Today we celebrate the 85th birthday of the greatest voice in all of country music, Ray Price. I know George Jones has legions of acolytes who would happily take issue with this, but as much as I love Jones, I stand by my vote. Over a career that's now spanned some six decades, Price has been the voice behind an extensive array of honky-tonk gems featuring an irresistible beat known today as the "Ray Price shuffle." The sound was fully realized for the first time on Crazy Arms, recorded in 1956.
Price described the new sound to writer John Morthland this way in 1980. "The sound they had going at the time in country was a 2/4 sound and a double-stop fiddle. I added drums to it, which had been done before, but not much, and a 4/4 bass and shuffle rhythm and the single string fiddle. We came up with it right there on the session (for Crazy Arms). I don't know why or where from; that's just what I wanted." (This description was lifted from Rich Kienzle's 2003 volume Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky-Tonk, Western Swing, And Country Jazz. It's hard to find these days, but well worth tracking down. Google Books has put large chunks of it online.)
Crazy Arms led to other efforts in the same foot-stomping vein: Heartaches By The Number, City Lights, Invitation To The Blues, My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You, Heart Over Mind, Walk Me To The Door, Pride and many others. One element of consistency shared by all of these songs, and a great many other Price songs, is their complete embrace of misery, depression and woe - emotions that Price's rich, smoky baritone evokes with utter conviction.
By the mid 1960s, Price was experimenting with more pop sounds in his recordings. On some, but definitely not all, of his songs Price began tinkering with a softer smoother approach, incorporating countrypolitan flourishes like chirpy backup vocals, lush string sections, and some of the mellower production techniques favored by Nashville. I have to admit that while I've never really been able to sink my teeth into many of these productions, they have their charms.
By the way, if you want to dig up even more Ray Price clips, by all means check out Gatorrock787's YouTube channel. It's a vast repository of vintage performance clips that concentrates on hillbilly, country, and rockabilly material. Several of the clips below were borrowed from his collection, but if you poke around his spectacular site, you'll find dozens more featuring Ray.
Price is still out there touring the nation with regularity. I've been lucky enough to catch his show about eight or nine times in the last decade, and I can attest that he and his impeccable band are still delivering great performances. And I'm not sure exactly how he does it, but his voice remains rich and vibrant. He'll spend his 85th birthday onstage this evening in Stafford, Texas. If you can't make that show (and let's face it, you probably can't), here's a list of his other upcoming performances.