Saturday Night: Ray Price at Stafford Centre

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Ray Price Stafford Centre January 12, 2013

Ray Price has seen scoundrels, outlaws and pop-star pretty boys rule over country music for most of his lifetime, but he sounds determined to go out the same gentlemanly crooner he's always been, the picture of stoicism to the last.

Price, who celebrated his 87th birthday Saturday night at Stafford Centre (there was even a backstage party after the show), revealed he had pancreatic cancer in November of last year.

"The doctor said that every man will have cancer if he lives to be old enough," the northeast Texas native told the San Antonio Express-News when news of his condition broke. "I don't know why I got it -- I ain't old."

Price opted out of the complicated surgery that would have wiped out most of his GI tract -- after all, he's got things to do. In fact, as he told Rocks Off last month, he's got a new album coming out this year. It's called Love Songs, and the selection he featured Saturday, Marty Robbins's "Among My Souvenirs," carried a whiff of one of Frank Sinatra's wee-small-hours ballads in its acoustic-guitar highlights.

As befitting every 87-year-old man still out there on tour every night (such as, say, B.B. King), Price moved very little Saturday, walking out under his own power, sitting on a stool and pausing for sips of water between most songs. The impression I got was how still his songs made everything sound, how empty they made the room seem even though it was a full house, and how few modern lyricists could come up with a simple yet profound line like "In my heart, the leaves are falling." (That's Cam Mullins and Carolyn Jean Yates on Price's 1971 No. 1 "I Won't Mention It Again.")

Led by an expert fiddler and an ace steel guitarist, gussied up with some of Fort Bend County's finest string players, Price's band the Cherokee Cowboys had to be careful not to overplay; songs like "Night Life" and "For the Good Times," that speak of such fragility and despair, need room to breathe. (Or wallow.) But the ensemble's talents were just as well-suited to the "Ray Price shuffle" that he practically patented, on toe-tapping honky-tonk tunes like "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches By the Number" and "City Lights" that set the future tempo for folks like Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam.

Saturday Price made sure to give a shout-out to the Good Lord and his doctors at M.D. Anderson, and told a couple of salty stories that brought on big laughs, but did not flub one lyric. Unlike some of his few still remaining peers such as George Jones and Haggard, he needed no cue cards or TelePrompTer.

His smoky baritone, like a good mellow scotch aged to perfection, broke exactly once, on a crescendo during the climax of "Make the World Go Away." It brought on a standing ovation.

Younger readers may not even recognize titles like "Please Release Me," "A Way to Survive" or "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." What a pity that is. Because on a weekend a Houston commercial country station rebranded itself to promise "less twang, more bang," Price's songs were a reminder that there has always been more to country music than twang, but that once heartaches could be downright elegant.

But never again, most likely.

Personal Bias: I'm not going to say "bucket list," but I had never seen Price.

The Crowd: The only people remotely close to our age was one of the Stafford PD officers working security, who looked bemused. Famous former TV sawbones Dr. Red Duke was a couple of rows behind us.

Overheard In the Crowd: Quite a bit of hooting and hollering for such a bunch of silver foxes.

Random Notebook Dump: God bless him, Price does not have a Web site; www.rayprice.com takes you to a motorcycle dealership in Raleigh, North Carolina. On Twitter, the account at @rayprice last tweeted "even so horny you can motor boat a car bra" on January 2. Instead it seems Price has taken to Facebook, sharing regular updates with his some 2,200 fans and signing them all. On December 28, he posted a picture of his brand-new John Deere tractor.

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