NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Ladies and Gentlemen: Ray Price

One of the Greatest Is Still As Great As Ever

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

One of the best things about the remarkable evening that was the medallion ceremony last Sunday (May 1) at the Country Music Hall of Fame was Ray Price’s appearance and performance.

The entire night was the kind of stardust-sprinkled event that country music now and then can dazzle with. The observance of the Hall of Fame’s induction of singer and songwriter Kris Kristofferson and music executive Jim Foglesong brought out a galaxy of country stars and Hall of Fame members and lured Garth Brooks out of retirement to sing a heartfelt rendition of “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” The evening also featured a wide range of artists ranging from the Oak Ridge Boys to Billy Joe Shaver to John Prine to Vince Gill and Cowboy Jack Clement.

But for me, the shining moment came with the appearance of a genuine architect of modern country music and one of its most unheralded stars. Ray Price, who will be 80 next January, sang a very moving and strong rendition of his hit recording of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and later returned to deliver an unscripted and genuine tribute to Kris as he welcomed him into the Hall of Fame.

I was fortunate to be able to sit down with Price a couple of days later and talk about things with him. His voice is still powerful and little has changed from the warm baritone that enchanted audiences more than five decades ago. When I asked him how he’s kept the staying power of his great voice over all these years, Price jokingly says, “Good drugs, I guess. No, I’m just lucky. It’s God’s blessing. I guess I’m just one of God’s chosen.”

He’s the only artist who has twice changed the future of country music, first with the introduction of his powerful and still influential “Ray Price Beat” — or 4/4 shuffle — with his huge hit “Crazy Arms” and later with his embrace of the smooth Nashville Sound, peaking with “For the Good Times.”

He tutored with the great Lefty Frizzell in the early ’50s, then roomed with Hank Williams — filling in for him onstage when Hank was too drunk or sick to play the gig — and then inherited Hank’s Drifting Cowboys band after Hank’s untimely death.

“That was a terrible ordeal, I will tell you that now,” Price says. “To have to fill in for Hank Williams onstage — he was the biggest damn thing in the country. I was young and had only one or two records out, and no one knew who I was. It was unreal. They’d come to me and say, ’You got to do it. Hank ain’t gonna make it tonight.’ I said, ’My God!. What am I gonna do?’ The first time I went on tour with Hank was in ’52, January. New Year’s Day, we were in Norfolk, Va., and Hank was in his cups. Hank did drink a little bit. So Hank didn’t make the show. Johnnie & Jack and Kitty Wells had already gone on. The Drifting Cowboys came to me and said, ’You got to take Hank’s place.’ So I go out on stage, and I don’t even know what key to sing in! And I chose a song I had recorded called ’I Made a Mistake and I’m Sorry’ and started singing it — but in too high a key. About halfway into it, I stopped and hollered, ’I’m just too damn high!’ And the people flipped. They loved me after that. I could do anything after that.”

After he dropped the Drifting Cowboys (“I was starting to sound too much like Hank,” he says) and formed the Cherokee Cowboys, Price hired and nurtured such band members and future country music stars as Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush.

He first shifted country music’s future when the genre was near death, due to the direct attack in the mid-1950’s by the rise of rock ’n’ roll. Country music was down to maybe 17 radio stations nationally, says Price. “I joked about it with Elvis Presley at the time, who was a good friend, about saving country music,” he says. “But in looking back, I think it’s true.” His 1956 release of “Crazy Arms,” with its pioneering use of drums in country and an arrangement with both electric bass and acoustic bass to boost the beat, was an enormous hit, energized country music and remains a country staple to this day.

Price says the idea for the shuffle beat came to him indirectly. “I was playing dances,” he explains. “If you stop the music for a moment you could hear the feet shuffling. That sound intrigued me. I went to [drummer] Buddy Harman and said, ’Can you play a shuffle beat?’ He said, ’Yeah, I believe I can.’ And at the time, we were having trouble getting the 4/4 bass where you could hear it. So I had the two basses [electric and acoustic] just driving the living shit out of the bass. And that cut it. That’s how that started.”

Many years later, “Danny Boy” in 1967 and “For the Good Times” in 1970 represented another bellwether shift in country music’s direction. Price became the poster child for Nashville’s shift to the “Nashville Sound,” a change to a smoother pop sound.

“They battered me for that,” Price says, shaking his head with the memory of those days. “They butchered my ass. People were running me down everywhere — for deserting country music, for ’going pop.'” He says his reply was a show of defiance: He hired a 22-piece orchestra and took his new sound on the road and was successful. “I went all over the damn country with that 22-piece orchestra. Scared the crap out of everybody.”

He’s still a man looking forward, rather than back. He’s now working on a new project, a concept album. He came to Nashville for the medallion ceremony, he says, “For Kris. I wanted Kris to hear his music. And Kris heard his music that night. People have called me a romantic. Maybe I am. I’ve had some hard times here in Nashville, and I’ve had some ill feelings about certain things. I’m too blunt-spoken, I’m afraid, and age has made me worse at that. I see a lot of things happening to my kind of music I don’t like. But this trip was different. I’m thankful I came. I see an inkling of the past coming in strong around country music now. It’s beginning to reverse itself. And I’m happy to make a prediction: They’ve tried to, but they can’t kill it! That’s the God’s truth. And I’m gonna hang in there till hell freezes over, singing country music.”

And what does he want his legacy to be, I wondered.

“Best damn singer around. That’s all I want.”