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30 years of greatness: honky-tonk to countrypolitan
on August 21, 2007
The towering talent of Ray Price split into two distinct periods. His works of the 1950s and early 1960s were country and honky-tonk whose twangy sound will be surprising to those familiar with the smooth countrypolitan work he began in the 1960s. Columbia/Legacy's new two-disc "Essential" collection admirably captures the highpoints of both eras, and in doing so provides an excellent overview of his transition from honky-tonker to crooner. Price's commercial popularity has ensured that his hits have remained in print, but single disc anthologies necessarily short-change either his early or late sides. The similarly titled single disc from 1991, for example, covers only the years 1951 through 1962.
Disc one opens in 1950, before Price had signed with Columbia and began recording in Nashville. "Jealous Lies" was recorded in Dallas and released on the Bullet label. Price sings in the sweet croon then popular in Country & Western recordings, and to which he'd return in an even smoother form 15 years later. By 1951, with Lefty Frizell's "If You're Ever Lonely Darling" and Hank Williams' purpose-written "Weary Blues (From Waiting)," Price began singing more high and lonesome to match the twang of the accompanying fiddle and steel guitar of Don Law's production.
Following Hank Williams' death, Price toured and recorded with his idol's backing band (The Drifting Cowboys) until treading water gave way to forging ahead. Trading out the honky-tonk band for a western swing combo he evolved a new approach through the hits "Please Release Me," "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)," and a breakthrough cover of "Crazy Arms." The latter, Price's first country #1, was heavy on fiddle and steel, but also featured harmony vocals and the shuffle two-step beat that would become his trademark. The George Jones co-written B-side, "You Done Me Wrong" reached the top-10 as well.
Having bumped Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel" from the country chart's top spot, Price was keenly aware of the coming changes in popular music. But as others softened and the Nashville sound descended upon Music City, Price dug in and continued to sing it straight and. His late-50s hits continued with lyrics of betrayal and broken hearts, promoting new songwriters who would become legends: Roger Miller ("Invitation to the Blues"), Bill Anderson ("City Lights"), and Harlan Howard ("Heartahces by the Numbers"). He hired Hank Cochran and Willie Nelson for his publishing company, and filled out his band with Nelson, Miller, Johnny Paycheck, Buddy Emmons and Johnny Bush.
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s Price began to try new sounds. But rather than a commercial reaction to changes in popular music (as his hard shuffles were as commercially popular at the start of the 60s as they'd been in the 50s), the addition of strings, and the softening of his vocals appear to have been artistic decisions. You can hear the change coming as the fiddle line of 1962's "Walk Me to the Door" softens into something that's almost a string arrangement, and by 1963 he took on the lush violins and choral background singers of "Make the World Go Away." The transformation was surprisingly quick.
Throughout the next decade Price reeled off a string of smooth hits that brought a second flush of commercial success. Turning to a crooning style that echoes his earliest side for Bullet, he landed top-10 singles throughout the 60s, culminating in 1970's brilliant reading of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times." This was his first chart topper in 11 years, and the precursor to three more #1 that included "I Won't Mention It Again" and "You're the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." After moving to ABC in 1974 he returned to Columbia for a superb1980 duet with Willie Nelson on the Bob Wills classic "Faded Love" that neatly bridges his honky-tonk and western swing beginnings with his latter-day crooning. The album from which this last single sprung, "San Antonio Rose," is one of country music's most stirring returns.
Compilation producer Gregg Geller's done a fine job of paring down Price's recorded legacy on Columbia to two discs. He's squeezed in 32 of Price's top-10 singles, and 7 of his 8 #1s. He's dipped into his pre-hit singles and included a few lower charting sides that help demarcate the arc of Price's career. This is a superb introduction to and rich overview of Price's legendary run at Columbia, and a must-have for any country music fan - honky-tonker, countrypolitan or both! [©2007 hyperbolium dot com]