“He was on the ACM awards or something two years ago,” recalls country music preservationist Gary Bennett of BR5-49 when the hallowed name of Ray Price is brought up. “All these young whippersnappers had the Garth Brooks headsets and whatnot, singing out of key. And he gets up there and plants his feet and just nails ‘For the Good Times.’ I thought, ‘Yeaaaaah, teach ’em what it’s about, Ray!’ Ray Price is a real singer.”
Price himself is a little more matter-of-fact about the state of country music today. “That’s the kind of acts they’ve got these days,” the seventy-four-year-old icon says of Nashville’s current stable of hat acts and pop princesses. “But for me, a song should be like a good book — it has to be read right, and they don’t seem to do that anymore. There’s no effort anymore to do anything different. It’s all follow the leader.
“I had my fill of Nashville several years ago,” he continues, noting that he’s been in Texas now for thirty years. “Not that I don’t like Nashville, I just had a lot of bad things happen there. They treat me pretty nice, but it’s sort of like being a stepchild. I get a bit of respect there now just because I’m so damn old that they have to do it.”
So who is this artist, who until this month hadn’t recorded an album since 1992? For those who prefer the super-abridged version of country history, Ray Price is the missing link between Hank Williams (with whom he learned the country music trade) and Willie, Waylon and the boys. Hell, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck all cut their teeth playing in Price’s band. By bringing a 4/4 beat to Music City (with his classic recording of “Crazy Arms”), Price almost single-handedly changed the way country music was played, opening the doors to shuffles, waltzes and assorted rhythmic progressions. Even today musicians refer to the 4/4 as the “Ray Price beat.” Price’s name comes with a series of daring country music hits, and a bold departure into vocal interpretations of standards that found initial success, but ultimately left him stonewalled by an industry that he helped transform.
So where has Price been? Over the last twenty-five years, albums trickled out, though even the best of the best were primarily ignored. A theater in Branson. A return to his native Perryville, Texas. A serene existence on a ranch where he raises thoroughbreds. A quiet life with his wife of thirty years. Ray Price was, and is, in a comfort zone, albeit one where his remaining fans were left hungry for something…anything.
It took a marijuana bust last year to put Ray Price back into the news. “Everybody thought I was dead at that point,” Price says with a hearty laugh. “They revived my career so strong, you wouldn’t believe it. Willie [Nelson] called me right away and said, ‘Well, you just got $5 million worth of publicity.'”
Whether or not that high-profile appearance had anything to do with Price’s signing with Houston’s Justice Records doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the recently released Prisoner of Love, an album of twelve lush standards that challenges Frank Sinatra’s statement that George Jones was the second best singer he had ever heard.
Sinatra’s voice was always described in gilded terms: golden-throated, golden-voiced and so forth. Price’s instrument is a creature of its own. The high-pitched honky-tonk croon of yesteryear has over time yielded to something venerable and familiar. In the best possible sense, Price’s voice captures the comfort of an old pair of shoes: soft, yet sturdy; creased, yet smooth; well-worn, yet always with another mile in ’em. It fits a lyric with just the right degree of distance and contact. The slightest twang separates Price from peers and predecessors like Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Bing Crosby as he tackles chestnuts like “Better Class of Loser,” “Ramblin’ Rose” and the achingly pristine “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again.”
“It’s just a thing that evolved,” Price says of his voice. “I always tried to make my diction as good as I could. There has to be a certain way you can do that and still sing. So far it’s working.” He’s equally direct in describing what attracts him to a particular song. “I like a song that tells a good story and makes me think of something. Stirs the memory.”
As stirring as it is, though, Price knows Prisoner of Love isn’t likely to break him back out onto the charts again, let alone the radio. “Well, that goes back to when the government allowed people to own more than seven radio stations,” Price explains. “A lot of big money in New York jumped up and bought hundreds of ’em and they had somebody in New York do the programming for them. It’s kind of hard for them to program for a little place like where I live in east Texas. New York, boy, they don’t know what grits is.”
Such is Price’s way. He’s not angry, but he knows the score. Asked if he has any advice for a young entertainer, he quickly answers, “Don’t give up your day job. Buddy, if you want to get into something where you don’t have any family life, travelling all the time like a nomad, that’s the way it is. And once you get into public life, you belong to them and you have to put up with it,” he says with a knowing nod to his run-in with the law last year.
Price is also acutely aware that time hasn’t been kind to musicians of his generation; that his peers are a dying breed.
“I told Bill Monroe we needed to do an album together and he said ‘Well we better hurry,'” Price says sadly. “An old friend. I really miss Bill.”
But like the sturdy Monroe, who picked (and jigged) right up until the end, Price has no plans to go anywhere.
“I had to do something to keep from starving to death,” he says of his motivation for recording again. “When you get older, you can’t go get your rocking chair and sit down unless you want to die. The older I get, the older I want to get. As long as I can sing, I’ll be as happy as a goose.”