In the end, the Cherokee Cowboy is known for two songs: "Crazy Arms," which made his career in 1956, and "Danny Boy," which ruined it 11 years later. Maybe ruined is too strong a word; the man knew what he was doing when he drenched himself in strings, when he stepped out of the opry house and into the opera house. But never again would the hard-core faithful believe in the man the way they had during his 1950s heyday, when he virtually defined country music -- all that pedal steel, all those deep and deeply beautiful harmonies, that four-four shuffle that would become his and all of Nashville's signature for so many years. "Danny Boy" was nothing more or less than his final sell-out move, one hinted at long before he finally gave in to the shallow, fallow pop world. Listen only to his 1963 take of "Make the World Go Away" to realize, as Nick Tosches wrote in his seminal 1977 book Country, "there was more Perry Como in Price's voice than Hank Williams, Price's original mentor." If that isn't the ultimate putdown, then referring to the Dixie Chicks as the Allspice Girls is a big, wet kiss.
But the 73-year-old Price -- the Perryville native who first recorded for the Dallas-based indie Bullet in 1949 -- lasted long enough to outlive, or maybe outrun, his decision to cash out. He's revered now, the last of the last of the best -- famous, no doubt, because he survived Lefty Frizzell (whose songs he first recorded), Hank Williams (for whom he'd sub whenever Hank was too drunk to play), and all the rest of his peers. Yet he'll always be caught in that odd limbo that separates myth from legend -- or Johnny Cash from, say, Ray Price. Meaning, he barely records (he had an orchestral-country disc titled Body and Soul due out on Justice three months ago, but damned if it ever surfaced), but he still tours the circuit like a man pushing new product. Maybe that's the advantage of not having had a hit in 43 years: There's nothing in between to ruin the memory of that singular, perfect moment.
Granted, the man had more than one hit -- he topped the country charts here and there well into the 1970s, even garnering a Number One hit with a cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" in 1970. But nothing ever stuck with such permanence as "Crazy Arms," which sat as king of the hill for 20 weeks upon its release in 1956 and redefined the country hit single as, well, crossover pop single. For a while, Price was a revolutionary as Elvis, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Parker (indeed, it's long been told that Parker used to gig with Price's band, though there exist no such recordings to prove the myth) -- and all it took was adding drums. Hence, the so-called "Ray Price Shuffle," as industry folks took to calling the 4/4 beat that marked his best work of that period. During the 1950s, Price was among the most perfect of country stars -- a hillbilly with the voice of a Manhattan crooner, an FM star in the AM era.
Billy Bob's Texas
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There's nary a bum note on the Bear Family 10-disc retrospective (Honky-Tonk Years: 1950-1966) that was released in 1995; buy it, and it's the best $250 you'll ever spend on a country collection that doesn't feature Williams, Wills, or Willie. From "Jealous Lies" and "You're Under Arrest for Stealing My Heart" through "The Wrong Side of Town" and his Bob Wills fetish through, yes, "Danny Boy," Price proved that no matter how you dressed up a song -- in jeans or a tuxedo -- the truth was in the telling. No one this side of Hank Sr. or Sinatra ever sounded so happy sounding so bummed out; no one this side of Bob Wills or Willie Nelson (with whom Price recorded in 1980, and thank heavens for small miracles) ever sounded so bummed out pretending to be so happy. Little wonder the surviving Big D Jamboree old-timers still speak of Price with a reverence reserved for kings and gods: Few were as significant as Ray Price. And that is why, even today, he still matters -- because, once upon a very long time ago, Ray Price quite literally defined country music. That you do not merely applaud; that, you worship.