On the Off-Road Again

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.

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."

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."

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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Aaron Howard