A Way to Survive: Ray Price, Galaxy Theater, 12/5/09
Ray Price turns 86 today. In honor of his birthday, here is my review from 2009 of his appearance at the Galaxy Theater in Santa Ana, CA…
Hank Williams died on New Year’s Day, 1953, and Ray Price has been around long enough to have roomed with the legend for a year before his death; yet somehow, inexplicable still to any sort of reason my mind can conceive, I stood with my dad a mere 15 feet from Ray Price last night at a club in Santa Ana (as my dad pointed out, we were as close to him as his drummer) and watched him do what he’s been doing professionally for nearly 60 years.
What kept running through my mind the whole night was that I still couldn’t believe Ray Price was even around (and I’ve been saying that for ten years). For one thing, he’s 83 years old and has more hair on his head than most guys my age. He literally changed the face of country music not once, but twice; first with the 4/4 “Ray Price shuffle” beat he introduced with “Crazy Arms” in 1956 (making him, along with Bo Diddley, one of only two musicians I can think of offhand who have their own beat named after them) and again by epitomizing and heightening the popularity of the controversial (and often misunderstood) “Nashville sound” with his lushly orchestrated recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” in 1970. He played them both last night, bookending the set list. That’s the other thing I couldn’t get over; not only is he still alive, and still playing club dates, but Ray Price is still GREAT. It is uncanny.
My dad and I had dinner reservations, but our table was in a terrible position, so we ditched dinner and went and stood dead center one row back from the stage, close enough to make out the shape of the cowboy boots underneath his tuxedo pants. And that pretty much is the essence of Ray Price. This is country music hard and stark from the Hank Williams honky tonk school, but Price is also a balladeer of the highest tier, a classy crooner ala Tony Bennett or Al Martino, a bandleader in the spirit of Bob Wills, and at the heart of it all really, the frontman for one hell of a jazz combo. There’s really nothing else like it. Certainly nothing anymore. It’s something like the cocktail lounge version of what The James Brown Show must have been like in 1964, only with a steel guitar and four fiddles instead of a horn section.
Price is a showman from the old school through and through. His band comes out first to warm us up, complete with announcer. Halfway through the set he introduces the band members (who are almost all from Texas) then lets them fly on a rip-roaring, jazz bop instrumental showcasing a solo from each. A master vocalist with a specific artistic vision, who has made some of the most perfectly crafted, mood inspired records of any genre, of any time, who can still belt out the bravado on the high notes, and can still rumble the low notes with a register full and vibrant, Price is, at the heart, an entertainer. That’s because he comes from a time and a tradition when you had to be. He walks out on stage with all the confidence that should come from a man doing it this long, with a catalog that deep and that strong, a voice still in top form, a crack band polished and ready, the string section holding their fiddles like weapons, raising them when ordered with the discipline and coordination of a troop of medieval archers waiting for the command to fire.
After an enthusiastically reverent version of Bob Will’s “San Antonio Rose,” Price opened fire with a barrage of hits and essential genre classics; “Crazy Arms,” “Heartaches By the Number,” “Release Me.” Then he sang the lesser known, though personal favorite, “A Way to Survive.” This was when his voice became fully realized for the evening, when that famous lower register first made me tremble, and I really felt like he meant every word. The song is about holding on to the memory of a lost love as a means of coping through the days without them.
I must cling to what’s gone, if I’m to go on
I can’t face the future, I’ve tried
Perhaps for the rest, looking back isn’t best
But for me, it’s a way to survive
Last night I heard it a different way; the way to survive Ray Price now sings about is just what he is doing – putting on a suit, combing his hair, polishing his boots and getting out on stage. Price seems to completely comprehend the idea that keeping interested and active will keep you young. The idea of Ray Price, like so many of his contemporaries, sitting in some overstuffed easy chair watching bad TV all day is such a dismal thought, that he must understand getting out there on the road and putting on an exceptional show is his only way to survive. Not only does he survive, he excels.
That’s not to say that Ray Price isn’t fully aware of the realities of being 83. We were close enough to notice every facial tick, every smile, every blue-eyed wink. I noticed that after each song, Price would kind of shake. I couldn’t tell if he was laughing, crying or trying to hold back a sneeze. I like to think it was the uncontrollable element of the sheer joy of making music. Of course, it could just be his physical age.
A particular highlight for me was his latter day masterpiece “Time” from 2002. I remember the first time I heard “Time.” The album started with some nice but harmless mid-tempo shuffle fare, and then all of a sudden Price’s low register reverberated through the speaker, “time is a monster that lives in our clocks.” I was immediately drawn to hearing this old man sing this song about the indiscriminate, relentless thievery of time.
Time waits for no one
Everyone runs out of time
When I first heard “Time,” back when the album of the same name was released, I knew I was hearing an artist completely in control of his legacy and his craft. Those same thoughts came back last night as I stood and watched Ray Price sing “Time,” making eye contact with me for what seemed like several seconds as he sang:
You can burn up the highway, fly like the wind
run down those long shiny rails
but time’s right behind you
like a hound dog that’s hot on your trail
I wondered if he was trying to tell me something. Was he staring at me for those lines because I happened to be in his field of vision or was he, like an old man at the kind of bars he sang about last night in “City Lights” and “Night Life,” cautioning me that getting old can – and will – happen to me too. Or maybe he saw the emotion that my face must have betrayed, and knew I already understood.
Another highlight was a completely unexpected rendition of “Crazy.” When the piano player began the unmistakable riff, I have to admit, for a second, I wasn’t too excited. Although Price has recorded it, I don’t really associate the song with him, and Patsy’s version is so definitive, yet Price sang it with such exquisite beauty, such controlled yet deep emotional commitment. He wasn’t just covering a well-known song, he was singing a song he truly loved and sincerely felt. I was mesmerized. It seemed that, despite his earlier warnings, for this moment, time did stop and all was right. While the piano player soloed with some Floyd Cramer inspired slip note licks, Price spoke softly into the mic, “now that’s nice, innit?”
Yes, it certainly was.