Ray Price has left us. I think it’s safe to say he was the last of the top-tier legendary country artists from the early days. He began performing in Texas in the late 1940s and didn’t stop until this year when cancer forced him to step away from the mic.
Price moved to Nashville in the early ‘50s where he was roommates with Hank Williams for a short time - I like to imagine the two of them bouncing songs off of each other in the living room at 2am. In 1953 Price formed his band the Cherokee Cowboys, an early proving ground for future legends in their own right Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and others.
I was fortunate to spend a day with Ray in 1999 photographing him for a magazine. He was recording a new album at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville with a band that included his steel player Buddy Emmons from the early Cherokee Cowboys days, longtime Cowboy bandleader and pianist Blondie Calderon as well as a full string section. As the day progressed I noticed that Ray, 74 at the time, would duck outside about every hour or so, coming back in red-eyed and absolutely reeking of reefer.
The session went late into the evening with just a few of us remaining in the darkened studio - the engineer, Ray in the booth doing the last bit of vocals and drinking from a bottle of tequila, and me in the main room packing up my equipment. Ray finished up for the night and as he walked through the large dark studio towards the exit he passed right behind me he said to the back of my head in that mellow, hep cat Texas twang, “I’ve got some good grass out in the bus…” I remember my first thought was, “the only other person that calls it grass is Robert Mitchum.”
I went out to his bus a few minutes later and as we sat there alone listening to some of the tracks he’d cut earlier in the day I proceeded to learn first hand who really gets the best grass on the planet. Sorry Willie, I didn’t know you didn’t know.
So long and rest in peace to one of the greatest of the greats.
Photo ©Jim Herrington