Country music has been a process for me. When I began playing hillbilly records on the air I played a small group of country singers I considered real, most of whom performed from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. The exceptions didn’t branch out so much as proved the rule of hard country twang. Being on the airwaves though for over eleven years has done much to open my mind. I no longer scoff at the rock inflected sounds of the 80s or frown at the countrypolitan movement of the 1960s. It’s all a continuum and while I still like one thing more than another I believe I come to it now from a larger place, a place where I no longer feel the need or even the authority to make sweeping judgements over entire periods of music.
Ray Price was not afraid of change. That’s how it seems now. Perhaps it was different in 1962 and 1963 when he actually did it. Over top of a steel guitar, never before or since sounding as much like lounge music as country, Ray Price said:
“It’s a little different from what we normally do, but hope it will be pleasing to you.”
Ray Price was born in Perryville, Texas in 1926 and at age eleven after his parents divorced he moved into Dallas with his mother and her new husband. He studied to become a veterinarian, but that ended when he enlisted in the Marines in 1943. After his discharge in 1946 he came back to Texas and spent time singing in a local joint called Roy’s House Cafe and he had found his way, if not his voice.
During those early years the music was hard honky tonk; straight up 2/4 beats beneath twin fiddles which owe a lot to Hank Williams, and in no small part to his band The Cherokee Cowboys. The Cherokee Cowboys, made up of country music legends Don Helms, Jerry Rivers, Cedric Rainwater and Sammy Pruett, were once known as the Drifting Cowboys who used to back up Hank himself. Here they are in 1952 laying down a wonderful Carl Smith gem Move On In and Stay:
Move On In and Stay, Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, 1952
It would be a few years of work for Ray Price to find his own unique voice and sound. He began to distance himself from the sounds of Williams and other Southeast hillbillies and began adding western swing elements like a piano and the Bob Wills’ inspired fiddling of Tommy Jackson:
Falling, Falling, Falling, Ray Price and The Cherokee Cowboys, 1956
The real turning point though came during a ’56 recording session at the legendary Studio B while Ray and the band were messing around with a Ralph Mooney song called Crazy Arms. The story of the Ray Price Shuffle is told often and better elsewhere – Rich Kienzle’s Southwest Shuffle comes to mind – so, I’ll let that go for another day.
Crazy Arms, Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys, 1956
Six years after Crazy Arms country music was beginning to move uptown. Countrypolitan, to some is a bad word. It has been viewed as watered down country music, homogenized saccharine stuff that almost ruined all that was good and holy about the music had it not been for Merle and Buck holding the torch until the Outlaws could set things right again. I believe it is accurate to say I held that few eleven years ago when I began hosting my first show Dark Holler at 2 AM on Friday nights.
Ray Price changed all that for me. Over the course of three recording sessions, January 7, 1962, February 22, 1963 and February 24, 1963, Price along with (remember the begats lists from the Bibile?) Buddy Emmons, Tommy Jackson, Jimmy Day, Grady Martin, Art Bishop, Darrell McCall, Ray Edenton, Joseph Zinkan, Shorty Lavender, Pig Robbins, Floyd Cramer, Pete Wade, Steve Bess and on two cuts Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck recorded quite simply the greatest countrypolitan album to come out of a Nashville recording studio.
Jim Marshall, WFMU’s The Hound, summed it all up when he compared it to Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours and Cooke’s Night Beat and called it a pre-hangover classic. This is music to cry to. Music to listen to after your sweetheart has broken up with you in a restaurant. Music to spin at 3 AM when the world seems cold and far away. These twelve songs, written by Charlie Rich, Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran and Hank Thompson to name a few, perfectly capture that first sentiment:
The Night life ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.
Night Life, Ray Price,1963
I don’t like everything that went uptown. It didn’t all work and some of it is just as the critics say. For me at least, the lesson was just take it on it’s own. If it’s good let it be good. Night Life is great.
Post Script ~ Crazy Arms was recorded in RCA’s legendary Studio B. As much as Sun Studio’s at 706 Union Ave. in Memphis or the Ryman Auditorium, Studio B is as close to hallowed ground as country music gets. A very small list of some of the songs recorded there:
The Everly Brothers – All I Have to Do Is Dream
Don Gibson – Oh Lonesome Me
John Hartford – Gentle On My Mind
Waylon Jennings – Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line
Roy Orbison – Crying
Dolly Parton – Coat of Many Colors
Elvis Presley – Are You Lonesome Tonight
Jim Reeves – He’ll Have to Go
Charley Pride – Kiss An Angel Good Morning
Connie Smith – Once A Day
Porter Wagoner – Green, Green Grass of Home