“…during the rockabilly and early country-pop years Price almost single handedly kept the hard country torch aflame and, in so doing, virtually created an industry of musicians who either wrote or played for him.” -- Bill Malone
“Ray Price is a man of singular and enduring artistic vision whose role as an architect and savior of country music is too little appreciated,” said Museum Director Kyle Young. “The ‘Ray Price beat’ is elemental. Without it, country music would certainly be incomplete. He is a central figure in the 20th Century history of American popular music.”
Following a tour of duty in the U. S. Marines during World War II, Price aimed for a veterinary career and enrolled at North Texas Agricultural College. Supplementing his formal education with a little nightlife singing in a local establishment, and with encouragement from Dallas recording entrepreneur Jim Beck, the young Texan made his first record, “Jealous Lies,” for the Bullet label in January1950.
His singing on Dallas radio programs earned the notice of Troy Martin, an executive at the powerful publishing house Peer-Southern Music, who guided him to a contract with Columbia Records in 1951. His first Columbia release, “If You’re Ever Lonely, Darling,” written by his chart-topping label mate Lefty Frizzell, didn’t make any money and failed to chart.
In the fall of 195l, Hank Williams took Price with him on tour and wrote a song, “Weary Blues (From Waiting),” which he gave to his new pal to record. The song did well enough to garner Price an invitation to join the Grand Ole Opry in January 1952. When Price moved to Nashville the same year, he and Williams roomed together. Williams let Price use his band, the Drifting Cowboys, which is part of the reason Price’s recordings sounded so much like Williams’ for a few years.
However, Price wasn’t just any Hank Williams sound alike. Blessed with a drop-dead tenor voice and an eagle eye for great songs, the balladeer delivered two Top Five country hits for Columbia in 1952: “Talk to Your Heart” and “Don’t Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes,” (which would later become a #l pop hit for Perry Como). He returned to the Top Five again in March 1954 with “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me).” Though “I’ll Be There” continued to shadow Hank and Lefty, Price was clearly showing signs of his own musical coming of age.
With his recording of “Release Me,” a 1954 Top Ten, Price further framed his soon-to-be-signature sound by adding session musicians like guitarist Grady Martin to a core group of Drifting Cowboys, embroidering his usual honky-tonk style with threads of western swing
In 1956, as Price began to enjoy success with his personally branded honky-tonk, rockabilly cats like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were suddenly jitterbugging past superstars like Eddy Arnold and Red Foley to dominate the upper echelons of the country music charts and to preside over what looked to be the death of traditional country music. Some country stars began to emulate the rockabilly sound, but Price had already learned the limitations of imitation. Instead, when he and his band, the Cherokee Cowboys, entered the studio in March 1956 to cut “Crazy Arms,” they created a new sound, incorporating both an acoustic and an electric bass to lay down a 4/4, dance-friendly shuffle rhythm that worked like an Evinrude behind Price’s imposing tenor and harmonized choruses. The sound became known as “the Ray Price beat,” and it catapulted honky-tonk high enough and far enough to land and endure in the 21st century. “Crazy Arms” neatly knocked Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” off its #l aerie and remained in the top slot for twenty weeks.
Fledgling honky-tonker Price was now a fully feathered star, who helped give wing to the careers of others. At various times, the Cherokee Cowboys included Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck (known then as Donnie Young), Johnny Bush, Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons, among others. He championed talented songwriters like Bill Anderson, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Roger Miller, Mel Tillis, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
Price’s 1959 Top Five recording of Howard’s “Heartaches by the Number” helped establish the young writer’s professional credentials, while his 1958 #l hit-and-runner “City Lights” did the same for Anderson. “City Lights,” which memorializes the alienation of countless rural southerners who abandoned dirt farms for factory work in the industrial states in the ’50s, is a clear example of the special way country records document American history.
By the early ’60s, Price was edging toward a more polished, uptown sound, which reached full flower with his acutely emotional 1967 interpretation of the Irish standard “Danny Boy.” The recording found its way to the country Top Ten, but many disc jockeys rejected it as a pop-oriented “sell-out.” Done with a full orchestra, the song alienated many Price fans, but it won him new devotees as well.
Price returned to the top of the country chart in 1970 with Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” The song also went to #11 on the pop chart, and was Kristofferson’s first #1 country hit. “For the Good Times” modernized country lyrics for a new generation and united Price’s early fans with new ones. The recording merited recognition as the Academy of Country Music’s l970 Single and Song of the Year and won a 1970 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The For the Good Times album, on Columbia, garnered the ACM’s Album of the Year accolade. In 1971, the Country Music Association voted Price’s I Won’t Mention It Again Album of the Year. The title song followed “For the Good Times” to the top of the country chart.
Between 1952 and 1989, Price scored a whopping 108 chart hits including eight chart-toppers and two dozen Top Five classics.
Price’s recordings for various labels since the 1970s have included the critically acclaimed Time in 2002 and Run That by Me One More Time, a collection of duets with Willie Nelson, in 2003. In 2003, the Academy of Country Music presented the versatile singer with the Pioneer Award.
Price’s membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame is deserved recognition for a man who has used remarkable resources of talent, will and taste for the betterment of the genre. Well before his recordings evolved from the barroom to the showroom, the versatile Price was making music that borrowed from jazz, blues, pop and rock. His innovative honky-tonk beat, designed for roadhouses located a long way from church, and the often-criticized strings that helped to carry his story songs heavenward, attracted new audiences to country music and have become staples of modern country.
His hits helped draw pop stars to the song catalogs represented by Nashville publishers, and his recording career is synonymous with the rise of Nashville as a recording center. Many of those he helped along the way, including his longtime producer Don Law, are now themselves members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Like his voice and his ear for powerful songs, his skill as a bandleader and his will to make music the Ray Noble Price way is undiminished.
Price still regards Nashville and its music industry as a key part of his career. He continues to travel here to record, valuing the players who live here and the studios available here.
Earlier this year, Price told CMT.com columnist Chet Flippo that he wanted to be remembered as “the best damn singer ever.” Ray Price: The Cherokee Cowboy will be another step in that direction.