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AN APPRECIATION: Country music legend Ray Price

Ray Price

Ray Price

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Updated: December 16, 2013 9:01PM

If the circle of life is a collection of links, then Ray Price will live forever.

The Country Music Hall of Famer died Monday afternoon in his Mount Pleasant, Texas, home from complications of pancreatic cancer. He was 87.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Price left a message to his fans that read: “I am at peace. I love Jesus. I’m going to be just fine. Don’t worry about me. I’ll see you again one day.”

Mr. Price was born in 1926 in Perryville, Texas, and was a member of the Big D Jamboree radio program in Dallas in the late 1940s. At one point he studied to be a veterinary surgeon. He moved to Nashville in the early 1950s and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.

He was a Zelig in the country music universe:

— Mr. Price and Hank Williams were roommates for a while on the scenic Natchez Trace in Nashville. He employed Williams’ band when Luke the Drifter wasn’t feeling well, which was often.

— Mr. Price thought he sounded too much like Williams, so in 1954 he hired Lefty Frizzell’s band, the Western Cherokees, who added a defined Western Swing touch to Mr. Price’s music.

— In 1963 Mr. Price hired Willie Nelson away from Tootsie’s in Nashville to play in his Cherokee Cowboys band whose alumni also included Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck.

— Mr. Price brought bass and drums to the forefront of modern country music. He anchored a 2/4 beat with fiddle, beginning with his 1956 smash “Crazy Arms.”

— The last time Chicago saw Mr. Price was a 2007 tour “Last of the Breed” tour with Merle Haggard and Nelson that came to the Rosemont Theatre. I saw that tour when it began in Prescott Valley, Ariz., and at its conclusion in Rosemont Both times Mr. Price stole the show with his still-impeccable pipes.

“This is the music they’ve been trying to kill,” Mr. Price told the Arizona crowd, which included a 6-month old with a red bandanna. “And they’re not going to get it done.”

Mr. Price won his second Grammy for “Best Country Collaboration” with Nelson on a cover of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” from the “Last of the Breed” record. His previous Grammy was in 1971 for best male country vocal performance on the Kris Kristofferson ballad “For The Good Times.”

Mr. Price’s fluid tenor was framed in sophistication. In the late 1960s he toured with a 50-piece orchestra. He sang his hit ballads “For The Good Times,” “Make The World Go Away” and “Release Me” in the relaxed measure of Frank Sinatra. “A good song doesn’t sound contrived,” Mr. Price told me in 2006 before he appeared with a 12-piece band at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “It is simple and direct. It has to have meaning. It must have those things or I’m lost. I like to sing a song to make it like where I’m talking to you.”

Mr. Price knew what he was talking about, for sure.

He was part-owner of Pamper Music, the renegade song-publishing company that set Nashville on its ear during the early 1960s. Pamper songwriters included the late Harlan Howard (who wrote the Ray Charles hit “Busted” and Mr. Price’s “Heartaches by the Number”), Willie Nelson (starting with Patsy Clines’ “Crazy”), and Hank Cochran (who co-wrote the Cline hit “I Fall To Pieces” with Howard). Howard liked to point out that he and Mr. Price were witnesses to the birth of modern country, which he once described to me as “the spermatozoa meeting the egg.”

Those songs from the early Nashville songwriters were conversational, witty and truthful. Words inspired the melody. The Pamper group didn’t pander to the listener like many of today’s popular country songwriters. Earlier this year Blake Shelton told Great American Country’s “Backstory” in part that “Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music...” Mr. Price responded with a Facebook post that concluded, “....This guy sounds like in his own mind that his head is so large no hat ever made will fit him. Stupidity Reigns Supreme!!!!!!! Ray Price (CHIEF “OLD FART” & JACK---”) ” P.S. YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY AS US OLD-TIMERS. CHECK BACK IN 63 YEARS (THE YEAR 2075) AND LET US KNOW HOW YOUR NAME AND YOUR MUSIC WILL BE REMEMBERED.”

Mr. Price was just as excited about recording the 22-track “Last of the Breed” album that accompanied the 2007 Nelson-Haggard tour.

“All of us have had several ex-wives, so we have lots of material,” he told me before referencing the song “All Our Ex’s Wear Rolexes” sung by golfer John Daly. (Mr. Price had been married for 45 years to Janie Price, who was steadfast in his final days despite the hurt from erroneous social media reports that Mr. Price had died on Dec. 15.) Of course the country renegades did not record the Rolex song, instead they chose to pay homage to source material such as Floyd Tillman, one of the first country musicians to play electric guitar. Mr. Price learned how Tillman sang behind the beat and eased his bartione into notes.

After the tour ended, Haggard told Rolling Stone magazine, “I told Willie when it was over, ‘That old man gave us a goddamn singing lesson. He really did. He just sang so good. He sat there with the mic against his chest. And me and Willie are all over the microphone trying to find it, and he found it.”

One of the ringers of the “Last of the Breed” tour was a cover of Nelson’s “Night Life” that did not appear on the record. In Arizona Mr. Price sang “Night Life” while Nelson played blues guitar and Haggard conducted the fiddle section. Mr. Price maintained a dignified sparkle in his eyes, knowing that every heart links with a melody.

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