Ray Price’s “Night Life”: An appreciation
Every once in a while, it is necessary to obsess about a song. And so I have come here to confess that Ray Price’s 1963 recording of “Night Life” is so extraordinary as to be out of time, a singular event, a startling sound across the ages.
It came my way by accident, for I am working on an hour-long tribute to Hank Williams, which is meant to air on December 31, the anniversary of his passing. Not to tip an unplayed hand, but I had gone hunting for one of his Hank Williams covers, one of the sides cuts with Hank’s band and tossed “Night Life” into the iTunes folder on the off chance that I’d want to show what Price really sounded like in his prime. In the end, I programmed the song Hank wrote for his protege, “Weary Blues (From Waiting),” and Willie’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” by way of talking about Fred Rose, Hank’s publisher and editor.
These are tired nights, and so I found myself prostrate with an iPod in my ears, listening in lieu of silence. And then “Night Life” came on.
I do not know the Price canon in great detail. Once I saw him record in Nashville, a rare gift. And so when I say that, to my ears, this particular take is almost without precedent, I understand that I may well be corrected.
Willie Nelson had cut his own song in 1961, and Price follows Willie’s lead sheet two years later, closer than I’d have guessed, even to keeping his uptick of the repeated line, “Well the night life ain’t no good life/but it’s my life,” the first time it runs by. That curious, captive joy of being outside, of embracing the naughty night. And then the blues, after.
But it is the ensemble playing around Price which is so remarkable, Joe Zinkan’s bass carrying a counterpoint melody, and the rhythm, Buddy Harmon’s drums little more than brushes lounging in the foyer. Mostly it’s Buddy Emmons’ steel guitar which sets the atmosphere, and I’m more than tempted to suggest that Emmons anticipates psychedelia by half a decade. Pig Robbins’ piano darting in and out, Grady Martin and Art Bishop pushing guitar lines into the empty spaces, stretching.
It was said that the best pickers played jazz in Printer’s Alley during Nashville’s heyday, and this sounds something like I imagine those late-night gatherings might have been. (Time I got there, it was just drunktown with fratboys and tourists and street toughs. Too late, Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn.)
All this at a stately pace which Price undercuts halfway through the song, turning his voice into an unexpectedly broken and barely controlled instrument, cut adrift from his normal cool.
It’s the pieces, the shameless sophistication of the whole thing. And it’s perfect, letter perfect.
The liner notes say it was the B-side of another single, topped out at #28; the doohicky which tells you what song you’ve drawn into your iTunes folder claims it for an album track. I’d like to know. I should probably find the whole album, instead of picking through the hits packages the mail once brought.
But the night life is a good life, and, sometimes, it’s still my life.