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Ray Price: An appreciation

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Ray Price “epitomized the true class of country music,” as country music catalog expert John Alexander puts it.

And Price, who died yesterday at 87, did so for a long time.

“His career took him from '50s honky tonk hit-maker to one of the finest country balladeers of the ‘70s,” continues Alexander, former senior editor/producer at Reader’s Digest Music.

“He helped discover Willie Nelson, who played bass in his band during his early years, and then had a career resurgence when he discovered the songs of Kris Kristofferson and made them his own. [Price’s chart-topping 1970 hit version of Kristofferson’s ballad] ‘For The Good Times’ is unquestionably one of the greatest country vocal performances of all time. Of the top 20 solo charting country artists of the '50s, Ray was the last one standing.”

Known as the Cherokee Cowboy, Country Music Hall of Famer Price, who was born in Perryville, Texas, began his career in the 1940s and fielded one of country music’s great bands—the Cherokee Cowboys. Future stars including Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush were Cherokee Cowboys in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and helped Price forge a signature honky tonk sound that became known as the "Ray Price Shuffle" and was employed on such landmark hits as "Crazy Arms," which topped the charts in 1956.

“He remained in great voice until the very end,” says Jeremy Tepper, program director of SiriusXM satellite radio’s Outlaw Country and Willie's Roadhouse channels, noting that there’s a new Price album on the way—and marveling at his longevity.

“Eight decades! Who can top that? He was a contemporary of Hank Williams,” says Tepper, and sure enough, he roomed with Williams in Nashville and managed his Drifting Cowboys band after his death.

But it was Price’s own achievements as an artist that will be best remembered.

“The Ray Price Shuffle in country music is comparable to what Bill Monroe brought to bluegrass,” says Tepper. “He originated a style that got people out on the dance floor—60 years ago, and it still works pretty good today! And as a band leader, maybe he was second only to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. The Cherokee Cowboys served as a finishing school for future country legend who continued the Bob Wills tradition in integrating jazz and country music. And he went from ‘Crazy Arms’ to ‘For The Good Times’ in just over a decade, again innovating country music by bringing in strings.”

Price, adds Tepper, not only relied on the best songwriters (also including Willie Nelson via “Night Life” and Harlan Howard, who wrote Price's classic hit “Heartaches By The Number”) but also owned a music publishing company whose clients included Nelson, Howard and Hank Cochran.

“When we got the notice that he died at 4:43 p.m. Central yesterday, we were up within 15 minutes on the Willie’s Roadhouse channel with nothing but Ray Price,” Tepper says. “We had live interviews with Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall of the Cherokee Cowboys, and Ray Benson.”

The leader of venerable country swing band Asleep At The Wheel, Ray Benson says, “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 well over 65 years in a business where 25 years would be amazing.”

Benson, whose band backed Price, Nelson and Merle Haggard during the 2007 The Last Of The Breed tour, adds: “He pioneered the Texas Shuffle, a style that dominated the Texas dance halls for 50 years and is still the preferred two-step rhythm in honky tonks today. But his influence went far beyond that as he brought the smooth pop sounds of the early ‘70s to country music, and throughout his career debuted songs from then young writers like Willie and Kris and many others. We miss him very much.”

Ranger Doug, guitarist/vocalist of Grand Ole Opry country-and-western group Riders In The Sky, likewise salutes Price as “a genuine American music original who revolutionized country music twice over.”

For the Ranger, who performs on the side with Nashville Western swing band the Time Jumpers, Price was also “a unique voice that set the standard. There may never be another like him.”

Willie’s Roadhouse will continue with Ray Price programming through the weekend.

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