Country Great Ray Price's Toughest Fight

Tuesday, 06 November 2012 07:23 AM Written by 

It's official. 86 year old Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price, the man behind "Release Me," "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches By the Number" and "For the Good Times," has been undergoing chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, discovered during gall bladder surgery. There's no getting around it—it's one of the most swift-moving, inoperable and deadly cancers, often found too late.  That his was discovered during surgery clearly bought him time.

Price's musical journey has been remarkable. A native of Perryville, Texas, protégé of Hank Williams, Sr. he had his first hit in 1951. Opening Hank's shows, he saw his friend's charisma, songwriting genius and the darker sides.  His early Columbia singles were Hank-like, yet within a year of Hank's death, he consciously set aside that sound with a new established band he hired and renamed the Cherokee Cowboys.  His first hit in his new style was 1954's "Release Me."

1956: Even as rock bulldozed through the music scene and many younger singers jumped on board, Price, clad in eyeball-blasting rhinestoned Nudie suits, stuck to his guns, doubling down on hard-edged Texashonky tonk like this: his massive country hit "Crazy Arms," which crossed over to the pop charts, Elvis notwithstanding.

Price himself devised the song's 4/4 "shuffle" beat inspired by rhythms he heard in Texas dancehalls. Today the beat is a staple of traditional country, used by everyone from Buck Owens to George Strait and beyond.   The harmony singer is Van Howard.

1958: The great Harlan Howard wrote "Heartaches By the Number," which got to # 2 but like "Crazy Arms," became a country standard.  Ray Sanders is singing harmony.

A number of future stars started as Cherokee Cowboys: Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall and Johnny Paycheck among them. All were inspired by the way Price, always independent minded, played by his own rules. Bush was the drummer; the others played bass or guitar and sang harmonies with the boss.  He and Willie were particularly close. Both were Texans and even in the early 60's shared a common love of marijuana.

Price, however, was not content to stand still.  Within him burned a longstanding desire to expand into the pop field, despite his refusal to rock and his stature as a paragon of hard country.  He did it in 1967 with a symphonic version of "Danny Boy" that reached the country Top Ten and broadened his appeal but infuriated a lot of older fans.

Canning the Nudie suits and Cherokee Cowboys, he began started performing with string quartets and even symphony orchestras.  Not even hecklers at concerts could dissuade him.  So again, the battle over what is and isn't country, is nothing new.

1970: Price's move was validated with "For The Good Times," a ballad by Kris Kristofferson, another Texas native and one of that era's hottest young songwriters. Price took the song to # 1 in country and to the pop Top Ten.  I'll admit I didn't care for this at the time; today, I think it's pretty damned good.  It's definitely stood the test of 41 years.

2003: A 1980 hit duet with Willie on the old Bob Wills tune "Faded Love" proved to everyone that while Price stuck to his smoother sound, both phases of his career still mattered. Eventually he realized this and began integrating his old and new into his shows.  He did this guest shot at Willie's 2003 70th Birthday concert. The song: "Run That By Me One More Time."

2007 saw him joining Willie and Merle Haggard for the Last of the Breed album and tour.  Until his illness, Price remained on the road with the Cherokee Cowboys, reprising music from his entire 60 + year career. Here, he revisits "Crazy Arms" and "Heartaches." Singing harmony is his son Cliff Price.  The voice is rougher, but still surprisingly strong.

A few years ago, Haggard was diagnosed with lung cancer. Today, in remission, he is still recording and performing. 

Trust me. Ray Price is one tough SOB.  He never ran from a fight and he's not gonna do it now.

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