Good friends like Willie Nelson and Merle haggard got more credit for their contrary ways and trend-setting ideas, but it was Ray Price who set the precedent for change in country music more than a decade earlier.
Price passed away Monday at his Texas home, having long outlasted most of his country music contemporaries and the prognosis doctors gave him when they discovered his pancreatic cancer in 2011. He was 87.
The way the Country Music Hall of Fame member fought cancer was an apt metaphor for the way he lived his life, always fiercely charting a path few others might have the fortitude to follow.
Along the way he changed the sound of country music, collaborated with and inspired the genre’s biggest stars and remained relevant for more than half a century.
“Ray Price was a giant in Texas and country western music. Besides one of the greatest voices that ever sang a note, Ray’s career spanned over 65 years in a business where 25 years would be amazing,” said Ray Benson of the country music group Asleep at the Wheel.
Price, one of country music’s most popular and influential singers and bandleaders, had more than 100 hits and was one of the last living connections to Hank Williams.
Price died Monday afternoon at his ranch outside Mount Pleasant, Texas, said Billy Mack Jr., who was acting as a family spokesman. Billie Perryman, the wife of family friend and spokesman Tom Perryman, a DJ with KKUS-FM in Tyler, also confirmed his death.
Price’s cancer had recently spread to his liver, intestines and lungs, according East Texas Medical Center in Tyler. He stopped aggressive treatments and left the hospital last Thursday to receive hospice care at home.
At the time, his wife, Janie Price, relayed what she called her husband’s “final message” to his fans: “I love my fans and have devoted my life to reaching out to them. I appreciate their support all these years, and I hope I haven’t let them down. 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.”
Perhaps best known for his version of the Kris Kristofferson song “For the Good Times,” a pop hit in 1970, the velvet-voiced Price was a giant among traditional country performers in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as likely to defy a trend as he was to defend one. He helped invent the genre’s honky-tonk sound early in his career, then took it in a more polished direction.
He reached the Billboard Hot 100 eight times from 1958-73 and had seven No. 1 hits and more than 100 titles on the Billboard country chart from 1952 to 1989. “For the Good Times” was his biggest crossover hit, reaching No. 11 on the Billboard pop music singles chart. His other country hits included “Crazy Arms,” ”Release Me,” ”The Same Old Me,” ”Heartaches by the Number,” ”City Lights” and “Too Young to Die.”
Price was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, long after he had become dissatisfied with Nashville and returned to his home state of Texas.
His importance went well beyond hit singles. He was among the pioneers who popularized electric instruments and drums in country music. After helping establish the bedrock 4/4 shuffle beat that can still be heard on every honky-tonk jukebox and most country radio stations in the world, Price angered traditionalists by breaking away from country. He gave early breaks to Nelson, Roger Miller and other major performers.
His “Danny Boy” in the late 1960s was a heavily orchestrated version that crossed over to the pop charts. He then started touring with a string-laden 20-piece band that outraged his dancehall fans.
In the 1970s he sang often with symphony orchestras — in a tuxedo and cowboy boots.
Like Nelson, his good friend and contemporary, Price simply didn’t care what others thought and pursued the chance to make his music the way he wanted to.
“I have fought prejudice since I got in country music and I will continue to fight it,” he told The Associated Press in 1981. “A lot of people want to keep country music in the minority of people. But it belongs to the world. It’s art.”
In the same 1981 interview, he credited the cowboy for the popularity of country music.
“Everyone loves the cowboy. He’s nice, humble and straightforward. And country music is the same thing. The kids have discovered what mom and pop told ’em.”
Price continued performing and recording well into his 70s.
“I have to be in the business at least five or 10 more years,” Price said in 2000, when he and his band were doing 100 shows a year.
“Two or three years ago, we did 182,” he said. “Fans come to the shows, bless their hearts, they always come.”
In 2007, he joined Haggard and Nelson on a double-CD set, “Last of the Breed.” The trio performed on tour with the Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel.
“I’ll be surprised if we don’t all get locked up somewhere,” Price joked at the time.
Over the years, Price came in and out of vogue as traditional country music waxed and waned on the radio. He was a constant advocate for the old days and ways of country music, and more recently re-entered the news when he took offense to comments Blake Shelton made about classic country music that included the words “old farts.” The dustup drew attention on the Internet and introduced Price to a new generation of country fans.
“You should be so lucky as us old-timers,” Price said in a happily cantankerous post in all capital letters. “Check back in 63 years (the year 2075) and let us know how your name and your music will be remembered.”
Price earned his long-standing fame honestly, weaving himself into the story of modern country music in several ways.
As a young man, Price became friends with Williams, toured with the country legend and shared a house with him in Nashville. Williams even let Price use his band, the Drifting Cowboys, and the two wrote a song together, the modest Price hit “Weary Blues (From Waiting)”.
By 1952 Price was a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry.
The singer had one of country music’s great bands, the Cherokee Cowboys, early in his career. His lineup included at times Nelson, Miller and Johnny Paycheck.
His 1956 version of “Crazy Arms” became a landmark song for both Price and country music. His first No. 1 country hit, the song rode a propulsive beat into the pop top 100 as well. Using a drummer and bassist to create a country shuffle rhythm, he eventually established a sound that would become a trademark.
“It was strictly country and it went pop,” Price said of the song. “I never have figured that one out yet.”
Price was born near Perryville, Texas, in 1926 and was raised in Dallas. He joined the Marines for World War II and then studied to be a veterinarian at North Texas Agricultural College before he decided on music as a career.
Soft-spoken and urbane, Price told the AP in 1976: “I’m my own worst critic. I don’t like to hear myself sing or see myself on television. I see too many mistakes.”
He was one of the few who saw them.
Associated Press writer Chris Sherman in McAllen, Texas, contributed to this report. Chris Talbott reported from Nashville.