Ray Waddell is Billboard's executive director of content and programming for touring and live entertainment.
When I heard Ray Price’s final public statement as he went home to face the end of his life, I can’t say I was surprised, not by his courage and grace, and not by his message to fans, which read, in part: “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 hope I haven’t let them down.” Man, that’s pure Ray, and having gotten to know the man fairly well in the last years of his life, I can tell you with certainty that Ray meant that sincerely. I mean, why play PR at this point? Not Ray.
Ray Price loved a dirty joke, he loved to laugh, and he loved his fans. I first got to know Ray Price personally a few years ago when we began a series of lengthy conversations with the hopes of it becoming an autobiography. While any music listener is aware, or should be, of Ray’s impact on music, I can’t honestly say I was a huge fan before we began these hours and hours of conversations. Though I always respected Price's contributions to the genre, when it comes to classic country, my tastes had always run toward higher proof vintages; the Haggard, Cash, Willie, Waylon, Jones stuff. But as I dug deeper on Price, I came to appreciate what an incredible singer, what a pure artist Ray Price was.
Listen to his take on Willie Nelson’s “Night Life” from 1968. Not only does the track feature some absolutely sick steel from the great Buddy Emmons (“There ain’t but one steel player, and that’s Buddy Emmons,” Ray told me), but Ray’s vocal is just off the charts: jazzy, loungy, scaling heights, diving deep, with subtlety and incredible range (“I remember an old boy said, ‘you can sing so high even the beagles can’t hear you,’” he once told me.) By the time the song ends, Ray has convincingly transformed the character from a “what the hell” ne’er do well to the deeply sad, lonely, regretful, emotional wreck one imagines Willie Nelson had in mind when he wrote it.
“Hell yeah, I remember that session for ‘Night Life,’ absolutely,” Ray told me when I asked him about it. “A lot of my sessions were first takes, a lot of ‘em. It just happened.”
If anyone can listen to Ray’s take on “Danny Boy” today, and not be deeply touched, they better check their pulse. That song, with its truly inspired arrangement by Cam Mullins and a bit of perfection from Floyd Cramer on piano, caused Ray a lot of pain, big trouble with the country music “establishment” as it were, mostly for its use of strings. Thank God Ray cut it, because we’re left with something transcendent. There is much to love about that song, but what sticks with me is how, even through the lush production, Ray’s Texas accent rings through.
Ray, in typically modest fashion, credited his favorite producer, Don Law, for not taking the Texas out of songs like “Danny Boy,” “For the Good Times,” and his smoother stuff. When I asked him about it (“or” comes out like “are,” for example), he said, “If you can still hear the Texas in ‘Danny Boy,’ that’s alright, that way they won’t hang you out there in Texas. I’m me. That’s one thing I learned with ‘Crazy Arms,’ just be me. Because when I first started, I didn’t know a damn thing about it."
What Ray did know and care deeply about was his fans. He always carried a big band with him, frequently used strings, even when the money wasn’t as good as it once was and many artists would have looked for ways to cut corners. And not only did Ray always wear a suit, or a “Western tuxedo” as the case may be, that band always dressed well, too. Ray insisted on it, and it was for the fans.
And he always gave his all. “Ray Price was the epitome of professionalism and cared about presenting his show with ultimate class,” says Bobby Roberts, CEO of the Bobby Roberts Company and Price’s agent for 10 years. “The band dressed in suits and Ray would always be in coat and tie. I remember booking many shows where Ray would say, ‘I’m going to hire seven more string players and some horn players and make this show really special.’ Although that would cost Ray quite a bit of additional money -- that he didn't have to spend -- he did it for the fans, and for his own musical enjoyment. When he would come off the stage, he'd be laughing, enjoying the moment, and would say to me ‘did I do alright?’, knowing very well that he gave the crowd a night they would always remember. He was just that kind of entertainer.”
Ray, of course, had a philosophy on dressing. “That’s always been my thing, to dress,” he said. “Some of that I got from my Mother. I tell you what, with Mother, you dressed. There wasn’t no argument, you dressed. She always said ‘you want to dress as nice as you can, so people will see that you’re up there respecting them.’ She’s right. I think when you go out there with your ass hangin’ out of your britches and your knees out, all you’re doing is throwing it in their face. I guess it’s a rebellion type thing, but it’s disrespectful to the audience, in my opinion. Dressing is about manners, like saying, ‘thank you.’ My band dresses nice too, I tell ‘em that’s the way it is. Just like Mother told me. It's a strong point, being respectful to your audience, and in return you get respect. And they know that we're dressin' up for them.”
Like many from his generation of country stars, Ray sort of fell into the music business and rose to the top through sheer force of will. “I’m not sure what I’d tell somebody who wants to do this for a living,” he said. “First, he needs to have his mind examined. Then he’s got to realize that that guitar will starve him to death. He’s got to do more than just be a good singer or entertainer, he’s got to be determined and have a driving force, never stop. I fell into it, but it was either sink or swim. So I swam pretty good.”
Ray was always brutally honest in our interview sessions, and obviously, he knew that tape recording was rolling. For his fans, Ray came off with easy-going sophistication, and it wasn’t a put-on, but on the bus Ray could be a salty dog, for sure. When I would deliver pages for him to read, he generally liked it -- hell, they were his words, exactly -- but he asked me to tone down the language a bit. This from the guy who came to me with the working title, “For the Good Times My Ass,” and by all I could tell intended to use it. “Why did I want to call this book ‘For the Good Times My Ass?’,” he said. “Well, because I’ve had a good time and it’s a bullshit story. What’s a nice word for ‘bullshit?’ There ain’t no nice word for it, that is the nice word.”
Remembering Ray Price
When I delivered him a fairly complete manuscript, I believe he was take aback by seeing all these hours of conversations in black and white, as they occurred, with all the relationships, the lingering distaste for the music business, the good and the, uh, less good, behavior (depending, of course, on one’s perspective -- Ray Price was nothing if not a gentleman). Ray also felt parts of the manuscript made him come off as more bitter than he actually was, and on that I can’t disagree. But mostly, I believe, this intensely private man wasn’t sure he wanted his fans to see all the sides of the man. To Ray, it was another respect thing, and I had no choice but to respect his feelings in that regard, and I still do.
If the experience was frustrating, it's because Ray Price was not only one of the absolute best natural born singers ever, he was also an immensely complex man and one of the flat-out interesting cats I’ve ever met But no regrets. At this point, I am deeply grateful for the time I spent with Ray, for our hours of conversations, and for the chance to be around true greatness, true legend.
Ray Price loved to laugh. He loved animals. He enjoyed one shot of Jack Daniel’s with a Fanta orange chaser before he took the stage, just one. And he loved his fans. He refused to compromise artistically, and, as John Anderson put it just two days ago, “he never sold out.” Regarding broadening his fan base, Ray said, “I want 'em all, I want everybody to hear us, but I'm not going to cop out just to do something to please them. Because the old people have been with me 60 years, no way I'm going to back off them. They didn’t start out old.”
And Ray Price said this: “What the hell. In the end, I’d like to be known as a good fella and a damn good singer. I’m still tryin’ to make it.”
Ray Price, sir, you made it.