Price He's Paid

Ray Price has seen it all, from bucket-of-blood joints out on the Jacksboro Highway to Hank Williams' surgery scars

MT. PLEASANT -- It was getting late on that brisk Thanksgiving evening in 1950 as a new face in the expanding world of country music stood onstage in an out-of-the-way East Texas honky-tonk. An inventive promoter, eager to lure the holiday crowd, had offered patrons free turkey dinners and beer before Ray Price, billed as the "Cherokee Cowboy," began his performance.

The turkey had run out long before the beer. So had the holiday spirit.

The warmth and good will of the season had evolved into drunken curses and bare-knuckle brawls. Looking back from a half-century vantage point, Price recalls that the thing about which he felt most thankful that long-ago night was that he and his band managed to get out alive.

"After a while," he recalls, "I found myself paying more attention to the fights that were breaking out than I was to the songs I was trying to sing. I started counting them: Twenty-eight as best I remember. And Lord only knows what was happening out in the parking lot. Actually, it was sort of amusing until somewhere around midnight when they started throwing beer bottles toward the stage."

Price, suddenly wondering what had possessed him to give up on his boyhood dream of becoming a veterinarian and pursue music, abandoned the microphone in midsong and was crouched behind the protection of his band member's bass. It was then that the club manager, crawling on his hands and knees in an attempt to stay below the line of fire, approached. "Ray, you've got a long-distance phone call," the proprietor said. "Might as well take it. Looks like we're about done for the night."

On the line was country music legend-in-the-making Hank Williams, calling from Nashville. "Can you be here by 11 in the morning?" he asked. Due to a last minute cancellation, Williams had a spot for the unknown Price on his nationally syndicated Prince Albert tobacco-sponsored radio show.

"I left immediately," Price remembers, "and wore out a set of tires getting there. I had to stop in Memphis and buy new ones. But I got to the studio with 30 minutes to spare and made my national radio debut. To do so, I'd broken every speed limit known to mankind on icy roads from Texas to Tennessee, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time if I was ever to become successful as a country singer."

That was a half century and millions of record sales ago. Before the lengthy string of No. 1 hits, gold records, Grammys, invitations to perform at the White House, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Before many in Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall's recent sellout crowd, wildly cheering the 74-year-old entertainer whose rich and clear tenor seems never to age, were even born.

His recently released CD, Prisoner of Love (out on Buddha/Justice Records), is evidence that Price, a music legend whose first recordings played at 78 rpm, continues to ignore the boundaries placed on him by Nashville and others, even when he was country music's best-selling performer. While the new release includes several benchmark Price hits, it also offers up his own styling of the Lennon and McCartney song, "In My Life," as well as standards popularized by Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong.

In a pop-culture time when "legends" are made in the blink of an eye, Price is the real thing. The Reno Gazette-Journal summed it up nicely in a recent concert review: "Ray Price is to country music what Frank Sinatra was for decades to pop." The only difference: Price is still at it, his haunting, melodious voice belying both age and the miles he's traveled. He is on the road, playing 150 dates a year. Only when the voice goes, he says, will he no longer perform. It is evident that he is enamored of music that touches the heart and causes the foot to keep time.

Price was born to a hard-scrabble East Texas cotton-farming father who worked long hours for short wages and a mother who dreamed of becoming a clothing designer in the Big City. He was 3 when, at his mother's urging, the Price family made the move to Dallas, with her husband driving a horse-drawn milk truck while she labored as a seamstress for a local dress manufacturer. It didn't take long for the Prices to agree that their worlds had grown light years apart. They divorced, and the elder Price returned to the farm.

"I stayed with my mother for a while," Price recalled recently from the peace and quiet of his small ranch near Marshall, "but it was hard on her. She was only making $12 a week, paying room and board and trolley fare to work every day." In time, the struggle overwhelmed her, and she sent her son to live with his father again.

Only after she married an Italian dress designer and found financial security did she call her son back to Dallas, where he would spend his teenage years. Though his stepfather introduced him to the sophisticated world of opera and the music of many of the legendary Italian singers of that generation, Ray longed for the simplicity of the country life--hunting, fishing, singing in the church choir, and sitting with his father, listening to the old recordings of "Singing Brakeman" Jimmie Rodgers. "Finally," he says, "when I was 17, I managed to get my mother mad enough at me to sign the papers so I could quit school and join the Marines." The year was 1943.

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