David Cantwell (c) 2013, Slate
He was not nearly so famous as George Jones, who himself died this past April, and the only surviving country artists who merit mention alongside him (Dolly, Loretta, Merle, Willie, Dr. Ralph) are all famous enough to be on a first-name basis with most of the U.S. Country fans of a certain age, though — and fans of all ages and genres with ears enough to hear — already know: Ray Price, who died today in Mount Pleasant, Texas, at age 87, was country music’s greatest crooner. He was the country singer’s country singer.
That was true whether Price was leaning hard into the hardest honky-tonk there is, as he did during the 1950s; or if he was gliding easily, then soaring madly, atop bejeweled country-pop ballads as he took to doing in the late 1960s and ’70s; or if he was swinging (always swinging) back and forth between those poles, often in the same number, as he did to perfection in halls big and small over the past 40 years.
Price’s most famous recording — a signature number he discovered two decades into an already legendary career — was the lush and lonely “For the Good Times.” He took that deceptively romantic Kris Kristofferson song to the top of the country charts, and to no. 11 on the pop charts, in 1970. But his career contained dozens of equally powerful performances. For those interested in a longer take on Price’s career, I’ve written an obituary and tribute that you can find at Engine145 (http://www.engine145.com/ray-price-1926-2013/), but here’s a 10-track playlist to trace the several stages of his singular style over a remarkable 60-year career.
“Weary Blues from Waiting” (1951)
Plenty of country singers are indebted to Hank Williams for their style, but few as much as Ray Price was at the dawn of his career. Ray didn’t just sing like Hank. He was his roommate, filled in on stage when Williams was too drunk to perform, and even briefly inherited the Drifting Cowboys, the doomed singer’s band. “Weary Blues,” a song written by Williams especially for his friend, is a highpoint from the initial, Hank-mimicking phase of Price’s career.
“Release Me” (1954)
This is where Price began to invent a style of his own, goosing his take on Hank’s sound with hot touches of western swing that made his honky-tonk scoot and stand out. He sings more loosely here, too, sounds less pinched, his voice warmer and deeper, and is now more likely to sustain a note rather than to twist or clip it short — he even hints in a few spots at the warm but husky vibrato that became his shuddering vocal signature.
“Crazy Arms” (1956)
Today, “Crazy Arms” stands as the epitome of an old-school honky-tonk shuffle — and as an exemplar of traditional C&W generally. Back in the day, however, it was cutting edge, its propulsive 4/4 rhythm a crowd-moving novelty that helped Price top the charts for 20 weeks in 1956, a country music year otherwise dominated by rockabillies like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Price is all quivering agony here, his voice trembling as crazily as his flailing empty arms.
“City Lights” (1958)
Bill Anderson’s lost and lonely ballad is a first rate song, and the single’s Nashville Sound production — plenty of echo, keening backup vocals — would likely have made this a winner no matter who took the lead. It is Price’s haunting vocal, though, that transforms “City Lights” into a three-minute monument to urban alienation. Price paces and sighs his way through every line, anxious and resigned at once. He threatens at every turn to burst into sobs, yet, typical of his approach, he never does — because a crooner’s most subtly devastating tool is always the implied rather than the expressed. And because, anyway, what good are tears?
“Heartaches by the Number” (1959)
Price was a keen talent scout and band leader throughout his career: Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush and Willie Nelson all did stints in his band, the Cherokee Cowboys. He was also, naturally enough, an early adopter of Nelson’s and Miller’s songwriting, and was among the first to record hits by such future songwriting legends as Mel Tillis, Kris Kristofferson, and the man behind “Heartaches by the Number,” Harlan Howard. Track Ray’s vocal here and the record is bitter and broken; focus on his band, playing what became known as the Ray Price Beat, and it’s a party record, pure and simple. Take in both voice and sound at once, and you have a masterful example of counting off your troubles, then dancing all over them.
“Make the World Go Away” and “Night Life” (1963)
These two records are seemingly as different as country records could be. “Make the World Go Away,” written by Hank Cochran, is earnest to a fault, full of swollen and swirling strings and backed by a mocking countrypolitan chorus. “Night Life,” meanwhile, by Willie Nelson, is ironic and smoky, bluesy and twangy and slathered in Buddy Emmons’ jazzy pedal steel guitar licks.
Yet these recordings were paired on the same two-sided hit single, and the slowly swinging rhythm remains nearly the same, track to track — as does Price’s croon, which on each number tries exceedingly hard to stay easy and detached, and fails. This one-two punch is as concise an argument as Price ever made that whether his voice was framed by fiddles or strings, rhinestone suits or Tuxedos, country or pop, it was all the same to him.
“Danny Boy” (1967)
Performing with an orchestra, Price tackled this hoary old neo-Irish folk ballad in the late ’60s, riding its epic lilt to some place where its story at last gives way to pure sound, pure melody, pure voice. It’s a truly amazing performance (albeit one that had some fans complaining that their honky-tonk hero had forsaken them for pop).
“For the Good Times” (1970)
“Don’t look so sad” is how Kristofferson’s song begins. Every time Price sings the line, you wonder anew just what it is he’s done to make his lover give him that look. “Make believe you love me,” he purrs, then pauses ever so slightly before adding, “one more time.” And that’s how Price lets us know the reason her eyes have filled with tears. She’s remembering all those nights when making believe was precisely what she had to do.
“In My Life” (2000)
Never much of a songwriter, Price knew great songs when he heard them. His real talent, though, when covering songs already made famous by others, was in never letting on that he was interpreting a lyric or obviously reshaping a familiar melody. Listen to Price sing this beloved and indelible Beatles song, from his late-in-life “Prisoner of Love” album, and it will just seem as if this way of singing the song, his way of singing it, is the only way the song could be or has ever been sung. Ray Price just sings the song, effortlessly, honestly. The effect, always, is that you can’t help but attend his every word.
Cantwell is the author of “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind and co-author of Heartaches by the Number.”