Ray Price cracks open a cold beer. He’s earned it—he just finished 18 holes of golf in the mountains of Hiawassee, Ga., and he admits the game “kinda wore me down a little.” And, he adds, it was not one of his best. “I’ll put it this way,” he deadpans. “I got my money’s worth, because I got to hit the ball a lot.”
No matter—the 80-year-old country legend isn’t in Hiawassee to play golf anyway. He’s here to play one of about 70 concerts he’ll perform this year, during which he’ll play classics like “For the Good Times” and “Crazy Arms.” It won’t be just a nostalgia show—unlike most singers his age who are still at it, Price’s smooth, graceful voice is still a wonder to behold. He also recently finished recording an album with old friends Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, the latter of whom got his start playing bass in Price’s band.
The gentleman nicknamed “The Cherokee Cowboy” (he was born in Cherokee County, Texas, and still lives in the area) will reflect on his career Saturday, Aug. 5, in a special public interview session with WSM’s Eddie Stubbs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. On the previous day, the Hall will officially unveil For the Good Times: The Ray Price Story, a biographical exhibit including memorabilia donated by Price and his wife, Janie that runs through June of 2007. As he unwound from his disappointing golf game (“We put a lot of holes in the ground,” he says), Price spoke with us about his still-unfolding career.
Scene: How does it feel to have a museum exhibit devoted to you?
Price: Makes me feel old. (laughs) No, it makes me feel great, of course. The Hall of Fame has done a great job. They’re working their fannies off to make it happen.
Scene: The exhibit includes a lot of your awards, stage costumes and things like that. What’s your attitude toward memorabilia? Do you keep a lot of things?
Price: I used to not. I never took a lot of pictures, never kept a lot of souvenirs. I guess I just didn’t really like the fact of looking back too much. But then when you get older, like I am now, I wish I’d have done it, because I’d have had a lot more memories.
Scene: My impression is that you’ve always been a pretty forward-looking fellow.
Price: I don’t know, some people say I’m kinda crazy. (laughs)
Scene: Now who would say something like that?
Price: Just about everybody, I guess.
Scene: Before you got into music, you had planned to become a veterinarian. Do you ever wonder what might have happened if you had done that instead?Price: I’d probably have a lot more money! (laughs) I raise animals, so of course I use a veterinarian quite a bit, and it’s expensive. Just like any doctor.
Scene: What appealed to you about working with animals?
Price: I love animals. There’s some I don’t like, but as a rule I love ’em. They’re not like a person, who’s one way today and then tomorrow they’re totally different. An animal you can trust to always be the same. They don’t trust man very much, and you can’t blame ’em for that. We’re the worst enemy they’ve got.
Scene: You roomed with Hank Williams in the early 1950s. What kind of a roommate was Hank?
Price: Think of the best friend you’ve got, and make him the kindest guy you ever knew, a person who was trying to overcome the fact that he was a poor boy and all of a sudden was the No. 1 star in the United States. He and his wife was having trouble, and he was always lonely. But he was one of my best friends. Just a great person, really. The only problem Hank had was, well, the bottle kinda whipped Hank. I never drank a whole lot myself. I was always sleepy-eyed, so everybody thought I was a drunk, but I wasn’t. I take a drink every now and then. But I never got into any hard narcotics or anything.
Scene: You obviously have a great ear for players—Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck and Roger Miller all got their start backing you up. What drew you to Willie?Price: Johnny Paycheck had been working for me for a year or two, and he wanted to go out on his own. So he left, and I knew that Willie was a good musician because he worked as a writer for my publishing company. I asked Willie if he could play bass and he said, “Oh, yeah!” But he couldn’t. Later on, he said, “I bet you didn’t know I couldn’t play bass, did you?” I said, “Yeah, the first night!” But he stuck with it, and he caught on. He’ll surprise you.
Scene: How about Roger Miller?Price: Roger was working in the fire department in Amarillo, Texas. I needed a frontman for my band, and somebody mentioned Roger. But he thought I wanted a fiddle player, so he whipped his fiddle out and played a tune. I said, “Son, I don’t mean to be detrimental, but can you play guitar and sing?” (laughs) And he could, so I hired him to front the band. Then I took him back to Nashville, and he wrote a song I recorded called “Invitation to the Blues” . That got him a good start.
Scene: How do you keep your voice in such good shape?Price: I don’t know, it’s just a blessing. That’s all I can say. I never did any particular thing for it. I did quit smoking about 40 years ago.
Scene: Did you notice the difference when you quit?
Price: Yeah, I wasn’t hoarse all the time. I was allergic to the damn stuff in the first place, and I wasn’t smart enough to figure it out. I blamed all the musicians for playing so loud I had to scream to be heard over ‘em. (laughs)
Scene: Do you have any goals left that you haven’t accomplished?Price: Really and truly, I’m thankful for everything I’ve got. I’d like to be back in the mainstream of things again for maybe three or four years, but I love what I’m doing. It’s like a drug; it’s kinda hard to quit. When I start singing bad, that’ll tell me it’s time to go.