Don't let that seemingly happy and carefree countenance in the photo fool you, friends. Ray Price isn't a happy man, at least not if you judge him by the long string of essential honky-tonk records he made in the 1950s and 60s.
Sure, a ton of great country music comes from a place of emotional despondency, but I don't think anyone ever devoted more time, energy and talent to gloriously mournful tales of grief-stricken losers in the game of love. So regularly and convincingly has he visited this territory, in fact, that I feel confident in assuming that Ray would understand if I described him as looking at the world through morose-colored glasses. But it's not just the fact that he comes across as a guy who's not happy unless he's miserable that makes his best records so great, it's also the fact that they were unbelievably well-written songs, expertly played and produced, and simply catchy as all get out.
There were several key ingredients to what became known as the "Ray Price sound," usually just referred to as a shuffle these days. A walking 4/4 bass line, played in tandem by both an upright and an electric bass, is a necessity and so is a fiddle / steel guitar combo, which allows either instrument to serve as a sympathetic counterpoint to Price's voice throughout the song. Another big part of the sound is the high tenor harmony vocals that can be heard on each chorus and, of course, Ray's incredible voice which evokes haunted loneliness and pain better than any other voice I've ever heard. Throw in some drums and you've got the most important elements of the irresistible country shuffle sound.
If you're not familiar with sound of a Ray Price shuffle here's a sterling example, Heart Over Mind, recorded in 1961.
Ray Price - Heart Over Mind (2:42)
One of the instantly recognizable trademarks of so many of Price's classic shuffle beat songs is the 3 bold and ringing fiddle notes (duh-duh-duh) from the instrument of ace session man Tommy Jackson that kick off so many of them.
This point was driven home to me many years ago when I was over at my pal Derek's house while he was listening to his newly acquired prize possession, Bear Family's 10 disc box set of Ray Price material that covered pretty much everything he recorded up until Danny Boy (1966), which was a pivotal event in his decision to shift to a more pop-oriented sound that would bring him numerous hits over the next decade, including Help Me Make It Through The Night and For The Good Times. Derek mentioned how frequently this intro was used and to illustrate his point, he began jumping from track to track on one of the discs and I was dumbfounded by just how many of them started with the exciting duh-duh-duh fiddle notes. It should be noted here that many of Price's recordings from this era begin with a loping steel guitar rather than the fiddle sound to which I've become addicted.
Greatly impressed, I began to search a bit more diligently for Ray's LPs and 45s, gradually accumulating the ones I found essential to a happy life. I never got around to picking up the mammoth box set, but this weekend I did spend a ridiculous amount of time assembling a single lengthy MP3 that includes the first 3 or 4 seconds of several dozen songs that launch with this distinctive fiddle sound. You can follow along with the song list provided.
You can listen to this amazing display of artistic consistency at the link below:
01. Crazy Arms
02. City Lights
03. Heartaches By The Number
04. Same Old Me
06. Wall Of Tears
07. One More Time
08. My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You
09. Kissing Your Picture (Is So Cold)
10. Go Away
11. Walk Me To The Door
12. All Right (I'll Sign The Papers)
13. Swingin' Doors
14. I've Still Got Room For One More Heartache
15. A Way To Free Myself From You
16. Imagination's A Wonderful Thing
17. Who Will Be The First
18. I Wish I Could Fall In Love Today
19. I'm Not Crazy Yet
20. Rose Colored Glasses
21. Whose Heart Are You Breaking Now
22. You Don't Love Me (But I'll Always Care)
23. Too Much Love Is Spoiling You
24. Too Late
25. I Don't Know Why I Keep Loving You
26. The Other Woman
27. You Don't Care What Happens To Me
28. Hang Your Head In Shame
29. Don't You Ever Get Tired Of Hurting Me
30. San Antonio Rose
31. I've Just Destroyed The World
32. There'll Be No Teardrops Tonight
33. Heart Over Mind
34. A Girl In The Night
35. If She Could See Me Now
36. I Want To Hear It From You
37. Touch My Heart
38. Take These Chains From My Heart
39. Please Talk To My Heart
40. Time Changes Everything
41. Take Back Your Old Love Letters
42. Take Me As I Am Or Let Me Go
43. My Confession
44. The Kind Of Love I Can't Forget
Every once in a great while, I'll run into someone who hears the definitive Ray Price shuffle beat and moans, "Man, all that stuff sounds the same" to which my reply is a genuine "I know...that's what I like about it, too!"