NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Ray Price’s Career Above the Fray

New Hall of Fame Exhibit Honors a True Legend

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

Ray Price is the missing link in today’s country music. He connects the rootsy honky-tonk Hank Williams era of the mid-20th century to modern-day country. And the fact that he’s still going strong and singing so well at age 80 is cause for celebration. So, it’s a marvelous thing that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville is honoring him with a new exhibit, For the Good Times: The Ray Price Story. It opens Friday (Aug. 4) and will remain in place until June of 2007.

He was once characterized as having the “best bedroom eyes in country music.” But, Price is — along with Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Harlan Howard and others — one of the major innovators of modern country music. If for nothing else (and there are many other things), he will be celebrated for developing the 4/4 shuffle beat, which came to be known as the Ray Price Beat and which continues to permeate country music. He began toying with it in his 1956 breakthrough single, “Crazy Arms,” with Buddy Killen’s 4/4 bass line introducing a new wrinkle into country musicality.

As his new tribute exhibit in the Hall of Fame graphically shows, he has been a giant throughout decades of the ebbs and flows of country trends and changes.

Mick Buck, curator of collections for the Hall of Fame and Museum, led me on a tour and explained that the exhibit pretty much leads the visitor through a walking tour of Price’s life, with memorable mementoes and numerous audio and video clips illustrating those chapters. His recording and performing career, as Buck said, went through three major phases: living in Hank’s shadow, breaking free of that with the Ray Price Beat (also called the Ray Price Shuffle) and the modern, often called “extreme” era, emphasizing lush arrangements and use of a string section on such songs as “Danny Boy.”

Price was born barely two and a-half years after Hank Williams’ birth and was a true musical contemporary and friend to Hank. The latter wrote “Weary Blues (From Waiting)” and gave it to Price to record. Its success got Price onto the Grand Ole Opry in 1952 (as well as a temporary arrangement of sharing an apartment with Hank, who was between wives). Williams was on a downward spiral and died a few months later. And Ray is still going strong, while Hank is many decades cold in the grave.

For the next several years, Price was virtually singing in Hank’s voice and living in Hank’s shadow. He finally emerged by inventing modern honky-tonk with “Crazy Arms.” Then, he emerged with a lush, classical ballad sound. Though Price’s last Top 10 hit came in 1981, he has remained in demand as a performer. Throughout his long career, he has maintained a remarkable and admirable equanimity.

Price was often called “a writer’s best friend,” for he found and nurtured such songwriters as Willie Nelson (whose “Night Life” Price cut), Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”), Bill Anderson (“City Lights”) and Harlan Howard (“Heartaches by the Number”). He did the same with his touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys, of whom he demanded the highest standards. His sidemen included Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck.

At the height of his marquee popularity, he was a walking billboard for the best of the Nudie suits, the flashy, flamboyant, often-sequined stage outfits fashioned by Nudie of Hollywood, and later made by Manuel of Nashville. Price’s Nudie suits were always in good taste but still showy. Most of them sported a Native American theme, befitting his Cherokee Cowboy identity.

One thing that has always stood out to me is this: the man has always comported himself with great style and dignity and musical integrity. The same cannot be said about many country music stars. Or, indeed, about many music stars, period. Over the years, Price has always paid the highest attention to the musicianship of his band and to the material he records. He still does so today. And, as a result, his recordings and his concerts shine with a brilliance echoing decades of careful, learned experience.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you, Ray Price.