Keep on the Sunny Side

Jan 8, 2014 at 6:00 am
Keep on the Sunny Side

For the good times

The great country music singer Ray Price died on Dec. 16. He was 87. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, his signature 4/4 shuffle “Ray Price beat” totally defined the sound of honky-tonk music.

Price had an ear for finding great musicians and great songs. He had more than 40 top 10 country hits in his lifetime, including eight songs that went to No. 1. Roger Miller, Willie Nelson and Johnny Paycheck were all members of his band. Dwight Yoakam did an amazing cover of Price’s “Heartaches by the Number” (written by Harlan Howard) in 1986 on his first LP.

Price was heavily influenced by fellow Texan Bob Wills, The King of Western Swing, and Wills’ band, The Texas Playboys. The intertwining fiddles featured in Wills’ jazz-based arrangements are echoed in the soaring twin fiddles that jumpstart so many early Ray Price tunes. They are absolutely essential to the awesomeness of his sound.

In his early career, Price was very much in the sway of Hank Williams. The two were roommates when Price first moved to Nashville in the early ’50s. When Hank died, Ray took over his band, changing the group’s name from The Drifting Cowboys to The Cherokee Cowboys. But Price had too many ideas of his own to ever be just a Hank Williams imitator.

“Crazy Arms” was Ray Price’s first No. 1 hit. In 1956, the single topped the country charts, kicking aside Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” The song was so popular that Price was allowed to bring his drum kit onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, where drums were usually forbidden. The b-side, “You Done Me Wrong” (one of my all-time favorite songs), is the foundation for the Holy Modal Rounders’ “Bird Song,” prominently featured on the “Easy Rider” soundtrack.

“Crazy Arms” was also Jerry Lee Lewis’ first single for Sun Records, also in 1956. The Killer marked the song with his own special madness. He makes it pretty clear that the arms really are crazy — and so are the legs! Check out any of his unbelievable ’80s-era live recordings. That’s an all-day YouTube wormhole, for sure.

Ray Price cranked out solid gold classic honky-tonk hits into the mid ’60s. That’s when he started trading fiddles and steel guitars for string sections and vibraphones. In 1970, Price had a massive hit with Kris Kristofferson’s maudlin ballad “For the Good Times.” The string-laden track was deep in the kind of sophisticated excesses that make country music purists so very miserable. There are people out there who are still not over this. They see Price’s “Countrypolitan” crossover as a massive betrayal.

I prefer Ray Price’s earlier honky-tonk period, but I don’t see consorting with cellists as a crime. Who wouldn’t want to have a string section or a full orchestra if the record label was willing to pay for it? But the beauty of classic old-school country music like a Hank Williams song comes in part from the narrow structure of the musical genre. Like a haiku, the song is compressed down to such an extreme point — like coal squashed into a diamond.

I’m not sure I believe in progress, but I definitely believe in chaos. No one should be so bound by tradition or rules regarding what music should sound like that they end up running around like Pete Seeger backstage at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. He was supposedly trying to find an axe to cut the power to Bob Dylan’s electric guitar. Pete was just trying to stop that crazy racket!

I like that story, even though it’s probably apocryphal. I want everyone to be capable of truly hating music they think is terrible. We all need to have more severe aesthetic standards. Nothing good can come from thinking everything is worth listening to, or that all music is of equal value. That’s not how art gets made. 

Catherine Irwin is a songwriter living in Louisville. She says Happy New Year to everyone. Let’s all resolve to spend 2014 — the centenary of the outbreak of the first World War — directing our intolerance toward greed, ignorance and empire.