Touch My Heart: The Artistry of Ray Price
Ray Price died yesterday afternoon, one day after initial false media reports surfaced, creating a sort of accidental vigil as tributes flowed upon hearing the erroneous news of his passing on Sunday. I think the error, while certainly distressing to his family, was a wonderful gift. Having literally watched loved ones pass away before me, I am fully aware of the power of sending energy to those on the threshold. All that energy and love does make a difference in the comfort of the afflicted in their final hours so I am glad that his fans were able to send Ray Price off with such tribute. A graceful ending to an artist who brought grace to everything he touched.
Ray Price was a master artist. Far more than a mere vocalist, he possessed a specific and evolving musical vision, which he executed flawlessly at almost every attempt. Like Bob Dylan, Price was never content to rest on his laurels and reproduce the same formula over and over, choosing instead to challenge himself, and his fans, by reinventing not only his artistry on more than one occasion, but country music as a whole. As with Dylan and Woody Guthrie, Price began his career sounding like little more than a protégé of his friend and one-time roommate Hank Williams. His early 1950’s sides like “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes” and the Williams custom-penned “Weary Blues (From Waiting)” are quite enjoyable, but break no significant ground artistically or aesthetically.
That, along with the sound and shape of country music, all changed on March 1, 1956, when Ray Price walked into the studio to record a song written by steel guitar great, Ralph Mooney. Price did not write or produce the song, but he had an idea in his head of how he wanted it to sound, and he directed the session until the result matched his vision. The sound Price envisioned included playing in a straight 4/4 rhythm, rather than the traditional country 2/4 shuffle, and adding drums to the mix, an instrument hardly used in country music at the time.
Ernest Tubb was the first country music superstar to plug in, much as Muddy Waters had done for the blues in Chicago, bringing drums and amplified electric guitars to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. But even in 1956 drums on a country record were a rarity. County music’s inferiority complex was only heightened by the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll, and while many country stars reluctantly scurried to record and issue up-tempo rockabilly fare (some of it timeless, some immediately forgettable) to compete in the new cultural and musical landscape of the second half of the 1950’s, Ray Price created a sound that had a relentless, heavy beat, but that forged new ground in country music without sounding anything like rockabilly or rock ‘n’ roll.
By keeping a shuffle drum pattern, but swapping the traditional 2/4 country rhythm with a straight 4/4 walking bass line, Price invented a sound both infectious and disjointed; both ethereal yet danceable. But Price had more ideas. He wanted a striking, stark, single-string fiddle line to heighten the emotional impact (“I whistled the sound I wanted Tommy [Jackson] to play,” Price recalled later), he wanted the bass doubled on electric and acoustic to accentuate the pulsating beat, and he wanted the entire thing drenched in reverb to compliment the booming, saturated voice he had been developing. It would be known hence forth as the “Ray Price shuffle” or the “Ray Price beat” and it would permeate country music for over a decade, until Price again changed the face of the entire genre with a bow tie and a string section, and another uncompromising vision, in the late 1960’s.
Everybody at the session thought it was the funniest thing that they ever heard. The new sound, and just the words: ‘Crazy arms that long to hold someone new…’ They thought it was strange. It was – and it was on the charts forty-five weeks.
To this day, the sound of those series of singles Price recorded in this vein in the late 1950’s sound like nothing else. They sound almost otherworldly, barely terrestrial; like Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” or The Penguins’’ “Earth Angel,” which just seemed to drift into the radio waves as if a lost message from some far away galaxy.
Now, blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel
And the storm’s brewing in this heart of mine
This ain’t no crazy dream I know that it’s real
You’re someone else’s love, now you’re not mine
“Crazy Arms” was the catalyst for a prolific string of classic records that would see Price through the remainder of the 1950’s, including one of Roger Miller’s first cuts, “Invitation to the Blues,” the Harlan Howard standard “Heartaches By the Number” and Price’s masterpiece from this era, the Bill Anderson-penned “City Lights.”
To this day “City Lights” gives me chills, and pause. Everything that worked to make “Crazy Arms” so groundbreaking is heightened on “City Lights.” The vibe of the record and the theme of the lyrics are darker, the fiddle is starker, more ominous, the groove even more relentlessly marching along, the reverb more vast and ghostly. Anderson, a master craftsman songwriter, paints an image of a heartbroken man out in the night among the crowds and the dancing and
the bars, searching aimlessly for companionship in the wake of his heartache, finding himself alone in the midst of the crowded neon streets. It is the musical version of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, packing the same emotional intensity and majesty.
The world was dark and God made stars to brighten up the night
But God who put the stars above, I don’t believe made those lights
For it’s just a place for men to cry when things don’t turn out right
Just a place to run away and hide behind those city lights
Then, as if on cue, Ray Price changed course again as the 1950’s shuffled into the 1960’s. He could have simply continued to put out one single after another in the same style as his previous hits (certainly many other artists continued to do so in imitation), but instead Price reinvented himself for the second time, albeit somewhat gradually. Price’s early 1960’s material is not the dramatic shift in direction that we would see at the end of the decade, but instead a gradual transition away from hard honky tonk shuffles towards a more sophisticated sound. Price had declared his then new sound almost overnight in the mid-1950’s, but the 1960’s are perhaps his most significant period of discovery and development.
It is sometimes said that Ray Price is the “Frank Sinatra of country music.” This is most likely a reference to his ability to interpret the Great American Songbook – songs like “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” and “Body and Soul” – with as much pathos and skill as the great pop music balladeers such as Sinatra, Bennett, Cole, and Martin. But the analogy runs much deeper.
Like Sinatra, Price was not a songwriter. Yes, there are a handful of compositions which bear his credit, but for the most part he did not write the songs he recorded. Like Sinatra, Price knew that his artistry lay in his performance and the overall atmosphere and identity of his output. Sinatra took full control of his career and his vision, never recording a superfluous or ill-advised song. Every move was with purpose, every cut on every full playing album there, in its sequence, for an articulable reason. Ray Price also knew just which songs were the right song for the right time, and he knew the right way to arrange and record them every time. Other than a few contractually obligated re-recordings of previous material, there is nary a misstep in his entire catalog. It is every bit as much a skill and a talent for a singer to be able to amass a catalog so wholly their own from songs they did not write as from songs they did. In some ways it is more impressive. Some of the most transcendental artists of recorded music wrote a small amount, if any, of their own work: Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. This is the kind of artist Ray Price was.
Furthering the Sinatra analogy, Price also shared Sinatra’s ability at conceiving concept albums on a deep and fully realized level. At a time when most albums consisted of a random collection of songs, usually spearheaded by one or two singles, Ray Price began developing thematic albums which told a story, right down to the provocative cover art. In 1963 he released the landmark Night Life album, featuring the title track, written by a struggling young songwriter who was itching to express his own artistic vision in his own way named Willie Nelson.
Night Life is an experience. The cover shows the singer on stage in a nightclub, serenading a couple concealed by darken shadow. She leans toward the man to whisper in his ear, or perhaps for a kiss, as the singer croons in the spotlight, eyes closed with the emotion of the song he’s singing. This is clearly an adult record, mysterious, almost racy.
The album is mostly well-chosen, inventive covers of previously recorded material. “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women” (a Tennessee Ernie Ford record from 1956) and “Sittin’ Here Thinkin’” (a Charlie Rich song from his Sun Records days) showed another side of Price; this one cool, swingin’ with a Dean Martin-esque swagger, but still with the underlying pain that the singer of “City Lights” could not mask, even if he were trying.
The title track remains the definition of cool. Buddy Emmons’ steel guitar swirls around like thick smoke from a lipstick stamped cigarette, at times flirting around the flickering cocktail table candlelight, at times blowing right in your face. Price seems to be in a different voice: bigger, more grandiose and powerful, increasing with intensity on each chorus until the song climaxes.
He was just getting warmed up.
The clip below is the unedited original album version, complete with spoken introduction. It’s an odd idea to open a sophisticated, uptown album with a downhome folksy gimmick; yet, it somehow works as if an invitation, almost a reassurance.
He continued with a string of exquisite albums in this vein such as Burning Memories (1963) The Other Woman (1965), and Touch My Heart (1966), each one a bit smoother, a bit softer. When he released “Danny Boy” in 1967 it was like a line drawn in the sand.
At this point in his career, Ray Price was on top of his game vocally. Always an emotive singer, he reached entirely new places emotionally and technically; his always impressive vibrato was put in full force as Price adopted the role of balladeer. Price is pictured holding a guitar in the Night Life cover photo. He would not perform playing a guitar on stage again.
“Danny Boy” is a beautiful record. What drew him to the song I’m not sure. Perhaps it was the only choice, as if a challenge; one in which he rises to meet with class, soul and triumph. It is a remarkable vocal performance. Yes, there are soaring strings. Yes, there is a chorus of singers. No, it does not sound like a country record. Yes, it absolutely does sound like a Ray Price record. Ray’s artistry is that broad. What some see as betrayal is simply an artist being true to himself, working – as all great artists do almost by definition – from the myriad of his influences. It would be one thing if he began making vacuous, trite pop music to cash in on some fad, but when Ray Price transitioned out of the fiddle and steel honky tonk sound into a more orchestrated and lush sound, he was making some of the most timeless and exquisite records country music has known. At the very least, he was certainly in full control and moving with purpose and conscious. He had nothing to apologize for and so he didn’t.
Duke Ellington once reportedly said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.” When Ray Price reemerged as a stand-up crooner, accompanied by lush orchestral arrangements, he was making good music, and he was still making country music.
Ellington also said, “There is no art without intention.” Again, Price was in complete artistic control when he recorded what would be known disparagingly as his “countrypolitan” records. The resulting music is exactly what he had intended. This was the music he wanted to make at this point in his career and he did so, as always, with class and conviction.
His 1970 recording of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” is a perfect record. Some listeners take issue with the orchestra that replaces a steel guitar and fiddle, but after hearing Price’s definitive interpretation, it is difficult to imagine the song any other way. The song is a big song, and Price is a big singer, requiring a big arrangement. The bass and drums shuffle along in a quintessentially country groove, which anchors the song in its intended genre.
The “Nashville Sound” is often misunderstood, ridiculed for daring to mix pop music influences into pure country music. But this is an erroneous accusation. Country music stopped being “pure” the moment automobiles and radio signals introduced us to sounds and concepts beyond the isolation of the family fold. Hank Williams learned how to play guitar from a black blues musician and the blues permeates his work. Jimmie Rodgers – the “Father of Country Music” – was a bluesman, who jammed with Louis Armstrong. Patsy Cline interpreted the works of Irving Berlin and Tin Pan Alley. Ernest Tubb covered Chuck Berry whose songs, it can be argued, are essentially country songs. Bob Wills mixed jazz, blues and pop sensibilities to create his unique style known as Western Swing. This is what great innovators and artists do. So long as the effort is disciplined and with purpose, the sensibilities being infused are honest, and the end result has integrity and soul and creates something worthwhile, then the work has merit regardless of arbitrary labels.
Price continued to release exquisite, heavily arranged ballads to enormous success into the 1970’s. Well into middle age in the 1980’s, when most artists begin to run out of things to say, he continued to release a string of quiet but competent records – almost one every year – on mostly independent labels, without much fanfare or notice. Price would sit out most of the 1990’s from recording, only to emerge at the dawn of a new millennium, at the age of 74, once again with a newfound artistic shift and purpose. He would have one of the most artistically satisfying third acts in country music.
2000’s Prisoner of Love album is a watershed moment. Price’s deep, well-aged voice is the first thing we hear upon listen:
I said I was through with honky tonks, they only bring me down
So I dressed my best and headed for the brightest spot in town
Immediately we are harkened back to the Ray Price of the “City Lights” and “Night Life” era, yet, the jazzy piano accompaniment that slides in sounds like Basie and Sinatra at the Sands.
I’ve watched the rich folks come and go and one thing’s very clear
There’s just as many lonely people here
Price may be wearing a tuxedo on the cover, looking smilingly, piercingly into the camera, but before the introduction on the opening track, written by the inimitable Harlan Howard, has segued into the first verse, he has already established himself as an outsider in high society, a honky tonk dweller, a country boy. The song’s refrain serves as a declaration for the detractors, as if to cement from the get-go that this album and his artistry is not something that can be dismissed due to stylistic preferences:
Uptown, downtown, misery’s all the same.
It was practically a credo.
The remainder of the album is a flawlessly executed collection of songs as diverse as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “In My Life,” “What A Wonderful World,” and the chilling “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again.” The overall effect of the album certainly points to the smooth balladeer side of Ray Price, but the next album we would hear, two years later, would kick off with the classic fiddle double stop intro that defined his 1950’s honky tonk shuffles as if a proclamation.
Released at the age of 76, 2002’s Time stands as a true gem in his then six-decade career. The opening shuffle, “You Just Don’t Love Me Anymore,” is not a profound song, but it marks a clear return to form that will follow on the rest of the album. This is unquestionably, unashamedly a country album through and through. One of the remarkable things about the record is its demonstration of Price’s uncanny ability, even well into his 70’s, to select the perfect material. Unlike the preceding Prisoner of Love, many of the songs on Time are contemporary, newly written songs that fit the artist’s sensibility flawlessly. The album is loaded with profound couplets and verses. At 76, Ray Price had more to say on this album than most artists ever do.
The title track is one of the most astonishing records ever made by an ageing artist. It is a perfect marriage of singer and song at the perfect time.
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
But we’re all in the same boat
So just hold on and ride it to the end of the line
Time waits for no on, everyone runs out of time
I wrote in a review of the last Ray Price performance I saw that part of his artistry lies in his self-awareness. He was famous for putting on exceptional shows in his later years, never phoning it in, never missing a lyric or pitch. I wrote:
…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.
Just as he approached every song he sang, every record he made, Ray Price so approached death with the same class and heart. Time did, of course, catch up with him, as he cautions in the song it will for everyone. But rather than hound dogs hot on his trail, Price seemed to exit with grace; quietly retreating to his home on his ranch to slip away peacefully.
He left a legacy that is unmatched in country music, an integrity that is almost impossible to maintain in the modern music business, and a catalog of some of the most stimulating and affecting music ever made.