Before there was Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, there was Ray Price. The Country Music Hall of Famer who bridged Texas honkey tonk and country crooning has died after a 25-month bout with pancreatic cancer.
Michael McCall with Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum says Price’s name may not be on the tip of people’s tongues, but his influence certainly remains in their ears.
“I think anybody who sings a honkey tonk song has a little Ray Price in them. But also anybody who can stand in front of an orchestra and really open up and sing has some Ray Price in them,” McCall said.
Before Ray Price, honky tonk tunes weren’t big sellers. Then “Crazy Arms” shot to number one in 1956. Its shuffling beat became a hallmark of the golden age of Texas honky tonk.
The song was Price’s first number one hit and has since been covered by Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson.
Price eventually tired of playing dance hall gigs for rough crowds. He prodded producers in Nashville to come up with a way to broaden country’s audience.
“They had to do something to kind of fix it where the people that listened to the Tony Bennetts and the Frank Sinatras and those people would like the music,” he told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1999. “Country music songs are great. I think they’re beautiful songs. You put the strings with them, that’s my idea of how to make one really great song.”
Price became part of a second shift in country music. The single honky tonk fiddle swelled into an entire string section. The polished production – which had its detractors – would become known as the “Nashville Sound.”
“For the Good Times” was one of those string-backed songs, written by Kris Kristofferson, who called Price the link from Hank Williams to the country music of today.
Price and Williams became pals after being put in a kind of forced friendship. Price was hand picked to be Williams’ caretaker on the road and even stand in when the older singer was too drunk to perform, like one New Years Day.
“I didn’t know what to do. They come running in said you’ve got to take Hank’s place,” Price recalled on Fresh Air. “And here I was, nobody even knew who I was. And I said there’s no way I can do that. But they put me out there with Hank’s band, and we made it alright.”
Price would start his own touring band called the Cherokee Cowboys. It had quite the roster. At one point Willie Nelson played bass. Roger Miller – who went on to fame with “King of the Road” – auditioned on fiddle.
“His fiddle playing was terrible,” Price said. “And when he got through, he said how’d you like that? I said, well can you sing and play guitar?”
Roger Miller would ultimately join the band. Johnny Bush played drums.
“We hit that bandstand swinging, and we loved [Price] for that,” Bush said from his Texas home.
Bush says Price wanted the best musicians, and he let them share the spotlight.
“They had a lot of respect for Ray, like everybody else does,” he said. “There’s no better country singer in the world than Ray Price, and I don’t know if there ever will be.”
Price’s singing won him fans around the country.
Sandra Orwig of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was president of the Ray Price fan club for more than half a century. She committed to be loyal until death.
Struggle For Recognition
“I was just so enthralled with the man,” Orwig said. “I just thought he was the greatest thing since peanut butter.”
But Orwig and other devoted followers feel Price never got the love of a George Jones or Merle Haggard.
“I never knew what the problem was, why he did not get the recognition that a lot of them did, and he sang so much better,” Orwig said. “I never thought I’d see the day that you didn’t hear Ray Price everywhere you went.”
Long after his own music was off the radio, the singer and songwriter was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Not one to overstate his own significance, Price was once asked what changed after he hit it big.
“Well, I got to eat pretty regular,” he said.
Price maintained his blue-collar work ethic until the end, performing even as he endured aggressive cancer treatment.
He was sent home to his ranch near Mount Pleasant, Texas just last week after deciding to begin receiving hospice care.