The year was 1956, and the country charts were being usurped by upstart names like Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins. Across the South, country radio was switching formats to the new rock ‘n’ roll sound, and country stars desperate to stay relevant were incorporating rock ‘n’ roll beats and teen lingo into their music (consider Webb Pierce’s No. 10 country hit “Teenage Boogie”). Ray Price was an emerging young country singer who’d entered the business as a Hank Williams protégé (or imitator, as he was known less charitably) still fumbling awkwardly towards a sound of his own. On March 1, the Texas native entered the Quonset Hut at Bradley Film and Recording Studio, also known as Studio B, in Nashville with a song called “Crazy Arms.”
“The sound they had going at the time in country was a two-four sound and a double-stop fiddle. I added drums to it, which had been done before but not much, and a four-four bass and a shuffle rhythm and the single-string fiddle,” Price, who died of pancreatic cancer on December 16, 2013, at age 87, told me in a 1979 interview. “We came up with it right there on the session. I don’t know why or where it came from; that’s just what I wanted…Everybody at the session thought it was the funniest thing they ever heard. The new sound, and just the words: ‘Crazy arms that long to hold somebody new.’ They thought it was strange. It was…”
“Crazy Arms” soon replaced Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” at No. 1 on the country charts, where it remained for 20 weeks; in all, it occupied those charts for 45 weeks, and because it was the only country response to rock ‘n’ roll that was unequivocally country, with no rock or pop influences, many said the single “saved” country music. That, as it turned out, was only the first time Price revitalized country; he did it again in 1967, when his heavily-orchestrated version of “Danny Boy” ushered in the countrypolitan era. For that one, though, he was more or less run out of Music City, USA.
Price was country when country wasn’t cool, and then he was pop when pop wasn’t cool — and that kind of stubbornness is the mark of the true Texas boy. To this day, Price remains one of the most innovative and influential figures in country music history; in the late ’50s and through most of the ’60s, his band the Cherokee Cowboys was the proving grounds for such future stars as Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck, Willie Nelson, Johnny Bush and Darrell McCall, as well as for hallowed steel-guitar sidemen Jimmy Day and Buddy Emmons. Price also helped break open the careers of then-fledgling songwriters like Nelson (“Night Life”), Miller (“Invitation to the Blues”), Bill Anderson (“City Lights”) and Harlan Howard (“Heartaches by the Number”). The melodically and rhythmically surging sound he created with “Crazy Arms” and refined for the next decade-plus became the sound of honky-tonk country; they were one and the same, a shuffle rhythm that was soon dubbed the Ray Price Beat. That sound is still, especially in Texas, synonymous with honky-tonk.
“Crazy Arms” became an overwhelming sensation for the way it bridged a country-audience divide: between the dancehall sound of Texas and the southwest and the sit-and-listen music of the Grand Ole Opry and the southeast. Price had been heading toward this fusion ever since his throbbing “Release Me” in 1954, when the singer began sustaining notes rather than biting them off. Though fellow Texan Hank Thompson had already been working somewhat similar turf with his much lighter fusion of honky-tonk and western swing, Price’s style had an emotional intensity that helped create a mass audience where previously there’d been two regional ones.
This was the sound of such Price hits as “I’ve Got a New Heartache,” “My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You,” “Heart Over Mind,” “Please Talk to My Heart,” “The Other Woman,” “A Way to Survive” and so many others. Price reinforced the sound with subtleties like twin basses (which, like twin fiddles, had thus far been used only in western swing), or a lone harmony voice in place of the vocal choruses employed by the Nashville Sound. His influence was such that Don Helms, who’d been Hank Williams’s steel player before joining Price after Williams’s death, recalled in a 1995 interview with writer Rich Kienzle, “Ray Price was a whole sound back then. The high tenor singing, the big, heavy beat and the Bob Wills-type single fiddle Tommy Jackson was playing by then. Pretty soon, there was country music and there was the Ray Price sound, and everybody was trying to get it.”
But by the time everybody had it, later in the ’60s, Price had moved on. Much as he loved country music, he also loved pop singers like Perry Como and Tony Bennett, and he’d experimented with string sections as early as Faith, his 1960 religious album. As that decade wore on, he grew more conflicted, tacking schlocky strings onto singles like “Make the World Go Away” and “Burning Memories,” then reverting to the clean, hard honky-tonk sound. Finally, he came up with a version “Danny Boy,” an Irish faux-folk song from 1913 based on the traditional “Londonderry Air,” that featured a massive string arrangement by Cam Mullins. When it went Top 10 in 1967, there was no turning back: The so-called country purist was now making records for an urbane pop audience.
Price may have been broadening the country’s parameters and gaining new fans (as well as providing a template for future stars like Kenny Rogers), but most of the purists recoiled. This was a little harsh: Price had always been a ballad singer. You’d think that country fans who’d loved his magnificent, 1963 reading of Willie Nelson’s bluesy “Night Life” would have been able to recognize how short a step it was from that to “Danny Boy.” And Price’s voice, which had deepened over the years into a burnished, mellow baritone, was a perfect fit for his new material. But despite initial triumphs — the 1970 “For the Good Times” was his first country No. 1 since 1960 while reaching No. 11 pop, and revived his old practice of introducing promising new songwriters, in this case Kris Kristofferson — his records soon descended into saccharine, slurping messes.
But as always, Price pushed forward, hiring orchestras at each new tour stop all through the ’70s, while refusing to play any of his honky-tonk hits. That finally changed after 1980, the year he and Willie Nelson teamed up for the duet album San Antonio Rose, and Price started working older material into his sets (while still usually performing with full orchestra). In the last few years before his 2012 cancer diagnosis, he continued gigging mainly with orchestras, but occasionally with hard country combos patterned after the Cherokee Cowboys. Meanwhile, alt-country acts like Junior Brown were discovering just how enduring that old Ray Price sound could be; even Price’s countrypolitan is echoed in contemporary sounds like Lambchop’s “Gone Tomorrow.” Fittingly, the Price influence remains strongest in Texas, where dancehalls and honky-tonks still thrive, and the shuffle will doubtless never die.