Country Music Legend Ray Price Dies At 87

Country music singer and songwriter Ray Price died Monday at the age of 87 at his ranch in Texas. Price was a Grammy Award Winner and who had more than 100 country hits in his decades-long career. A 1996 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee, he was credited with pioneering a shuffle beat and walking bass line that became standard in Texas dance halls.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Before there was Willie Nelson or Merle Haggard, there was Ray Price. The Country Music Hall of Famer, who bridged Texas honky tonk and country crooning, has died after a yearlong battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 87.

Blake Farmer, of member station WPLN in Nashville, has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Before Ray Price, honky-tonk tunes weren't big sellers. Then...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")

RAY PRICE: (Singing) Now, blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, and the storm's brewing in this heart of mine...

FARMER: "Crazy Arms" shot to No. 1 in 1956. Its shuffling beat became the hallmark of the golden age of Texas honky-tonk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")

PRICE: (Singing) Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new...

FARMER: Price eventually tired of playing dance hall gigs for rough crowds. He told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1999 that producers in Nashville had to come up with a way to broaden country's audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRICE: They had to do something to kind of fix it where the people that listened to the Tony Bennetts and the Frank Sinatras, and those people, would like the song or 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.

FARMER: Price became part of a second shift in country music. The single honky-tonk fiddle swelled into an entire string section. The polished production - which had its detractors - would become known as "The Nashville Sound."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR THE GOOD TIMES")

PRICE: (Singing) Lay your head upon my pillow, hold your warm and tender body close to mine...

FARMER: "For the Good Times" was written by Kris Kristofferson, who called Price the link from Hank Williams to the country music of today. That's not just a matter of style. They were friends. Price was hand-picked to be Williams' caretaker on the road, and even stand in when the older singer was too drunk to perform - like one New Year's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRICE: I didn't know what to do because they come running in; 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.

FARMER: Price would start his own touring band, called the Cherokee Cowboys. It had quite the roster. At one point, Willie Nelson played bass; Roger Miller, who went on to fame with "King of the Road," auditioned on fiddle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRICE: And his fiddle-playing was terrible, you know. (Laughter) When he got through, he said, how'd you like that? And I said, well, can you sing and play guitar?

FARMER: And that's what he was hired to do. Johnny Bush played drums for the Cherokee Cowboys.

JOHNNY BUSH: We had the bands swinging, and we loved him for that.

FARMER: Bush says Price wanted the best musicians, and he let them share the spotlight.

BUSH: And they had a lot of respect for Ray and - well, like everybody else does. And there's no better country singer in the world than Ray Price. And I don't know if there ever will be.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INVITATION TO THE BLUES")

PRICE: (Singing) I couldn't sleep last night, just walked the floor. Don't know how I'll stand this anymore...

SANDRA ORWIG: I was just so enthralled with the man. I just thought he was the greatest thing since peanut butter. (Laughter)

FARMER: Sandra Orwig of Harrisburg, Pa., was president of the Ray Price Fan Club for more than half a century. She committed to be loyal until death. But she and others feel Price never got the love of a George Jones or Merle Haggard.

ORWIG: I never knew what the problem was; why he did not get the recognition that a lot of them did, and he sang so much better. I never thought that I'd see the day that you didn't hear Ray Price everywhere you went.

FARMER: Long after his own music was off the radio, this singer and songwriter was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1996. Not one to overstate his own significance, Price was once asked what changed after he hit it big.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRICE: Well - (Laughter) - I got to eat pretty regular.

FARMER: Price maintained his blue-collar work ethic until the end, performing even as he battled pancreatic cancer.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY LIGHTS")

PRICE: (Singing) They paint a pretty picture...

CORNISH: Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price died at age 87.

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