Ray Price, Country Boy Life in East Texas
Ray Price Balances World Travel with East Texas Country Boy Life
At the age of 86, country music legend Ray Price still spends a lot of time on the road going to a seemingly endless series of gigs and then home again to the Northeast Texas farm where he’s learned to slow down — just a bit — and to pay real attention to the “country boy” life.
In a career that dates back to 1948, the Country Music Hall of Fame crooner and two-time Grammy winner has charted 150 or so songs including such classics as “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” “Heartaches by the Number,” “City Lights,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” “For the Good Times,” “Night Life,” “I Won’t Mention It Again”, “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and “Danny Boy.”
His influence on country music is undeniable, first keeping the country in the sound and then introducing sometimes lush strings to the genre.
The former World War II Marine beat a well publicized cancer scare in 2009, and is coping today — at an age when most people are long retired – with various accumulations of the years by doing what he does best — performing — and stopping from time to time to smell the roses.
His schedule is as full as he can make it.
“Starting off this year was kinda tough, maybe one or two shows a month,” he said. “Now I’m beginning to do five or 10, and later in the year it will probably be 30 or 40 shows every couple of months.”
Ray made time recently to do an interview riding on the band bus toward New Mexico, where he had a Thursday night gig at Mountain Inn of the Gods in Mescalero, Friday night at Boulder Station in Las Vegas, and Saturday night at Cactus Pete’s in Jackpot, Nevada. A week later, he was due at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and then the American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
And, he’s planning to record a new album to join the more than 60 already on his resume.
“We’re getting ready to record in June, and I’m working on songs right now,” he said. “I’ve already got a producer and some really great songs that I’m excited about. A lot of people just try to put a big hit or two on an album, but I always try to put as many good songs on an album as I can. I like to be able to sit down and listen to the whole thing.”
Ray is not ready to say for sure which songs will be on the album, but he’s pretty sure one will be about a dog and he hopes it will bring tears to listeners’ eyes.
That song comes, at least partially, from his experiences at the farm he shares with his wife, Janie, near Mount Pleasant where he likes to fish when he gets a nice day.
“I’m a country boy. I raise pigeons and horses, chickens, and quite a few dogs,” he said. “My wife and I try to give homes to those throwaway dogs.
“It’s enjoyable to sit down and rest long enough to really see, not just glance at what’s around you but to let it penetrate you. You’d be surprised what’s going on around your world; it can blow you away. When you sit and watch an animal, he has a way of talking to you — dogs, horses, maybe even cows — and they find a way of getting with you if you let them. Once that happens, you’ll find a feeling of kinship that’s just almost unreal, and that’s when you start loving your animals, and they will return it.”
The dog song planned for the new album is “Collar on the Nail” and, yes, it’s about a dog that died.
“It will blow your mind away,” Ray said. “I’ve always sang love songs and ballads, but this one may be a little different for me. A cheating song’s alright, but a love song will last forever. As long as somebody is in love, they will like love songs — pretty songs that talk about broken love. Now I’m going to do one about a dog.”
Ray still enjoys performing and finding new challenges in the songs.
“I love what I’m doing. I finally admitted to myself that I really do,” he said. “At one time it was just a job, but at the same time I enjoyed it. I might have been lying to myself, but I did. I always tried to learn something with each song, a way to sing it where it sounds real. I think I’ve still got a lot to give. I want to do it now.”
That includes “mastering” the songs he sings.
“Even though I sing every night, I still work on them. If I can master it on one or two of the songs, then I’ll be able to handle all of them. It’s about trying to be a master of your work. You definitely have to enjoy it. If the music gets old and you get kinda ragged out on it, shows start being bad and the whole thing would fall apart and it wouldn’t work out like you thought it would.”
After more than 60 years on the road at least half of his time, Ray has survived several operations and defied doctors’ orders to spend more time at home.
“I think I’m in good enough shape to do what I’m going to try to do,” he said.
What he does, and has done, is help define country music, first keeping it traditional and then adding orchestral strings in a move that some people criticized as creating the “country-pop” sound; country audiences often resist change.
Well known music writer Bill Malone put it this way: “…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.”
Ray’s Cherokee Cowboys band included, at one time or another, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck (known then as Donnie Young), Johnny Bush, Jimmy Day, and Buddy Emmons. He also encouraged songwriters including Nelson, Miller, Bill Anderson, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, Mel Tillis, Kris Kristofferson, and others by recording their songs.
Country Music Hall of Fame Director Kyle Young put it this way: “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. 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.”
Ray’s full-orchestra recording of “Danny Boy” in 1967 was no accident.
“I did it on purpose, and it worked. I kinda expanded with honky-tonk strings,” he said. “Strings are kinda the closest thing to a human voice, All the string instruments. If you ever listen to TV or old movies, at certain moments when there has to be a feeling, there will always be strings. That’s what I use them for, to enhance the song that I’m trying to portray so people will really like it. I think strings are beautiful. Some of this new CD probably will have some songs with strings, but I’m going to do some acoustic things, too.”
We wouldn’t expect anything different from a country boy who continues to see so much of the world.