The time is right for Ray Price

Tom Netherland, September 2002

TTime was when country was country, and that was that. No arguments, no debate, no doubt. Steel guitars wept as beer joint junkies cried in their beer. Style was in. Hank Williams and Carl Smith and Webb Pierce and Ray Price sang like no other.

Time marches on. The Drifting Cowboy drifted on, Webb's gone, and Mr. Tunesmith retired years ago. Yet, the Cherokee Cowboy thrives.

Time was when Price, the king of the country shuffle, was as hard core country as anyone. Though he never ditched the sound entirely on the road, on record it's been mostly missing for nearly 40 years.

Until now.

With "Time" (Audium), Price recaptures the style that spread his sound through many a country home over the past 50 years.

"Nick Hunter (the head of Audium), when we made the deal for the record, I asked him what he wanted, and he said he wanted a pure country album," Price, 76, says by phone from his Mt. Pleasant, Texas home.

"I think everybody thought I didn't know how to do that anymore. So, thank goodness most all of us are still alive. My friend, Fred Foster, produced it, and I told him what musicians I wanted. Fortunate for me, we're friends enough that they all decided that we could get together and do it, and we did."

Price, whose famed Cherokee Cowboys band has included such names as Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush and the late Jimmy Day, also embarked upon his latest with all-star support. Buddy Harmon, country's most recorded musician of all time, slaps the skins. Buddy Emmons offers still strong steel guitar. Pete Wade, Jimmy Capps and Harold Bradley play guitar, while Bob Moore plays bass like only Bob Moore could.

The result: an album that hearkens to the late 1950s.

"Oh, they are great players," Price says. "Of course, Buddy Harmon was on the session of 'Crazy Arms' when we did the first shuffle record (back) when I told him what I wanted, and he come up with it. He's just like a rock; the way it starts is the way it ends. And, of course, Buddy Emmons - not knocking any other steel players - is the greatest steel player in the business. Buddy seems to have something really special."

Recorded live sans studio razzmatazz - i.e. computers, samples, drum machines and vocals tweaks - Price approached this one with the idea of getting it done and getting it done quickly. In short, there's no wasted time. Hank Williams did not require multimillion dollar recording budgets and months to make classic records, and neither does his one-time protˇgˇ.

Consequently, "Time" offers a more "real" sound, a warm feeling that creates a bond with whomever listens.

"Well, first of all when you do it live you capture something on record ' that you can't get piecemeal," Price says. "If you can stir the players up to where they're really into it and enjoying what they're doing, you're gonna get a good record if the songs are good. I knew that. I've been screamin' that for years: 'You're doin' it wrong.' You're really cheatin' the act, and you're cheatin' the musicians because there's no way you can get a little excitement going (otherwise), and you've got to have that if you have a great record. That's the way I want to record."

Back to style. Ray Price forged his career on iron strong country. Songs such as 1956's "I've Got A New Heartache" and 1959's "Heartaches By The Number" featured his commanding voice out front a fiddle and steel mix that came to be called the country shuffle.

Ever the stylist, Price came along when singers were expected to make their own mark, not copy from each other. Learn what the other guy does, then go out and do it your way.

Additionally, image played a large part in the making of a music career. Long before today's video-conscience warblers, country singers crafted images for themselves that at least visually separated themselves from those who paid to see them.

Why pay dearly to see someone who dresses just like you?Enter Nudie Cohn's rainbow-colored rhinestone suits, Nudie suits. Most every country singer of the 1950s wore them, from Webb Pierce to T. Texas Tyler to Faron Young.

And of course, Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys.

"I liked 'em a whole lot except they'd almost get me in a fight a lot of times with some redneck," Price says. "They weighed 16 pounds; they'd burn you up. I never wanted to wear rhinestones until I'd be on some shows with the Wilburn Brothers. They'd come out with rhinestone suits, and the crowd would just go wild, so I thought, 'hmm, maybe I ought to do something.' Nudie and I were friends. I told him what I wanted, and he did it, and it worked out great. The first night I wore one of them on the Grand Ole Opry, I got a full picture in color in Life magazine."

Such exposure - and with songs such as the 1956 country song of the year, "Crazy Arms" - helped make Price a superstar. Hits flowed like wine from a drunkard's bottle. 1957's "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You" led to 1958's "Curtain in the Window" which preceded "City Lights." Jukebox operators loved the money his music generated; honky-tonkers just loved what he said and how he said the things he said.

Yet, by the early 1960s, his sound was adopted by a slew of other singers. So Price changed gradually. With 1967's "Danny Boy," the change was mostly complete. No longer a member of the Opry, Price gradually started turning up on such television programs as "The Tonight Show."

Gone, too, were his orange, Indian headdress-laden Nudie suits.

Still, perhaps unbeknownst to many country fans, Price really never ditched his earlier, groundbreaking style. Though his records featured strings and lush productions, Price featured the country shuffle sound during most of his concerts.

"I do it every night at my shows. We try to do exactly like we did all through the years when they said I wasn't country anymore, yet I was up there doing the same thing I was doing on records," Price says. "A lot of the disc jockeys got upset with me when I did 'Danny Boy,' and it's real strange because for about three years I always closed the Columbia show at the Disc Jockey Convention with 'Danny Boy,' and all of the disc jockeys were screaming to record it. So, I did, and they said I left country. It gave 'em somethin' to talk about anyway."

Following "Danny Boy," Price hit huge in 1970 with his rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," yet only reached number 1 on Billboard's country singles chart 3 more times.

Columbia Records, his label of more than two decades, befuddled industry insiders when it dropped him in 1974 despite still decent album and singles sales.

Just as back then, Price looks about him and sees work yet to be done. Even though he's a Country Music Hall of Fame member, even though he's long been classified a legend, Price has some points to make.

"I still want to stir up somethin'. I think it's time somebody did something," he says. "Of course, I'm just tickled to death with (this album)."

In short, Price has not lost "it."

"Nooo. The only thing I've lost is when a fella at Columbia Records - and I'm not gonna mention his name - blacklisted me, and I couldn't get a record label for anything. They do do those things."

Yet, while the Nashville clueless deceives otherwise ignorant or indifferent fans with pop-plastered garbage can fodder, Price offers an alternative. He comes bearing the real thing. Though quite welcome, his music does not cater to pre-teens or soccer moms. Price's music's made for those who have lived and yet live to live some more.

However, all the talent from God's graces won't make music go without a song. Price sought the best from the best.

"I just started talkin' to my favorite writers and the people who knew how to write a country song," Price says. "Everything was set except for two songs when Max D. Barnes came into the studio while we was recordin', and he played 'Time' for me and the other song we got in there ("No One But You"), and I told him right on the spot that we'd take those. I think 'Time' is gonna be a terrific record."

With such lines as "time is life a thief in the jungle," how could he have said no? "That (song) accounts for all of us," Price says. "Whether you want to or not, you've got to admit that it's getting us. One of the fellas, a real good friend of mine that wrote that song 'If It's All the Same to You,' is one of the top horsemen in the thoroughbred business, Arthur Hancock. He's won the Derby four times. He was in the studio when I did 'Time.' A little later he said, 'Man, when you sang that it scared the hell out of me.'"

Friends, now that's country music for you. Food for souls hungry for substance, meaty matter such as Cindy Walker's three tunes on "Time" will fill the plates of even the most famished serious country connoisseur.

"She's got it. I did two new songs that she had, 'Ft. Worth, Texas' and 'Don't You Go Loving Nobody Else,' and then I did one that Hank Snow had years ago, 'Next Voice You Hear.'"

So goes the pull of the mighty. Just as words bear reverent tones when Hank Williams' name passes knowing lips, Price too commands attention.

"I'm trying to prove something," Price says.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •