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Ray Price Looks Back at Epic Country Career

The singer is in the final stages of his cancer battle

Ray Price performs in Columbia, Maryland.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty Images
December 13, 2013 12:35 PM ET

Ray Price has spent more than 60 years packing dance halls and honky tonks as one of the greatest country singers of all time, but his career is coming to an end. Price, 87, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer over a year ago, and has decided to end his treatments and retire to hospice care at his home in Mt. Pleasent, Texas. The singer has released a farewell message to his listeners: "I love my fans and have devoted my life to reaching out to them," Price wrote. "I appreciate their support all these years and I hope I haven't let them down. I am at peace. I love Jesus. I'm going to be just fine. Don't worry about me. I'll see you again one day."

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We spoke to Price this month about his struggle. "It's been pretty tough," he says. "I haven't been able to work all year. Just laying in bed that long makes everybody weak, no matter how old or young you are."

Price grew up poor in East Texas, obsessed with the Western swing sounds of bands like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. He joined the Marines at 17 before making his first record in 1949 and signing with Columbia in 1951. That same year, a 25-year-old Price befriended Hank Williams at a Nashville radio station. Williams was impressed, inviting Price to a show in Indiana the following day and soon wrote "Weary Blues (From Waiting)" for Price, and helping him get signed to the Grand Ole Opry. The two lived together for the last year of Williams life in Nashville. "He was just an ordinary, kindhearted good person – a good musician and everyone loved him," says Price. "His secret was he could walk out on the stage and just be himself, and that's what it's all about."

When Williams died in 1953, Price began using Williams' band, the Drifting Cowboys, before forming his own group, the Cherokee Cowboys. Over the years, the group was a revolving door of future stars including Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Willie Nelson, who played bass in Price's band in the early Sixties. "I've been lucky in a way – all of my boys were great players," Price says. "You can't be a great player if you don't have a great heart. If you ain't doing it for the people, you're doing it for something else."

Ray Price
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Price was one of the first artists to popularize drumming in the genre, scoring his first number one country hit with 1956's "Crazy Arms," which featured the "Ray Price shuffle," a 4/4 rhythm with walking bass. So how'd he create that sound? "I'd played a lot of dances," Price says. "Sometimes when you're playing a lot, everyone will be dancing right in rhythm, so we'd just stop the music all of a sudden and you'd hear their feet shuffle. That kind of blew my head out. I went to the drummer and said, 'Can you give me a shuffle beat?' And it just worked out. Everyone picked up on it. I didn't have any idea what it would do but it turned out. If there's one thing you can't take away from me, I've got that."

Price spent his early career recording landmark albums (some of the genres first concept albums) like 1957's Sings Heart Songs and 1963's Night Life before finding success with a more professional "countrypolitan" sound (like 1967's "Danny Boy") and several albums with friend Willie Nelson."We're sort of like brothers in a way, we always help eachother out when we can," Price says. He recorded dozens of country hits throughout his career, scoring new fans when he embarked on the Last of the Breed Tour in 2007 alongside Nelson and Merle Haggard, where he proved he could out-sing his younger co-headliners. "I told Willie when it was over, 'That old man gave us a goddamn singing lesson,'" Haggard says. "He really did. He just sang so good. He sat there with the mic against his chest. And me and Willie are all over the microphone trying to find it, and he found it."

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"The last time I worked with him, he walked up on that stage and sang hit after hit," says Loretta Lynn. "I looked at my friend and said, 'I didn't realize that many hits were there.' Forty something hits or more."

Still, Price is reluctant to look back on his career. "I don't really think of it that way. I just like what I've done and how it's worked out. It's been great. . . I haven't lost my voice, thank God for that." He even recently finished a new album. "I think it's one of the greatest things I've ever recorded. The whole CD is twelve fantastic great songs. When it starts, everyone claims you can't stop listening to it. Everyone goes back and starts it over. And that's a good sign."

Asked to name his favorite recording of his career, Price names Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," which begins: "Don't look so sad, I know it's over / But life goes on and this old world will keep on turning /Let's just be glad, we had some time to spend together."

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