Country crooner Ray Price (1926-2013) started off as a rough-and-tumble honkytonker, but his ability to connect with sentimental heart songs helped him make the transition into the mellower, pop-friendly "Nashville Sound." Price became a sort of hillbilly Sinatra, sweet and sincere while also robust and manly, but while this may sound great to Sinatra fans, those of us who just love the twang may feel a little let down by his later work. Still, Price was one of the titans of the early honky-tonk era, and his work remains at the top of any list of good, gritty hillbilly hits. Price was also famous for helping newcomers make it in the country music business: Willie Nelson was in his late '50s band, and stalwarts such as a href="bush_johnny_01.html">Johnny Bush, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck also backed Price at the starts of their careers. As a song stylist, Price brought new songwriters into the fold, most notably Willie Nelson and Harlan Howard, whose "Heartaches By The Number" was a huge hit for Price (and for Howard as well!) Here's a quick look at his work...

Discography - Best-Ofs

Ray Price "The Honky Tonk Years: 1952-1966" (Bear Family, 2002)
Well, gee, if you just want to cut to the chase and pick up all the good stuff -- and I do mean all the good stuff! -- then this giganto 10-CD box set should just about do it for you... All of Price's best hard-country work... and then some! (I haven't heard this myself, but hope to someday... I have no doubt it has Bear Family's trademark high-quality sound and copious liner notes... A treasure trove for those fortunate enough to pick it up!

Ray Price "Greatest Hits" (Columbia, 1961)
Although this is a "best-of" set, it fits in with his regular LPs because a bunch of these songs date back to the five-year period between when he first hit the charts and his Sings Heart Songs "debut" album. And, man, are these songs great. One winner after another -- "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches By The Number," "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)," "City Lights," the cajun-flavored "You Done Me Wrong..." Honkytonk heartbreak never sounded so sweet!

Ray Price "Collector's Choice" (Columbia-Harmony, 1966)

Ray Price "Greatest Hits, v.2" (Columbia, 1967)

Ray Price "Born To Lose" (Columbia-Harmony, 1967)

Ray Price "I Fall To Pieces" (Columbia-Harmony, 1970)

Ray Price "The World Of Ray Price" (Columbia, 1970)

Ray Price "Make The World Go Away" (Columbia-Harmony, 1970)

Ray Price "Welcome To My World" (Columbia, 1971)

Ray Price "Release Me" (Columbia-Harmony, 1971)

Ray Price "All Time Greatest Hits" (Columbia, 1972)
Well, here's a surprise: the CD reissue follows the original early '70s LP pretty closely! A few songs have been shuffled into a different order, but other than that, this is pretty much the same album.

Ray Price "Hits On Monument" (Sony, 1993)
Not that there were that many, mind you... But the four that actually charted are all here... Why, come to think of it... isn't this basically just a reissue of his lone Monument LP, There's Always Me, with uglier cover art...? Say... What kinda saps do they take us for, anyway?

Ray Price "Honkytonk Years" (Rounder, 1984) (LP)
Well, in the late pre-CD era, when the major labels had abandoned the old-time honkytonkers and let almost all their best stuff lapse out of print, good old Rounder Records took the initiative to dig into Price's priceless back catalog and put together this little gem of an album. Pure honkytonk gold... Still worth tracking down a copy and putting it on your shelves. Yummy stuff.

Ray Price "The Essential Ray Price: 1951-1962" (Sony Legacy, 1991)
K-I-L-L-E-R. Although he later became one of the cheesiest of the cheesy Nashville pop vocalists, Price's country credentials are pretty impeccable. After all, Hank Williams was crashing on his couch in the month's before he died, and Price filled in for Hank on the nights when he was too trashed to perform. Afterwards, Price took over the Hank Williams band, and it was with many of these great musicians that he recorded some of his best work in the early 'Fifties. This top-notch collection sticks strictly to Price's real country roots -- even though it coasts into the early 'Sixties, when Price was doing some pretty corny stuff, this disc features him covering great honkytonk material, stuff by writers like Wayne Walker and Mel Tillis, who were keeping the hard country flame alive. Price was a rather plain singer -- not as electrifying as most of his contemporaries -- but he had real country soul.

Ray Price "16 Biggest Hits" (Sony, 1999)
An okay introduction, but be forewarned: a few of these songs have been tinkered with after the fact, and don't sound the same as they did when they first came out, lo, those many years ago...

Ray Price "The Essential Ray Price" (Sony-BMG Legacy, 2007)
(Produced by Don Law & Frank Jones)

This 2-CD best-of set is a great study in contrasts, showing Price's path from honkytonker to lounge singer, paralleling the same evolution in the country music industry of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Disc One is dominated with his deliciously robust hard country hits of the mid-1950s, back when Price was one of the most credible heirs to the Hank Williams mantle (especially since he inherited Hank's actual band, after Williams passed away. The powerful loping thump of the Texas shuffle -- Price's signature sound -- propels bombshells such as I've Got A New Heartache," "Crazy Arms" and "My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You." It's heaven. There were ballads, too, but Price excelled at uptempo material, and up through the early '60s that's what he concentrated on. Well into the 1960s, his work had a surprisingly earthy feel -- even while shifting gears to become a countrypolitan crooner, Price could cook up stunners like "A Way To Survive" and "Burning Memories," and he kept a bluesy undercurrent in his music long after contemporaries such as Hank Locklin and Eddy Arnold had abandoned all pretense at twang. This set basically picks up where the previous Essential album (from 1991) left off, and compliments that still-crucial collection: after all the twang and thunder, Price softened up and went pop, but an extra disc's worth of this later material is well worth having on hand. Gems from Hank Cochran, Kris Kristofferson and Price's longtime amigo, Willie Nelson, are nothing to sneeze at. Also, the early years are represented by a markedly different playlist: you'll want both best-ofs to grace your stereo, and every time you check this one out, you'll be rewarded in some new way. Classic country and countrypolitan at it's best!

Discography - Albums

Ray Price "Sings Heart Songs" (Columbia, 1957)

Ray Price "Talk To Your Heart" (Columbia, 1958) (LP)
Rock solid, super-cool honkytonk ballads, kicking off with the title track (a big hit for Price in '52), and on to winners like "Deep Water," the bluesy "I Gotta Have My Baby Back" and a stellar remake of Floyd Tillman's "I Love You So Much It Hurts." Plus, there are a bunch of other great weepers... great stuff from start to finish!

Ray Price "Faith" (Columbia, 1960)
A gospel set...

Ray Price "Greatest Hits" (Columbia, 1961)
Although this is a "best-of" set, it fits in with his regular LPs because a bunch of these songs date back to the five-year period between when he first hit the charts and his Sings Heart Songs "debut" album. And, man, are these songs great. One winner after another -- "Crazy Arms," "Heartaches By The Number," "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)," "City Lights," the cajun-flavored "You Done Me Wrong..." Honkytonk heartbreak never sounded so sweet!

Ray Price "San Antonio Rose" (Columbia, 1962)
Price's tribute to the great western swing hoe-daddy, Bob Wills.... Ahhhhhh-Hahhhhhh!

Ray Price "Night Life" (Columbia, 1963)

Ray Price "Love Life" (Columbia, 1964)

Ray Price "Burning Memories" (Columbia, 1965)
(Produced by Don Law & Frank Jones)

Common knowledge has it that Price's 1967 hit version of "Danny Boy" marked the end of his affiliation with the harder side of the country sound.... But albums like this clearly showed him swinging into the countrypolitan "Nashville Sound." A few songs have a strong backbeat and still shuffle like the goodle days, but many of the tracks on here have needless orchestrations, and Price hams it up vocally on a lot of his phrasing. Some songs work for me, but most do not -- this is an album I don't need to revisit that often... (It had a lot of hits on it, though, including the title track, which hit #2, as did his version of "Make The World Go Away," which preceded Eddy Arnold's version by a good two years...)

Ray Price's Cherokee Cowboys "Western Strings" (Columbia, 1965)

Ray Price "The Other Woman" (Columbia, 1965)

Ray Price "The Same Old Me" (Columbia, 1966)

Ray Price "Another Bridge To Burn" (Columbia, 1966)

Ray Price "Touch My Heart" (Columbia, 1967)

Ray Price "Danny Boy" (Columbia, 1967)
The title track crossed over to Pop... into the middle rungs of the Top 100... But, jeez, is it cheesy! Plus... "Greensleeves" and "Vaya Con Dios"? Yeesh.

Ray Price "Take Me As I Am" (Columbia, 1968)

Ray Price "She Wears My Ring" (Columbia, 1968)

Ray Price "Sweetheart Of The Year" (Columbia, 1969)

Ray Price "Christmas Album" (Columbia, 1969)

Ray Price "You Wouldn't Know Love" (Columbia, 1969)

Ray Price "For The Good Times" (Columbia, 1970)

Ray Price "I Won't Mention It Again" (Columbia, 1971)

Ray Price "Lonesomest Lonesome" (Columbia, 1972)

Ray Price "She's Got To Be A Saint" (Columbia, 1973)

Ray Price "You're The Best Thing" (Columbia, 1974)

Ray Price "This Time, Lord" (Myrrh, 1974)

Ray Price "Like Old Times Again" (Myrrh, 1975)

Ray Price "If You Ever Change Your Mind" (Columbia, 1975)

Ray Price "Say I Do" (Dot, 1975)

Ray Price "Rainbows And Tears" (Dot, 1976)

Ray Price "Hank 'N' Me" (Dot, 1976)
A Hank Williams tribute...

Ray Price "Reunited" (Dot, 1977)

Ray Price "Precious Memories" (Word, 1976)

Ray Price "How Great Thou Art" (Word, 1978)

Ray Price "There's Always Me" (Monument, 1979)
Ray scraped his way into the Top 20 with a couple of tracks on this album... (Reissued on CD as Hits On Monument. See below.)

Ray Price & Willie Nelson "San Antonio Rose" (Columbia, 1980)
A sweet homage to the western-swing music both men grew up on, and also one of Willie's best duet albums of the '80s. It's also a reunion album of sorts: Willie played in Price's band in the early '60s, when Price was still a hard country hero, and the two men share a strong understanding of how to sing a heartsong the right way. The production and performances are solid, though notably laid back -- what's remarkable about this album, though, is how Willie pulled such a vigorous performance out of Price, who'd been in a sleepy country crooner mode ever since the '60s Nashville sound kicked in. This disc isn't electrifying, but it is quite nice, and quite classy. Worth checking out!

Ray Price "Town And Country" (Dimension, 1981)

Ray Price "Somewhere In Texas" (Dimension, 1982)

Ray Price "Master Of The Art" (Warner Brothers, 1982)

Ray Price "Welcome To Ray Price Country" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Portrait Of A Singer" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Greatest Hits" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Greatest Hits, v.2" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Greatest Hits, v.3" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Revival Of Old Time Singing" (Step One, 1986)
A gospel offering...

Ray Price "The Heart Of Country Music" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "A Christmas Gift For You" (Step One, 1986)

Ray Price "Just Enough Love" (Step One, 1987)

Ray Price "By Request" (Step One, 1988)

Ray Price & Faron Young "Memories That Last" (Step One, 1990)

Ray Price "Hall Of Fame Series" (Step One, 1990)

Ray Price "Sometimes A Rose" (Columbia, 1992)

Ray Price "Prisoner Of Love" (BMG-Justice, 2000)
(Produced by Randall Jamail)

Texas shufflin' old-timer Ray Price, a veteran honkytonker who's been crooning the soft stuff for a few decades now, makes a "comeback" with this smooth, heavily orchestrated set of standards and pop vocals-ized oldies. The album opens on a strong note, with a swank version of "Better Class Of Losers," in which Price's voice falls flat in places, but is still reasonably strong, and the arrangements (courtesy of David Campbell) don't overshadow his phrasing. The rest of the album loses steam, though, and the orchestral aspect becomes increasingly intrusive. Ray's later work (notably his 2003 album with Willie Nelson) show that the flaw here was with the producers, not the singer...

Ray Price "Time" (Audium, 2002)

Ray Price & Willie Nelson "Run That By Me One More Time" (Lost Highway, 2003)
Willie and Ray go back a long, long ways... For a time in the early 1960s, Willie played bass in Ray's band, and there's that little song he wrote, called "Night Life," which Price has recorded a time or two. Then, back in Nelson's decade-o-duets, one of his best collaborations was 1980's San Antonio Rose, a back-to-basics, western swing-oriented nostalgia trip that was also one of the most vigorous records Price had made in many a year. More amazing still, though, is that 23 years later these two old coots could get together and not only rise to the level of that album, but surpass it -- by far. This record is a stunner. A classic. A disc that will stand the test of time. Both of these guys understand the sincere emotional depth and resonance of old-fashioned heartsongs in a way that most of these pampered, formula-driven Nashville young'uns can simply no longer come close to. Willie and Ray make sad old songs like "Deep Water" and "Cold War With You" come alive, with understated pathos and beautiful, heartfelt performances. The band is right there with 'em, too, matching their soulful vocals with equally sympathetic backing... God bless Willie Nelson for pulling out all the stops and creating another masterpiece, here in his sixth decade in showbiz. That's a pretty neat trick.

Ray Price/Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard "Last Of The Breed, v.1 & 2" (Lost Highway, 2007)
(Produced by Fred Foster)

SO SWEET. Three venerable old coots get together and sing the kind of songs they love -- sappy old standards, soulful heartsongs, gospel tunes and heartwrenching ballads, all performed with a light, loving touch. Each of these old-timers has had a creative renaissance in recent years, but it's really Ray Price who shines on here... Price sank into irrelevance during the 1970s countrypolitan years, but his old pal Willie Nelson keeps bringing him back into the spotlight, with ever-increasing creative rewards. Willie and Merle are no slouches, but Price really steals the show -- he delivers these songs with such depth and conviction, it's hard not to be blown away. What a treat to hear him in such fine form again. This 2-CD set is a worthy reprise of Willie and Ray's Run That By Me One More Time, an album that was one of my favorite country releases of 2003. And if you like this collection, you should definitely pick up a copy of Willie's recent tribute to songwriter Cindy Walker, You Don't Know Me,which was produced by Fred Foster, and taps into the same wellspring of classy, heartfelt sentimentality. This is a really rich, rewarding listening experience. Yay, Willie. Yay, Merle. Yay, Ray!

Ray Price/Willie Nelson/Merle Haggard "Live From Last Of The Breed Tour" (Image Entertainment, 2009)


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