Ray Price – Burning Memories
Whatever the reason, when Price next entered the studio at the tail end of 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 highlighted guitarist Grady Martin and the other session musicians, encouraging the band to decorate their honky-tonk with touches of western swing. Martin joined Jerry Rivers on twin fiddles to kick it off, then quickly switched instruments to join Don Helms and Sammy Pruett for the Texas Playboys-inspired guitar attack at the break. Also, for the first time on a Price session, there were drums in the mix.
Price also sang “Release Me” differently. Like legendary western swing vocalist Tommy Duncan, he was more likely here to croon, to hold a note rather than to twist it, even hinting in a couple of spots at the vibrato that would soon become a calling card. His voice sounded more full and loose all around, less pinched. “Release Me”, a two-sided top-ten hit with the more traditional-sounding Cajun romp “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)”, dangled a possible future in front of Price, though it took him awhile to take the bait. Over the next two years, Price released eight singles (three hits, five flops), and for the most part they were 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. The crucial decision was when Price decided to let the Drifting Cowboys go. He replaced them with the remnants of Lefty Frizzell’s band, and dubbed them the Cherokee Cowboys. Over the course of various lineup changes, 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, the single-string style fiddle of Tommy Jackson was earning more and more of the spotlight. When the group entered Bradley Studios on March 1, 1956, a full two years since “Release Me” had charted, 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 (his arms are crazy) and Price’s tightly wound delivery (the vibrato is back, and it makes the record feel as if Price is battling his own quaking form) is what sells the song emotionally. It was the music, though, that got people to crank their car radios and rush the dance floor. Jackson’s fiddle is the star of the single’s first half and Day’s steel shines in the second, at least until the piano of Floyd Cramer joins in at the close. But what made “Crazy Arms” a great leap forward was the crazy rhythm — in 4/4, not the 2/4 then 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 very 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 ever since Elvis burst on the scene the year before — from the top of the country charts, and then parked itself there for five months. In the decades since, Ray Price and “Crazy Arms”, and the hits that followed, have been credited with saving traditional country music from the rockabilly onslaught. “I’ve Got A New Heartache”, “Wasted Words”, “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You” (now drummer Buddy Harman was in the studio, nailing the “hard” onto Price’s hard shuffle), “City Lights”, “Invitation To The Blues”, “Heart Over Mind”, “Pride”, “Night Life”, and on and on — these hits were the very 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 country’s greatest songwriters — Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson — and his support played a crucial role in the careers of Miller, Charlie Walker, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and Buddy Emmons. (All of those but Walker gained invaluable experience as members of the Cherokee Cowboys.) Price’s early ’60s 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 and the New Traditionalist movement, as well as significant segments of today’s broad alternative country community, all owe a heavy debt to the Ray Price sound. That’s what Kristofferson means when he says Price is the bridge from yesterday to today. In truth, even much of contemporary radio’s Hot New Country can be traced back to Price’s simple yet profound tinkering with country rhythm. Not that Price wants to hear this. “I may have started something,” he laughs, “but I’m not taking the blame.” He made the point even more succinctly during a 1995 radio interview with a Wichita DJ. Informed that all the young stars cite him as an influence, Price grumbled: “God, I hope not.”
Regardless of where country music has wound up, Price’s place in country music history is as rock-solid as the decade-and-a-half’s worth of classic honky-tonk sides it is based upon. But then, as the story goes, he threw it all away. In 1967, Price released a pop version of the folk song “Danny Boy”, backed not by twin fiddles but by 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, have never forgiven him for those strings.
Ray Price was born in 1926 in a tiny east Texas town called Perryville, about 100 miles due east of Dallas. After his folks split up when he was three, he divided his time between his dad’s farm and his mom’s place in Dallas. Today he still resides with his wife of 30 years in the Perryville area, on a ranch with his horses and her poodles. “Perryville’s got two churches and a grocery store, and most of the time they’re broke,” he jokes. “It’s rolling hills, like in Kentucky, and lots of evergreens. It’s beautiful.”
Growing up, Ray enjoyed honky-tonk and western swing, particularly by legends such as Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman and Bob Wills, just as you’d expect of an east Texas youth. The young Price never got a chance to see those men in person, though: “The one time I tried to see Wills there was so many people I couldn’t get in.” His access to their music was provided mainly by the occasional record (“My dad had a few records of Jimmie Rodgers, that was about it”) and by radio. Besides broadcasting country music, the radio exposed Ray to the wide world of Depression-era and WWII-era pop music. Ray paid particular attention to the shows of 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 in Oklahoma. “At that time, Sinatra was big — the swoon tunes, you know. Everything I was exposed to in the Marines was pop music.” 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 remembers. “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 Louie 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, though, so it’s hardly surprising he wound up pursuing his new vocation on radio shows such as 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 Jim Beck, an engineer in Dallas. Beck liked the singer more than the songs, and soon he 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 in the marketplace 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,” he says.