By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
His close friendship with Hank Williams, the hard-drinking C&W icon who died at age 29, was no different. Except Williams was the one helping him. Some of the time, at least.
"My first real job in Nashville was as a front man for Hank. I traveled with him and the Drifting Cowboys, doing a couple of songs before his performance," Price remembers. In truth, his job description went far beyond warming up the audience: "Since Hank and I had become good friends, his manager had the bright idea that I could somehow make sure he stayed sober and ready to go on. I'm sorry to say that as Hank Williams' babysitter, I was a miserable failure. It's something I regret to this day, but, hell, it was an impossible job.
"Hank had these self-destructive demons dancing around in his head, and there was no one--not friends, doctors, or family--who could do anything about it. When he decided to get drunk, there was no stopping him. Nothing I ever tried worked. We walked, we talked, even wrote a few songs together. But sooner or later he'd get a bottle and it was all over. He'd sit in a hotel room and pour a water glass to the brim with whiskey and chug-a-lug it. It would come back up, and he'd just pour another glassful. He just kept doing it until he could keep it down."
Price recalls a long-ago New Year's Eve in Norfolk when he'd opened the show before an expectant audience of 10,000, then retired to the wings to watch Williams' performance. "The promoter came up to me, his face red and angry, chewing on a half-smoked cigar like it was a dog bone. He says, 'Hank ain't gonna make it. You're gonna have to do the show.'
"At the time I'd only made a couple of recordings and, frankly, didn't even know the words to that many country songs. I had no idea what to do. The guy looked at me and said, 'Jes' get your ass out there and fake it.'"
Price, who tried to do a few of Williams' songs to which he knew most of the words, rates the night as one of the most disastrous of his lengthy career.
It would not, however, be the last such bind in which he would find himself at his friend's expense.
"We were scheduled to play Richmond despite the fact Hank had undergone some painful back surgery," Price says. Hank, having assured the promoter he could go on, arrived far removed from sober.
"I introduced him, warning the audience that he's recently undergone some serious surgery, trying to prepare them. So, what does Hank do? He walks straight to the microphone and immediately says, 'Y'all don't believe him, do you? Don't think I've had an operation.' And then he starts to take his clothes off, ready to show the sellout crowd his scar and God-knows what else."
Once again, Price was called upon to fake it.
"When Hank was sober, he was a jewel. But those times became fewer and fewer. The Opry, which he'd helped get me on when I was a nobody, fired him. His band members, finally at the end of their rope, refused to go on the road with him. And his wife kicked him out of the house."
Williams rented a house and asked that Price move in with him.
"For all the success he had--the hit records, the sellout crowds, the loving fans--he was the most unhappy man I've ever known," his friend says. "Even when he tried to beat the drinking, checking himself into clinics to sober up, people were always taking advantage of him. Promoters, knowing full-well that he wasn't capable of performing, kept booking him. They'd come to the hotel or his dressing room and literally drag him onstage. They knew damned well he wasn't going to be able to put on a show. But by getting him onstage and then letting him fall flat on his face, they wouldn't have to pay him.
"Looking back, I think maybe that was one of the many demons that drove Hank to his early death. There were just too many people who only wanted to use him--and way too few trying to help him out."
Ray Price, then, has seen it all. And he endures. In an era of gaudy pyrotechnic productions, country singers who no longer sing country, and an entertainment industry that worships only the young, Price, dressed in a business suit and tie, accompanied by steel guitars and violins--but absolutely no gimmicks--holds to his place. In his audiences are those who began listening to his music decades ago, seated alongside college kids just discovering the magic he lends to such classics as "Danny Boy," "For the Good Times," and "Night Life."
They are there because he is, in a very real sense, the living history of country-and-western music. He is the man who has not only enjoyed a front-row vantage point from which to view its growth and change, but also played a major role. He is Ray Price, and that means something. Maybe more today than it ever did.