Another of the great country legends has traveled to the great honky tonk in the sky. Today, Ray Price doesn’t have the cache of Cash, Nelson, Haggard, or Williams. But like George Jones, his influence within the genre of country music was titanic, even if it traveled less to the broader musical culture. Check this out from his obituary in the Times:
Over a career that began in the 1940s, Mr. Price placed more than 100 singles on the country charts, including Top 10 hits like “City Lights,” “Heartaches by the Number” and “Make the World Go Away.” He hired future country stars to play in his band, notably Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck. And Pamper Music, the publishing company that he owned with two partners, helped start the careers of hit songwriters like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran and Mr. Nelson.
He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Mr. Price first helped change country music in the mid-1950s, when, hoping to distinguish his sound from that of his former roommate Hank Williams, he and his band transformed the gutbucket country shuffle of the postwar era into sleek, propulsive honky-tonk.
That’s a pretty bloody impressive resume. Among the other people in the Cherokee Cowboys was a young fiddler named Mark Feldman, now a legend of his own on the avant-garde jazz scene in New York. I’ve always found this fascinating given how little his own music is influenced by his years in Nashville.
Part of the reason I suppose Price’s legend is less well known was his choice to keep selling records by transitioning into the countrypolitan sound in the late 60s. That smoothness doesn’t sing to modern hip audiences who like their country, which is defined against the garbage coming out of Nashville today, as something rough, manly, slightly violent. Lots of songs about prison, murder, drinking, etc. And that’s fine. But not only is not all of country music, it leaves out a lot of really talented people who get relegated to “the country music I don’t like even if I’ve never heard Ray Price/Faron Young/Jim Reeves/Hank Snow/Etc” category.
Another key point to Price’s legacy was the release of his Night Life album in 1963. We’ve talked before here about the failure of the country music establishment to understand the potential of the album format, and thus you’d have all these people releasing 4 albums a year, each consisting of 2 good songs, a bunch of lame covers of current pop hits, and some real dreck. Night Life was one of the first real thought out albums in country music history. It’s also a masterpiece of the genre. The great Austin musician Dale Watson calls Night Life his all-time favorite album, and it certainly deserves consideration for the honor. Here’s a couple key tracks off the album. First, we have the title track, “Night Life.”
And then we have “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women”
But of course his legacy includes dozens of other hits. One is “City Lights.” This is a live performance from 1962.
And finally an example from his countrypolitan period, doing a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” which Price has called his favorite recording of his career.