On the Off-Road Again

Country legend Ray Price continues to take the path less traveled

At an age when most performers think about retirement, not artistic redefinitions, Ray Price may have yet one more career makeover left in him. This is, after all, the man who in the 1950s defied the country establishment by daring to add drums to his sound, and who later horrified his honky-tonk followers by shifting into the orchestrated country-pop of the late '60s and early '70s. Each time, however, Price proved prescient, scoring a string of country hits. Could he do it one more time in the year 2000?

Randall Jamail seems to think so. The founder of Houston's Justice Records enticed Price away from Branson, Missouri long enough to record Prisoner of Love (Buddha/Justice), a collection of American pop standards that attempts to place Price in the same iconic league as Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole, although with a country twist. As one noted critic said: "File Prisoner of Love next to Willie Nelson's Stardust on the short shelf of genre-busting country classics."

"For an entertainer, I can't think of a greater blessing than at age 75 to have this career bloom again," says Price.

Ray Price: He may stick around long enough to cover all his debts.
Ray Price: He may stick around long enough to cover all his debts.

The key word here is "again."

Born near Perryville, Texas, on January 12, 1926, Price originally planned to become a veterinarian. After serving in the Marines during World War II, Price began school at North Texas Agricultural College in Arlington (now the University of Texas at Arlington) on a G.I. loan. At the same time, Price was playing music at local clubs and at college events. In 1948, he made his radio debut on Abilene's KRBC on the Hillbilly Circus show, and then landed a job on Dallas's Big D Jamboree, which was broadcast over the CBS Radio Network.

"This was right after the war," recalls Price. "In Texas, everybody was down. They were crying in their beer. There was no work, and the GIs had been released from the armed forces...People needed something they could connect with. That's why the blues was so popular at the time."

Young Texas blacks preferred blues musicians such as T-Bone Walker and Charles Brown. While Bob Wills was still the king, young Texas whites also liked Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours as well as Floyd Tillman, musicians with stripped-down bands who delivered a rougher form of country music. Their music was too crude for "refined" tastes, but it launched a style that later became known as honky-tonk. It wasn't until 1947, when Hank Williams scored his first hit, "Honky-Tonkin'," that this new kind of country music was officially born. The honky-tonk was a local beer joint, usually on the poor side of town.

"The beer joints were the only places where a country boy could go," Price says. "They didn't have to worry about being in tuxedos and tails. They were places where people could enjoy themselves after working all day long, from sunrise to sunset. These people couldn't be comfortable in clubs where the rich cats would stare at them, and, of course, the rich cats wouldn't be comfortable in the honky-tonks."

In 1949, Price recorded his first single, "Your Wedding Corsage"/"Jealous Lies," on Dallas's independent Bullet label. His appearances on Big D Jamboree so impressed Troy Martin that the A&R man helped Price land a contract with Columbia Records in 1951. Martin also got Price booked on Friday Night at the Frolics, a Nashville country program that featured Hank Williams.

"The first time Hank and I met, it was like an instant friendship," says Price. "Three days later, we wrote a song together, "Weary Blues,' although my name never appeared on the credits." The songwriting collaboration didn't pan out for Price -- his own recording of "Weary Blues" sold only modestly -- but Williams did help Price in other ways: He got him a spot on the Grand Ole Opry. In January 1952, Price moved to Nashville and soon became a regular on the legendary show. At the same time, Williams was getting divorced, and the two men decided to move into a house together. They also shared Hank's Drifting Cowboys band.

"Hank influenced me as a friend and a performer. I saw how he managed a crowd, and it was great," Price recalls. "He had the charm of being himself. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic, a drinker. There were times he didn't make the show. Well, he made it to the show, but he really didn't make it, if you know what I mean."

But Price was smart, and he realized he had to create an identity apart from Hank Williams, whose death in 1953 made him a mythic figure in country music. Price retreated to Texas, where he started working with the Western Cherokees who had played with Lefty Frizzell and Marty Robbins. "When I took them to the Opry," Price remembers, "I changed the name to the Cherokee Cowboys." The band would serve as the training ground for such future stars as Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Roger Miller and Buddy Emmons, among others.

Price truly made his mark in 1956 with the single, "Crazy Arms," one of the first tunes to employ a drum kit and a 4/4 Texas shuffle beat (which would become known as the "Ray Price beat). The song spent 20 weeks at the top of the country charts. It would launch a decade of dominance for Price, including hits such as "I've Got a New Heartache," "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," and "Heartaches by the Number."

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