On the Off-Road Again

Country legend Ray Price continues to take the path less traveled

For a honky-tonk singer, Price always had a smooth vocal style. "I don't see why you have to sing rough," says Price. "I want to sing as good as I can. That's why I changed my sound to the smooth sound so it would be acceptable across the tracks. I was doing that rough sound up until 1967. I felt by that time my fans would accept a smoother sound without giving me a hard time."

During the 1960s, Price dabbled with pop-flavored ballads such as "Make the World Go Away" and a version of Willie Nelson's "Night Life." But it was his 1967 hit "Danny Boy," the old Irish tear-jerker recorded with a full orchestra, that alienated many of his hardcore country fans. They accused him of going pop. Of course, at the time, Nashville was moving towards a more neutral (some say neutered) sound. Violins were replacing fiddles.

"It was like a curse from people who saw country music as the music of the unlearned," says Price. "The recording had heart and meaning it in...I think that it was, for me, about reaching a broader audience. A top country hit sold only 100,000 records. I wanted to sell a million records. It wasn't greed; it was need. I wanted to improve my status."

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.

Price became one of the first country crossover stars. In 1970, his version of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" hit No. 1 on the country charts and No. 11 on the pop charts. But by the mid-'70s, most of Price's fans were tiring of his current style. In 1980, Price's old friend Willie Nelson helped him assemble a band that leaned hard on the old Cherokee Cowboys's style; together, they recorded the album San Antonio Rose. It rose to No. 3 on the country charts.

Perhaps the country music boom that followed in the early '80s, a boom that was crossover-oriented, owed some of its success to Price's pioneering efforts. But these days, Price finds himself in a rather unusual position: a defender of true country music.

"The country boys didn't take the country out of the music," Price says. "The New York boys did. It began when the government deregulated radio and allowed people to buy all those radio stations. The new owners would then send a boy from New York to tell people what they should listen to. But I think things are changing now. Some of the young acts won't make it. It sounds like they are all clones of each other. There's nothing creative about it."

You definitely won't hear Price's Prisoner of Love on "Young Country" radio formats. A few honky-tonk tunes ("Better Class of Losers") and country ballads ("I Wish I Was Eighteen Again") are sprinkled among a heaping helping of American pop standards ("Body and Soul," "What a Wonderful World," "Fly Me to the Moon").

Price credits Randall Jamail with getting him back into the studio.

"I was playing in Houston, and he came around running like an ant on a hot griddle," Price says. "We talked a little and then he visited me in Nashville and asked me if I wanted to do an album. "What kind of an album?' I asked him. A jazz album was what he first said. I told him I wanted an album that is acceptable to both sides of the fence.

"They have been calling me a pop singer for years. Now they can really believe it," he adds. "The album lets me stretch my career out another 20 or 30 years. Maybe I'll be out of debt by that time."

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