Rick Koster: Farewell to honky-tonk giant Ray Price
I don't want to suggest that my sainted mother, Thelma Koster, is a big Ray Price fan, but there was a point in my grade school years when my little sister, Mic, tearfully came into my bedroom. She was worried that our mother would leave our father to run away with Ray Price.
Though my parents were happily married and there was no possibility of such a thing happening, Mic and I were mired in impressionable youth and I could understand my sister's confusion.
For one thing, we lived in Dallas, home of the Longhorn Ballroom, and were 30 miles away from Fort Worth, home of Panther Hall — and both were Big Stops on a honky-tonk circuit crisscrossed tirelessly by Price, Willie Nelson, George Jones, Jack Green and Merle Haggard. My folks were regulars at such shows, but it's also true my father, R.L., loved Ray's music just as much as my mother. There would be no romantic chicanery!
At home, the den stereo churned out a steady diet of the above artists, with Price always earning the most plays. On weekend evenings when my folks weren't out listening to live music, I'd hear from my bedroom Mom's occasional post-midnight battle cry — "Ray BABY!" as "Make the World Go Away" played for the 19th time in a row.
Price, maybe the greatest honky tonk vocal stylist ever, passed away yesterday at the age of 87. What an amazing voice he had, and what a terrific sense of empathy he intuitively displayed when it came to interpreting other writers' songs — particularly those by pals like Kris Kristofferson and Price's one-time bass player, Willie Nelson.
Indeed, for years, Price's signature band, the Cherokee Cowboys, served as a sort of assembly line for future stars inasmuch as Nelson, Johnny Paycheck and Roger Miller all apprenticed therein.
During that time, Price's arrangements also gave birth to the so-called "Ray Price beat," a signature groove with a walking bass line that came to identify an entire generation of country music.
It was all of these things together that enabled Price to make it seem like sitting nightly in a barroom, in the wake of romantic disaster, a particularly noble destiny.
Like most kids, I rebelled against the music of my parents' generation, and grew up wanting to be a rock star. Complicit in those dreams was my good bud, the very fine guitarist Kim Herriage, with whom I played in bands for years. His folks, Jack and Peg Herriage, were close friends of my parents' and equally enamored of country music, and it's funny today when Kim and I look back and discuss how much we now cherish those old songs -- and how grateful we are that we were sorta force-fed an education of sonic greatness at a tender age, when of course we were least willing to appreciate such things.
A few years back, Price came to the Mohegan Sun on a triple bill with Nelson and Haggard. It was a tremendous show and all three of the artists — despite their advanced ages — were in fine voice, humor and form.
Price opened and, from my seat, I called Mom back in Texas on my cell phone, praying for good reception. We were lucky. I held the phone up in the darkness as Price's lion's voice filled the hall with a litany of his immortal hits and, 2,000 miles away, Mom listened delightedly to the entire set. Occasionally, I could hear her murmur "Oh, my!" or just laugh gently — and I knew she was enjoying not just the music but a million memories of times gone by.
It remains one of my favorite evenings ever.
That's one of the best things about music: its ability to imprint and trigger episodes from life and experiences. All it takes is one note of melody or a wisp of a lyric and you're transported to another world, another time. In that spirit, I have Price to thank for countless such treasures.
One other quick note. Price recorded my favorite version ever of "Danny Boy." That's perhaps a blasphemy to some, but you can hear it on the play list here -- along with a representative sampling of his astonishing honky-tonk catalog.
Ray, you were a giant. Let's just be glad we had some time to spend together.
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