I'm sick or if it's colder'n hell."
Bad weather and wanderlust notwithstanding, Price is generally happy
at home. He cures both by taking drives around some of the local back
roads. He knows his way around. Mount Pleasant, about two hours east
of Dallas, isn't too far from where he was born.
"People ask how far I've gone in life," he says. "About 20 miles."
From the warm confines of his Chevy Sierra, Price waxes on about east
Texas. If there's an upshot to winter, it's the way it reveals the
region's textures as the leaves fall and give way to a rolling
horizon. "There are a lot of other pretty places," Price says. "But
they're either too cold or too hot."
There are other problems with other places. He likes the Hill Country
fine, he says, "except for one thing ... people.
"Not to sound all old and grouchy."
Price sounds old and grouchy several times on this afternoon. But
many of his rants aren't the eye-rolling tirades of an old coot. He
speaks of the things that bother him Àú government, radio, Nashville Àú
with the same studied sensibility that he brings to his songs.
Price exists in a series of little fortresses: his truck, his tour
bus, his ranch. In these places, he's in control. And to a certain
extent he's left alone. It's a quieter existence than in the old
days, when his life and career were topsy-turvy things. When
something as simple as a string section could get one of country
music's greatest singers exiled from Nashville. When a family was
shredded because of his life on the road.
Two giant tour buses sit in a massive carport on his ranch.
"I've rode with my mess of people as long as I wanted to ride with
them," he says, explaining the need for the second bus. "Fourteen
people with 14 problems who want to tell you about them. Hell, I got
14 of my own."
Old honky-tonk songs creak out of the radio in Price's truck. They
sound almost foreign. The console contrasts with the weathered
contours of Price's face. It's black, shiny and new. It glows with
information about singers and songs. Price listens only to XM radio.
Bring up the subject of radio and the fight returns to his eyes.
This is how you rock the boat and end up dry. Ray Price grew tired of
honky-tonk. For starters, the venues wore thin. The sound was bad and
the sets were long, sometimes four hours at a pop. The venues were
dangerous; after a Thanksgiving show when the music and drinking
started at noon, Price says he spent time strumming his guitar behind
the stand-up bass after a close call with a flung bottle. He says a
friend called the venues "skull orchards. End of the night they'd
sweep up eyeballs and earlobes."
Price also tired of the recycled sound of old country. So in 1956 he
famously fiddled with the beat. The result was not his biggest tune
but perhaps his most significant: Crazy Arms, an unrequited love song
put to the then-unheard of 4/4 time signature.
Price says he was "just fooling around," tired of playing dances
where nobody danced. He got his drummer to play a shuffle with a
drumstick and a brush. His bassist doubled a note on the electric
bass, and "the shuffle worked."
Price had plenty of success before Crazy Arms: aching and pleading
songs such as Move On In and Stay, Release Me and I'll Be There. But
Crazy Arms shook things up and established "the Ray Price beat."
"We still do it," he says, sounding close to proud. "And a lot of
people have used it. Maybe it's a contribution. I hope so. We didn't
mean it like that. We just wanted to do something different."
Price had a beautiful, studied voice. Paired with the dark hair,
strong nose, impossible eyes and dapper suits, he became one of the
biggest country stars of the '50s and '60s.
Texas honky-tonk legend Johnny Bush worked for Price in the '60s. He
says "we couldn't wait for him to hit the bandstand. He brought so
much charisma and excitement, it was unlike anything I've ever seen.
He was like Bob Wills. He didn't demand anything. He commanded it."
But Price sometimes grew bored with country music. His background
made it inevitable.
Price was born in Perryville and raised in Dallas. His parents split
when he was 3. "He was a farmer; he couldn't make it in Dallas,"
Price says of his father. Of his mother, "She was a career woman."
As a boy, he'd spend most of the year in Dallas, returning to
Perryville in the summers to work on the farm. His mother remarried,
to an Italian man, "a real sweetheart, a real fine cat."
Mother and stepfather, both clothing designers, wanted Price to give
that trade a go. "I didn't want no part of it," Price says.
He wasn't big enough to work with horses, which is why he gave up on
being a vet after several years of training. But a friend got him to
record a demo for some music people in Dallas in 1948. A label deal
soon followed. In there somewhere he spent eight years studying
music. He got smart about it, "but I didn't learn enough to mess me
Price's early notoriety was as a wingman, of sorts, for Hank
Williams. They met in 1951 and became fast friends and roommates,
drinking buddies and tour partners. Price would stand in when
Williams was too drunk to perform. Williams got Price on the Grand
Ole Opry. Price calls Williams "a great cat, down to earth."
They were supposed to meet for lunch on the New Year's Day, 1953,
that news broke of Williams' death. Price had seen him a few weeks
"He was pretty low. He was really depressed over his marriage and he
slowly went (crazy). But he was a nice guy. Twenty-nine when he died.
And he died at the top of the heap."
Price took over Williams' band. A few years later a fan, intending a
compliment, told Price, "You sound more like Hank every day."
He laughs. "A red light went off. Going home that night, I told the
boys, 'I love the lot of you, but you sound like Hank, and you can't
play any other way.'"
It would be the first time of many that Price would take a sharp turn
away from what he was doing. Like the time something went pop.
This is how you rock the boat and end up wet.
In the late-'60s, Price got tired of covering San Antonio Rose to
close his sets during an annual disc jockey convention in Nashville.
A friend suggested he try Danny Boy. Price says the DJs went nuts for
the song. He could do no wrong during this era, and his successes in
the '50s and early '60s allowed him some leeway in the studio. So he
waxed Danny Boy in November 1968. A big, lush, weepy, string-laden
The song was a pop success (No. 60) and broke the Top 10 in country.
But there was immediate backlash.
"These guys screamed that I'd left the business and gone pop," Price
says. "Jockeys around the country were picking that up. It became a
problem for me, and I'd done it for them. It got so bad that I had to
leave Nashville. I left and took a 22-piece orchestra out on the
road. Most of my work was in Texas anyway. But the way I was treated
got me down."
Price's creative crisis coincided with a personal one. His marriage
had fallen apart. He really had no reason to stay in Nashville.
Price remarried nearly 40 years ago, and he says he and wife Janie
have a fairly comfortable routine in east Texas. He performs and
records, and she keeps the books ("She's worse than the IRS") and
offers advice that hopefully extends his life.
Two years ago in Lufkin he played a show seated the whole time after
missing a steep step at home and busting his hip so badly he couldn't
"I went outside to get something," he said. "I knew I could get it in
the dark. She said, 'Take a light, you'll fall down those damn
steps.' No, not me. Sure enough, I fell."
He laughs. "She never did stop telling me, 'I told you so.'"
That night in Lufkin, Price looked fragile. But toward the end of the
show, he managed to get to his feet for the final two songs.
Similarly, Price rebounded from Danny Boy. In 1970, he lit into Kris
Kristofferson's For the Good Times, a massive hit that crossed over
onto the pop charts.
Good Times was Price's biggest song. But by then, he'd cast himself
as a crooner at a time when country was about to take on a more
Price was admired by musical friends such as Willie Nelson (who was a
bassist/guitarist/singer in Price's Cherokee Cowboys in the '60s) and
Waylon Jennings, who were several years his junior. But his wagon
wasn't hitched to theirs during the '70s. They were shaggy; he was
well-coiffed. They tipped closer to rock, Price closer to pop.
Though Price and Nelson both retreated from Nashville to Texas, they
did so with different results. Nelson had his hard times, but he's
arguably as popular a performer now as he ever was. Price hasn't
received the same cross-generational embrace.
Price has made some amazing music since For the Good Times. His San
Antonio Rose album with Nelson in 1980 included lively updates of
favorites. He's turned out a pair of beautiful albums during the past
eight years: the jazzy set of standards Prisoner of Love in 2000 and
the swinging country album Time in 2002.
His voice still spills nuance, experience and heartbreak.
"He's not just one of greatest country singers," Bush says. "At 82,
he's the greatest singer out there today. Not taking anything away
from George Jones, but Jones is strictly a traditional country
singer. Ray Price can do it all, and do it well, from Your Cheatin'
Heart to Stardust."
Price estimates he did about 88 shows last year. He'd like to get
that up to 100 this year. He's just back from some dates in Florida,
which is why he apologizes for his bus being "such a mess," though it
seems plenty neat.
Price is full of strange little inconsistencies. He can seem beat
down by the way he's ignored by the radio, only to spit venomous
lines about the radio station consolidation that blocked him out. He
still likes getting out to perform, but he also only seems truly
comfortable in his little fortresses.
On one hand, he says, "I don't drink or any of that (expletive).
Well, I do now and then, but nothing serious." Later he points out a
Mason jar full of moonshine on his tour bus. "I have to watch the
boys to make sure they don't tote it off," he says. "But most of my
boys are beer hounds anyway. I'm sure Willie'd be interested in it."
He says he gave up smoking in the '70s. He'd been grousing at his
band for playing too loud, then realized cigarettes were the reason
his voice was getting lost in the mix. But that's not to say he gave
up smoking altogether. He was arrested in 1999 when marijuana was
found in his car.
Shortly after that bust, he told me, "Everybody thought I was dead at
that point. They revived my career so strong, you wouldn't believe
it. Willie called me right away and said, 'Well, you just got $5
million worth of publicity.'"
Nelson's an interesting counterpart to Price. With Merle Haggard,
Nelson and Price won a Grammy earlier last month for their Last of
the Breed collaboration. Nelson and Haggard have the reputation of
being country iconoclasts, two artists with two different stripes of
rebellion: Nelson the oddball stylist, Haggard the pugnacious
Price's love of strings and his strength as a balladeer have given
him a softer reputation. But he's every bit the rebellious outsider,
who has over the years persistently pushed what country music could
His past two solo albums have been more rewarding to listen to than
Nelson's past two. But a young, hipster set hasn't found him yet.
And perhaps Price doesn't want to be found. An isolationist streak
bubbles up time and again in conversation.
Talk of a New York show brings up his being confounded by that
city. "It's unreal to put that many people together on top of each
He's convinced we're all headed straight to hell. "I don't think the
planet can survive people," he says. "It's not the other way around.
I don't think the planet can survive."
As rough as the beer halls once were, he admits, "they don't fight
like that anymore. Now they just shoot you.
"(Expletive) kids have gone crazy. Some kid killed five yesterday."
He pauses a beat. "I mean, my God. I don't see a cure for it."
And perhaps, beyond the music, that's a fundamental difference
between Price and Nelson. Nelson pushes ahead in his biodiesel bus,
vaguely political and seemingly unfazed by it all. Price sees bones.
He talks about his voice. As soon as he feels he can't control his
vibrato, he'll quit. He talks about what emphysema did to Porter
Wagoner's voice, or how Johnny Cash's unraveled at the end.
Price has outlived a fair share of his friends and heroes, starting
with Williams, who's now been dead more than half a century.
He likes doing tribute albums. He has two records in the works. Young
at Heart is a collaboration with Bush, Nelson and the late Calvin
Owens due in June. He's also made a record called My Old Friend,
featuring "12 songs of some of my friends that are gone."
The list includes Williams, Jennings, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Marty
Robbins, Conway Twitty, Johnny Paycheck and others. He plans to
record a short spoken-word intro for each song. "I already got a
video figured out, too," he says. "It'll be corny as hell."
Asked when people will hear it, Price answers quickly.
"If you listen to the radio, I doubt you'll ever hear it."
He pauses and, without prompting, reflects on 60 years.
"I don't think what I've done is best I could. Maybe the best is to
come still, I hope. I'm satisfied with what I've done. I'm not
satisfied with what has happened in my career, some of the real
roadblocks I had to overcome.
"And there's lot of things I regret, but there's not a lot I can do
about it now. I just hope everybody forgives me for whatever I did
wrong. And hope they remember some of what I did right."
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