It sadly seems that we don’t have much time left with the great Ray Price, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s made The Cherokee Cowboy such a viable player in the progression of country music over the last several decades, and the legacy he will leave behind.
What I’ve had trouble grappling with when thinking about Ray Price, though, is trying to consider what country music would’ve been and would continue to be without him. See, Ray Price feels like a manufactured honky tonk or Nashville Sound machine, someone whose existence feels as inherent as country music itself. I guess this is what makes him such a big deal. Where would be be without the “Ray Price beat” or the Ray Price of the Nashville Sound era?
What’s peculiar about Ray Price is that he pioneered multiple definitions for country. His 1956 hit, “Crazy Arms,” is marked as a pivotal moment in the creation of hard-knocking honky tonk music, yet, just a decade later, Price would turn his twin fiddles into orchestral violins, as he turned to the conversely soft and sweeping Nashville Sound, helping solidify the sub genre with songs like “Make the World Go Away,” and “For the Good Times.”
Price’s career trajectory takes note of the inevitable fact that popular music is an ever changing phenomenon. It should’ve come as a surprise to Price fans when, last year, the singer lashed out at Blake Shelton for the following statements:
“Country music has to evolve in order to survive. Nobody wants to listen to their grandpa’s music. And I don’t care how many of these old farts around Nashville are going, ‘My God, that ain’t country!’ Well that’s because you don’t buy records anymore, jackass. The kids do, and they don’t want to buy the music you were buying.”
Price responded to Shelton’s comments by proudly labeling himself “Chief ‘Old Fart and Jackass,’” misconstruing Shelton’s assertions as naive and arrogant, when in reality, the younger of the two country singers was merely expressing a view that Price himself had made an influential career out of adopting.
The whole Price/Shelton/Old Fart debacle really shed light on a long established fact about Ray Price: that he has long been a refreshingly stale staple of country music. Price is stale because his music has a way of feeling like it’s been around forever, like it felt “old” upon conception; his honky tonk era recordings feel like the earliest artifacts we turn to when we seek to define some of the initial creations of country music. He’s never seemed to project an appeal to youth culture, and this may be where the greatest difference between the Cherokee Cowboy and Blake Shelton arose. Yet, the authenticity and humility of his music is something that has and always will be apparent.
Until the very recent past, the chance to see Price perform felt like the opportunity to see, first hand, one of the final remaining primary sources from the creation of country music— like holding a rifle that was used in the Civil War, or looking at an immigration form used by someone who passed through Ellis Island— Price felt like a real, living piece of history. I’m sorry to say that I never had the chance to see him, but his music will forever remain as an unquestioned chapter in the establishment of country music.