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Ray Price: The "Prisoner of Love"

By Joel Bernstein, May 2000

Few people question Ray Price's right to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Many, however, question whether all 46 of his Top Ten hits should be considered country music.

The 74-year old Texan, who returns this month with "Prisoner Of Love" on Justice/Buddha, underwent one of the most dramatic mid-career stylistic shifts of any successful singer in history. Not everyone was happy about that change, but it never hurt Price's overall popularity, and he continues to record the softer pop styles of his second career phase.

Now Price isn't really worried about popularity. "For my age, it's really a wonder to be able to have a new record and a company 100 percent behind me."

In the '50's, Price racked up a steady string of hits that were as far from pop music as any Hank Williams record. In fact, Williams and Price were fast friends, and Hank gave Price his song "Weary Blues (From Waiting)" before recording it himself.

When Williams died, Price took over Williams' Drifting Cowboys band and recorded in a similar style. (Price takes umbrage at printed reports that Williams once shot at him with a pistol. "Totally untrue! Hank and me never had an argument. I don't know why they'd print that.")

In 1956, Price recorded "Crazy Arms." his first Number One record (it stayed there for 20 weeks, establishing Price as a star) and began the development of a new style. Brought to greater fruition on Price's subsequent records, this "shuffle" beat became - and remains - the standard for honky-tonk music. To this day, this type of song will often be identified as a "Ray Price shuffle."

In the early '60's, Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys, included Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck. "I always looked for the best musicians I could find. I wanted a good band so I could put all my attention to the fans and not worry about what was going on behind me."

He did have to worry about them offstage. "It got wild back then. I learned at a young age that partying was not where it's at."

Price became one of the first artists to start his own publishing company, and his Pamper Music signed three pretty fair songwriters in Nelson, Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran. "Roy Acuff had done it with Acuff-Rose. There weren't many who were doing it then. They have to do it if they want to get any money."

Price eventually sold his interest however. "I'm not a business type person. I don't think many artists are. You can't be a good artist and have your mind somewhere else."

Price's 1963 recording of Nelson's "Night Life" was a stylistic milestone. "That was bluesy, jazzy. Willie was doing all kinds of things. He was experimenting a lot." (Price then clarifies that he is referring to Nelson's music.)

As Price racked up a steady stream of honky-tonk hits, there was another side of him yearning for release. "I love strings. I started with a song called 'Burning Memories' that Mel Tillis wrote. I used eight strings on that. I wanted to see what it would sound like full. I did a faith album with The Anita Kerr Singers and 17 strings. I didn't think it would sell, but it did. DJ's had been asking for (a record of) "Danny Boy." (Price always closed his DJ Convention shows with that song).

"I did it with 42 strings. Everyone claimed I had gone pop and crucified me for a few years." ("Danny Boy" nonetheless reached the Country Top Ten.)

Price only had one big hit on the pop charts, "For The Good Times" in 1970. The song, which hit the top of the country charts, was written by an up-and-comer named Kris Kristofferson.

"I was working nightclubs, and (publisher) Fred Foster sent me a copy. I'd been traveling around so much I didn't know the Nashville scene. (Kris) was in the groove. (But) he wanted to be an actor and a singer. You can't do all of them."

"I just kept doing what the hell I wanted to do, what I thought was right. The artist ought to have some inkling of what he's going to do. You just can't believe the flack I got."

Of similar flack given to Shania Twain (and other contemporary country stars) Price says, "I feel sorry for them, but they brought it on themselves. You have to live through it. If you do, it makes you a better artist. But that music is not country music, it's bubblegum rock 'n' roll."

Price then avoids the obvious question by adding, "Mine's pop. I don't say it ain't."

"Prisoner Of Love" is a mix of pop standards and some country songs.

"Some of the songs I picked, some (producer) Randall (Jamail) picked, some my conductor picked. It's showcasing me in a style - it's actually a jazz/pop album. I've done a lot of that before. As long as man and woman are going to be here, there are going to be love songs," Price says, summing up most of the album's tunes.

Perhaps the oddest song choice was The Beatles' "In My Life." Price says, "Randall picked that one. It was kind of strange to me. I worked harder on that song than any of them. I just couldn't feel it. This is the first album that I've spent this much time on to make sure everything's right."

The first single is a country tune "Better Class Of Losers." Price released this as a single in 1984, but it only reached the lower rungs of the charts. "It's a great song that got lost in the shuffle. It tells the whole story of the album."

Price's version of "Fly Me To The Moon" has brought some complaints that he's trying to be Frank Sinatra.

"Nobody's going to be Sinatra" Price insists.

Price also redoes his 1961 hit "Soft Rain," explaining, "I got so many requests at my shows to redo it. My shows do old country hits with strings. That's the way I like it. My fans like it that way. My fans have never deserted me."

"I think everybody should have the sound they want. For me, it's the strings. For someone else, it might be a sitar. If it sounds great, that's it. The arrangement fills it up, lets it flow, if you have the right kind of arranger. Some don't understand what you're trying to do. If the artist doesn't know how to tell him, it can be a real struggle."

No matter what people think his music sounds like, Price says, "I'm proud to be a country musician. I'm proud to be both kinds. I may be in a tux, but it'll be a western tux. I'm proud of my heritage."