DATE May 12, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Country singer Ray Price discusses the foundations of
his career, his friendship with Hank Williams and his new CD
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When Ray Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, he
was described by Kris Kristofferson as a living link from Hank Williams to the
country music of today. Price was Hank Williams' protege and roommate in the
early '50s, after Price moved to Nashville. Then Price helped give several
country performers their starts. Early in their careers, Willie Nelson, Roger
Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush played in Price's band, The Cherokee
Price was born in Cherokee County, Texas, in 1926. His country hits have
included "Crazy Arms," "Release Me," "Heartaches by the Number" and "For the
Good Times." Ray Price has a new CD called "Prisoner of Love." On this
archive edition, we have an interview recorded last year. In fact, we played
the CD in last year's interview because we thought it was about to be
released, but it was postponed. Here's a track that shows what The Washington
Post described as Price's quiet soulfulness that now sounds refreshingly
old-fashioned. This is "Rambling Rose."
(Soundbite of "Rambling Rose" by Ray Price)
Mr. RAY PRICE (Singer): (Singing) Rambling Rose, rambling Rose, why you
ramble no one knows. Wild and windblown, that's how you've grown. Who can
cling to a rambling Rose? Ramble on, ramble on; when your rambling days are
gone, who will love you with a love true, when your rambling days are gone?
GROSS: That's Ray Price from his new CD.
Ray Price, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm really anxious to hear why you decided
to record "Rambling Rose," and I'll preface my question by saying that, you
know, I know Nat "King" Cole's recording, and although I love Nat Cole, that's
one recording I never loved, yet I really love the way you do the song. So
what did you hear in the song?
Mr. PRICE: Well, it's just a great song, really. It's kind of like a young
girl that might be heading in the wrong direction, I think, and--or that's the
way I look at it. I try to make it sound as real as I can.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your past. I know you grew up in Texas.
Where did you grow up, and what was that community like?
Mr. PRICE: Well, I came from northeast Texas, which was then Wood County and
Upshur County. It's a rural area, and my family were all farmers on both
sides. And then my mother and dad moved to Dallas, and, of course, I went to
Dallas with them. And I was raised in Dallas and went to college in
Arlington, Texas. But I'm back in east Texas now, living. So it's a pretty
part of the state.
GROSS: One of the people who helped you a lot early in your career was Hank
Mr. PRICE: Right.
GROSS: ...the great country singer. How did you meet him?
Mr. PRICE: Well, the music publisher in Nashville who got me a contract with
Columbia Records got me on one of Hank's radio shows. Every Friday night in
Nashville, if the stars were in town, they would be on their own radio shows
at WSIN(ph) in Nashville. And I was a guest, and music publisher Charlie
Martin(ph) got me a spot on his show, and I met him and we became real close
friends. And he got me on the Grand Ole Opry. And he and his wife were
getting divorced and I lived with him...
GROSS: Hank Williams got you on the Grand Ole Opry?
Mr. PRICE: Yes. And then we lived together; we had a house there in
Nashville, and I would say I had the upstairs, he had the lower, for about a
year, and then, of course, he passed away.
GROSS: And you're saying that you started living together after he and his
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he had to have somebody. He had a problem with
alcohol, and we were real close and I'd take care of him. Everything was
GROSS: What would you do for him?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, just whatever needed to be done, like go to the store and
things like that.
GROSS: Would you try to keep him from alcohol or keep him comfortable with
Mr. PRICE: Well, yeah, but you just don't do--oh, no, I wouldn't give him
anything. No way. But, you know, like any of your friends, if they got into
it too far, you'd try to help them if they were ill.
GROSS: Now I read someplace--and you can tell me if this is true, because
there are so many legends surrounding famous people--but I read that Hank
Williams tried to shoot you a couple of times, that he shot at you a couple of
Mr. PRICE: No, honey, that is a real big fabrication.
Mr. PRICE: Real big. No way.
Mr. PRICE: What I--it had to come from somebody that may have been a little
envious back there somewhere.
Mr. PRICE: It really didn't happen. The reason why that Hank and I stopped
living together right at the last was the fact that he was in the hospital so
many times and having so much trouble, and one of the times I was ordered by
the man, Jim Denny, who ran the Artists Service Bureau at Nashville and
handled Hank, to take him to the hospital. And Hank got a little ill at me
for that, and so I moved. But we never lost the friendship we had.
GROSS: Did he help you get on the Grand Ole Opry the first time?
Mr. PRICE: Sure did.
GROSS: What did he do to get you on there? Were you performing in his act or
opening for him or...
Mr. PRICE: No. It was--one Saturday night, Red Foley, who was one of the
big stars and the star of the "Prince Albert," which was the network
show--wife had died and Hank took the host's position on the show. And he
wanted me for his guest. And you didn't get on the Grand Ole Opry back then
without a hit record, and I was years away from a hit record. So he got me
on, and they sent me to take care of him on a trip one time, and everything
worked out all right so they signed me to a contract.
GROSS: What do you mean, they sent you to take care of him on a trip? They
knew that he was having problems and he needed kind of like a guardian?
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, and he needed somebody to get up there and sing in case he
didn't make it, and...
Mr. PRICE: ...that was hard to do. That happened to me in Norfolk on New
Year's Day, and I didn't know what to do, because they come running in and
said, `Well, you're going to have to take Hank's place.' And here I was;
nobody even knew who I was. And I said, `Well, there's no way I can do that.'
But anyway, they put me out there with Hank's band, and we made it all right,
and the people kind of liked me because I had made a mistake by naming one of
the songs in a higher key than I ought to have been, and I let them know about
it, so it turned kind of amusing for a while, and from then on Norfolk was one
of the best towns for me.
GROSS: How would you explain it to the audience that Hank Williams couldn't
Mr. PRICE: Well, you'd let the promoter do that. And there were other stars
on the show--Johnny Jack, Kitty Wells--and we were all trying to cover up the
fact--'cause it was 10 or 12,000 people there. And the promoter went out
and--I forget what he said, that Hank was ill or something. But some of the
times Hank wouldn't even be drinking, and the promoters would get him to drink
and so they didn't have to pay him.
GROSS: You're kidding.
Mr. PRICE: No, I'm not kidding, honey.
GROSS: So this way they'd get all the ticket sales, but they wouldn't have to
Mr. PRICE: Well, they wouldn't have to pay him 'cause he breached his
contract. He come in there and got drunk, didn't do a good show.
Mr. PRICE: And they'd put him on the stage while he's inebriated, and nobody
can get on stage and sing drunk.
GROSS: Uh-huh. But in the meanwhile the promoter would have had maybe a full
house and made all the money in ticket sales.
Mr. PRICE: Well, 50 or $60,000, put it in his pocket and go home.
GROSS: Hm. Let's pause here for some music and hear one of your early hits.
In fact, this was your first number-one recording. This is called "Crazy
Arms." It was recorded in 1956. Do you want to say anything about the
recording before we hear it?
Mr. PRICE: Well, it was in 1956, and the--Bob Martin(ph), a disc jockey in
Tampa, Florida, had found a record of "Crazy Arms." It wasn't a very good
record, but he was intrigued by the song and he played it for me, and I was,
too. And then when I recorded it, it became a monster. It was my first
million-seller, and it crossed over. And at that time, they didn't know what
a cross-over was, so--but it was the first big one I had. You're right.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is my guest, Ray Price, recorded in 1956.
(Soundbite of "Crazy Arms" by Ray Price)
Mr. PRICE: (Singing) Now blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, and
the storms brewing in this heart of mine. This ain't no crazy dream; I know
that it's real. You're someone else's love now, you're not mine. Crazy arms
that reach to hold somebody new; for my yearning heart keeps saying you're not
mine. My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll be wed, and that's why
I'm lonely all the time.
GROSS: What was the impact of having a number-one hit?
Mr. PRICE: Well, I got to eat pretty regular.
GROSS: Were you having trouble doing that before?
Mr. PRICE: Well, yeah, all young ones have trouble. In fact, Lefty Frizzell
and I started out together, and we used to split a bowl of stew in Dallas
when we were first starting. But everything got better, like it always does,
and--I don't know; that's about all I can say. It was just--it gave me an
opportunity to do things that I hadn't been able to do up to that point.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. My guest is Ray Price. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is country singer Ray Price.
Now I believe after Hank Williams died, you used his band for a while.
Mr. PRICE: I used his band for about two years, and there's two or three of
them that's passed on now, but the rest--we're all dear friends. But I got to
sounding too much like Hank on records, and it was because the music was so
locked in, it had to sound like Hank. And we had to break up, and broke up in
Grand Junction, Colorado, if I remember correctly.
GROSS: Did you feel that your singing style changed when you got your own
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: How did it change?
Mr. PRICE: Well, I went back to singing Texas-style and not the way Hank and
the band played. He had no drums or anything like that, and, of course, I
brought a Texas swing band to Nashville to go to work with me. And for then
on, that's the way it was. That's where I earned the title as the number-one
honky-tonk player, 'cause that's the only place you could play at that time,
was in the nightclubs.
GROSS: You mentioned Western swing. You did an album--I think it was in the
late 1950s--of songs that were first recorded by Bob Wills, the father of
Western swing. Did you ever know him?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah, I knew Bob real well. When I was first starting in
Dallas, he had a nightclub called Bob Wills' Ranch House. It later became
another nightclub after he left it, but when he was on the road with his band,
he would always let me and a band play in his place. He did me a big favor.
And, of course, that was my tribute to him, was that album.
GROSS: Well, this album features the band that you put together after you
used the Hank Williams band, or one of the versions of the band you put
together, and Willie Nelson is in this band. You had several really great
people in your band. Johnny Bush was in your band for a while, the great
Mr. PRICE: Roger Miller was a front man.
GROSS: Yeah. How did you find these people who became so famous in their own
right? How did you end up having them as sidemen in your band?
Mr. PRICE: Well, they were all looking for a job. They're--everything was
tough back there. And I hired Roger. He was working in a fire department in
Amarillo, Texas. And I needed a fiddle player, and he came out to play
fiddle. And his fiddle playing was terrible. And when he got through, he
said, `How'd you like that?' And I said, `Well, can you sing and play
guitar?' And it kind of shook him and he said, `Yeah,' so I hired him as a
front man. And he did real well. He's--Roger and I were real close. Just
like Willie and I are still close.
GROSS: Well, it sounded like you were determined to hire him whether he was
good or not.
Mr. PRICE: Well, I had heard him sing.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And had you heard Willie Nelson sing before you hired him?
Mr. PRICE: Well, Willie worked for my publishing company, Packard Music(ph).
GROSS: Oh, so you knew his songs.
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. All of them. And, of course, Willie was
having a hard time, too. And Johnny Paycheck had gone out on his own, and
Willie replaced Johnny Paycheck on bass and then he would play guitar
GROSS: So let's hear something from this Bob Wills tribute album, the one
where Willie Nelson's featured in the band. And I just looked at the
recording date on this. It was recorded in 1961. And I thought we'd hear
"Time Changes Everything." Do you want to say anything about it?
Mr. PRICE: Just a great song.
GROSS: It is.
Mr. PRICE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: OK. Here it goes. This is...
Mr. PRICE: Countrywise.
GROSS: This is Ray Price.
(Soundbite of "Time Changes Everything" by Ray Price)
Mr. PRICE: (Singing) There was a time when I thought of no other and we sang
our own love's refrain. Our hearts beat as one as we had our fun, but...
Unidentified Man and Mr. PRICE: (Singing) ...time changes everything.
Mr. PRICE: (Singing) When you left me, my poor heart was broken. Our
romance seemed all in vain. The dark clouds are gone and there's blue skies
Unidentified Man and Mr. PRICE: (Singing) ...time changes everything.
GROSS: That's a reprise from his 1961 album, "San Antonio Rose." It's a
tribute to Bob Wills. And it's been reissued in the past couple of years.
Was that Willie Nelson singing harmony, by the way?
Mr. PRICE: Could have been. Willie and I recorded the "San Antonio Rose"
album around 1979, I think.
GROSS: And that was a big hit on the country charts.
Mr. PRICE: It was a big one. Real big. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. In the mid-'60s or so, you started using more heavily
arranged settings, you know, strings and orchestras, moving away from a more
honky-tonk kind of sound. What led you in that direction?
Mr. PRICE: The honky-tonks.
GROSS: What do you mean?
Mr. PRICE: Yeah. It wasn't fun playing honky-tonks. And I was trying to
broaden my audience out. And also I thought that if country music was going
to really win approval all over the country, they had to do something to kind
of fix it where the people that listen to the Tony Bennetts sing and the Frank
Sinatras and those people would like the song and the music. And country
music songs are great. I think they're beautiful songs, and to put the
strings with them, that's my idea of how to make one really great song.
GROSS: Now did that work for you? Did it get you where you wanted to be in
venues that other pop singers were singing?
Mr. PRICE: Well, it got me in a lot of places, yeah. It sure did. I became
one of Johnny Carson's favorite singers, which I'm very proud of. And I did a
lot of things with him in New York before he moved to California and
afterwards. But, yeah, it got me where I wanted to be. I got out of the
honky-tonks. And I still play dances every now and then for some of my old
fans, but I'm not really into that anymore.
GROSS: I know that there's a lot of country music performers who are, you
know, acknowledged as being, you know, among the greats who don't get played
much on country music radio anymore, including Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson. Do
you feel that you're in that predicament as well?
Mr. PRICE: Well, yeah, I'm in the same box. That all is brought down from
the higher ups-in the industry, which I guess would be New York or LA, and
they felt like they could make a whole lot more money with the young kids
playing rock music, but they had to name it something besides rock or it
wouldn't sell. And so they named it country music, but it's really rock
music. It's the old Beatles sound.
GROSS: I take it it's a sound you don't much like or don't feel that you
Mr. PRICE: No, I like The Beatles. I like The Beatles. I think they ought
to play The Beatles. They don't need to play the rest of them. The Beatles
have already done it. Now that sounds hateful, and I'm sorry for that.
GROSS: I want to get back to your new CD. And as I mentioned earlier, some
of the songs on here are jazz and pop standards. And I thought I'd play
another that fits in that category. This is the song "Prisoner of Love."
Tell me why you decided to sing this.
Mr. PRICE: It's just a great song.
GROSS: It is.
Mr. PRICE: I remember it back years ago when Perry Como recorded it. It's a
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Did you like Perry Como?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So I've never heard it with this kind of band, a kind of like shuffle
beat behind it before.
Mr. PRICE: That's the old brass beat, they call that.
Mr. PRICE: And we thought it would fit, so we put it in there.
GROSS: It works very nicely. So why don't we hear it. And Ray Price, thank
you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PRICE: Terry, it's my pleasure. Thank you, dear.
GROSS: Ray Price is currently on a national tour. He plays in Annapolis
tonight and Alexandria tomorrow. Here's the title track from his new CD,
"Prisoner of Love." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Prisoner of Love" by Ray Price)
Mr. PRICE: (Singing) Alone from night to night you'll find me too weak to
break the chains that bind me. I need no shackles to remind me, I'm just a
prisoner of love. For one command I stand and wait now from one whose master
of my fate now. I can't escape for it's too late now. I'm just a prisoner of
(Station credits given)
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
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