Horse Sense

Aileen Cavalieri, my 83-year-old half-Italian grandmother, is about to wet her slacks. She's fluttering her bejeweled hands in front of her face, making an "ooooow" sound that can only be described as a senior citizen's rendering of the Beatlemania squeal. Our position in the shadeless third-row bench seats of the outdoor pavilion is the endpoint to a wearisome odyssey through the labyrinth of a Florida theme park, past booths of ethnic-themed trinkets, wailing children of Minnesotan tourists and french-fried confections. We left her "condo" (Floridian elder-speak for a double-wide trailer) at dawn, and even though we arrived at the stage with more than an hour to spare, my grandmother has made it clear that the third-row vista is something of a disappointment. Then 5,000 watts of God-voice boom over the amphitheater's loudspeakers: "Ladies and gentlemen, only one hour to show time. Today's guest, the golden voice of Mr. Raaaaaaaay Price." That's when she starts making the sound.

During the 60 minutes that follow, the benches fill to capacity with a crowd of theme-park tourists and local snowbirds, and the sun climbs directly above. It's over 90 degrees with oppressive humidity when Ray Price steps out of the wings into a wash of burning pink and blue stage lights. The backing music starts up with a gently honky-tonking rendition of "Heartaches By the Number," and before he opens his mouth to sing a single golden note, Price, the 76-year-old Cherokee Cowboy, passes out of a heat stroke. Everyone in the crowd is concerned, but none more so than Aileen Cavalieri; after all, she's been a fan for nearly 50 years and never once seen him perform. She's devastated. She's making that sound again, but the tone has changed.

"That was one hot day," Price recalls. "But I'm feeling pretty good these days. The doctor let me out after a bad aneurism that I had a little while after that. I'm just getting over it now. But, shoot, I still got a lot of get-up-and-go; I might just get up and go a little slower. I'm not doing too bad for an old fella." He certainly doesn't sound bad. Price is walking through the stables of his ranch, not far from the farm where he was raised in Perryville. It's Memorial Day, but Price and his hired hand aren't taking the day off. ("I just didn't let him know that people take the day off today," Price jokes.) They're tending to his stable of Thoroughbreds, including Price's most-winning pony No Matter Who, a part of his everyday ritual. It's a work ethic Price was born into as the son of a cotton farmer.

"No one works harder than a farmer," Price says. "I've always said that to be a farmer you have to have all heart or no brains or a lot of both. My father and brother were farmers, and I learned a lot from watching them. But that's why all the farmers and cowboys like country music. It's music about them--whether it's played at the honky-tonks or with the orchestra. It's music about everyday people and everyday happenings."

Price began singing in college, where he was studying to be a veterinarian. The guitar player of his college group was writing songs and asked Price to do demos for a publishing company. It's the classic story of those demos falling into the right hands, and he left college for Nashville with a contract.

"Maybe I should have been a vet," Price says with a laugh. "With all these horses and all the vet bills, I'd be a rich man with all the money I would have saved over the years. But I'm glad I took that first big step. It's something that every person should do when they're young."

When he shares stories from the career that followed--of being housemates with Hank Williams, rubbing elbows with every titanic name in country music, fighting payola--it has the otherworldly quality of a fairy tale. He's congenial and good-humored, mixing his tall tales of a life on the road with grandfatherly advice. And Price, admittedly in the twilight of his career, remains one of the few surviving authorities.

"When I first got to Nashville it was dark and raining in the middle of January," he says. "All the buildings were black from the coal smoke that covered the whole town. I'd never seen that before, and it was...well, kind of a downer. I was cold and kind of afraid. It looked like one of the most depressing towns I'd ever seen. The legend of Nashville was built up by publicity and record companies. They've built up things in people's minds. But it was never really like that."

But as a proud Texan and a pop crossover, Price has always been on the periphery of the "Nashville sound." Sure, he rose to fame with swinging honky-tonk hits through the 1950s (including the '56 smash "Crazy Arms," which stole the No. 1 spot from Elvis) and fronted the Cherokee Cowboys (an outfit that included youthful Willie Nelson), but in the '60s and '70s he crossed over with a string of pop hits ("For the Good Times" and "I Won't Mention it Again"). Most recently, he's released a record of stylist's classics, Prisoner of Love, and last year reunited with Willie Nelson for a Grammy-nominated collection of duets titled Run That By Me One More Time. He's in the Country Music Hall of Fame and has been declared a national treasure.

"I figure, after all these years, there's no reason to stop now," Price says. He's on his way in the house to wash up before dinner, and he's offering nuggets of conclusive wisdom. "I just don't believe in quitting. There have been so many good memories, and I know that there will always be more."

I have to ask him, after performing for more than half a century, if he has a favorite song to sing.

"I like nearly all of them, but if I had to pick one, it would be 'For the Good Times,'" he says, and then it finally happens. I hear Ray Price sing in person. "This old world will keep on turning/Let's just be glad we had some time to spend together," he offers in a honeyed baritone. "That's one of those songs that helps me when I get down and gets me right back up on my feet again."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nate Cavalieri