Ray Price changed country music while staying true to his own sound

Ray Price changed country music while staying true to his own sound

Singer Ray Price, who revived country music not once but twice, was perhaps more influential than anyone in the country field besides his former roommate Hank Williams. But even after beating back the Elvis explosion in the 1950s by inventing the country shuffle, then helping usher “the Nashville sound” to prominence in the next decade, Price wasn’t inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame until 1996.

“Well, it’s about time,” the East Texan said when he finally received the award. The underrated icon, whose Cherokee Cowboys included such up-and-comers as Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Bush and Johnny Paycheck, died Monday at his Mount Pleasant home, a day after his death was mistakenly announced by several news outlets, leading to an outpouring of condolences on social media. Price, who was 87, remained close with Nelson, who got his first songwriting gig as staff writer for Price’s Pamper Music publishing company in 1961, and was a regular at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnics well into his 80s.

Price was one of the first Nashville superstars to move back to Texas, relocating to a farm near Mount Pleasant in 1970. In the late ’60s, Price had angered country traditionalists when he brought strings and choral backing to such lush ballads as “Make the World Go Away,” “Danny Boy” and “For the Good Times.”

But like Willie, Price grew up listening to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, as well as hillbilly music and Western swing. After being tagged a sellout, Price joked that he’d call his memoirs “For the Good Times … My Ass!”

What some forgot during the villified “countrypolitan” heyday was that Price kept it honkytonk when the Elvis Presley explosion inspired many country acts to go rockabilly. The song that kept Texas in country music was “Crazy Arms,” which spent a remarkable 20 weeks at No. 1 in 1956. Price’s innovation came when he changed the tempo from the standard 2/4 to 4/4, creating the “walking bass” sound that still keeps couples dancing at clubs like the Broken Spoke.

Along with “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets and “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles, “Crazy Arms” is one of the pioneering landmark records of the 1950s.

“When I’m playing drums and the front guy turns around and shouts out, ‘Ray Price!’ I know it’s gonna be a full-on 4/4 shuffle,” said Tom Lewis of Heybale! “It’s my favorite groove to play … It’s a sound that gets into a true hillbilly’s soul.”

Price’s smooth, powerful tenor was built to be heard over the loud, rowdy, rarin’-to-dance Texas crowds.

Such writers as Bill Anderson (“City Lights”), Roger Miller (“Invitation To the Blues”), Harlan Howard (“Heartaches By the Number”) and Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”) had their earliest big hits when Price cut their songs.

He was born Noble Ray Price in the rural East Texas community of Perryville in 1926, but while growing up, he bounced between his father’s farm and Dallas, where his mother lived with her second husband. His musical tastes followed a similar city-country dichotomy.

He heard Hank Williams on the radio in 1947, soon after Price got out of the Marines and was attending college in Arlington, with aims of becoming a veterinarian. He started singing on the Big D Jamboree in 1949 and met his idol, Williams, in 1951. Helping a fellow country boy out, Williams got Price on the Grand Ole Opry in January 1952, necessitating a move to Nashville.

At the time, Williams’ wife, Audrey, had filed for divorce. He moved into Price’s house in Nashville, and for the last year of Williams’ life, as the legend drowned his loneliness in drink, Price was his best friend and musical sidekick. Once on tour in Norfolk, Va., Williams tried to outfox his concerned keepers by ordering tomato juice from room service and mixing it with rubbing alcohol. When he got violently ill, Price stretched his 20-minute opening set to almost an hour, then played even longer when Williams was unable to go on.

The two ran into each other for the last time in Dallas, two days before Williams played his final public concert Dec. 19, 1952, at the Skyline Club in Austin. They made plans to have lunch in Ohio, where they both had gigs, on New Year’s Day 1953. That’s the day Williams was found dead of drug- and alcohol-induced heart failure.

“He was the nicest guy you could ever meet,” Price told the American-Statesman in 2006, “but that alcohol just got ahold of him.”

Price took over leadership of Williams’ Drifting Cowboys band.

But after fielding one too many backhanded compliments (“You sound more and more like Hank every day”), Price decided he needed his own musical identity. He found a band in Houston called the Western Cherokees and merged them with a couple remaining Drifting Cowboys and dubbed them the Cherokee Cowboys. Not above gimmickry, Price and the band often came out wearing headdresses with their Western suits.

But it would be “Crazy Arms,” not crazy outfits, that finally set Price and the Cherokee Cowboys apart.

Soon after he turned 80, Price sat in his tour bus on his ranch in East Texas, where he raised thoroughbred horses and fighting roosters, and did an interview with the American-Statesman. It was a big week for Price, as Gov. Rick Perry had just designated a statewide Ray Price Day.

“I’m just lucky that I can still sing,” said Price, who smoked for 35 years. “I guess it’s just a gift from God.”

There were splashes of bitterness in the words of the country pioneer whose new records haven’t been played regularly on country radio for 30 years, but for the most part, Ray Price knew he’d been blessed. After all, he’s the Tony Bennett to George Jones’ Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of Texas country singers.

“Listen, I don’t sing about drinkin’ and fightin’ and cheatin’ and all that,” he said. If that makes him unhip, so be it. “The only thing I’ve ever done is sing my kind of song for my kind of people.”

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