NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Merle Haggard can still remember the first time he heard Ray Price's voice come out of the radio, fronting Lefty Frizzell's band on "If You're Ever Lonely Darling" in 1951. And the memory of hearing "I'll Be There" for the first time in 1954 still makes him break out into song.
More than a decade later Haggard opened for Price on a 90-day run and the two formed a friendship that would last almost five decades. Haggard took time Tuesday to talk about his early influence and longtime friend, a day after his fellow Country Music Hall of Fame member passed away at 87 at his Texas home. Haggard says Price's music, and his independent spirit, were always inspirational.
"He was probably the first outlaw," Haggard said. "I think Willie (Nelson) will agree. He was out there fighting for what he believed and doing it his way, and being criticized and all that. I remember when he laid the guitar down and started hiring violin players and all that, and everybody thought he was crazy. Crazy like a fox. He knew what he was doing."
Known for his velvety baritone, Price helped usher in the honky-tonk era in the 1950s, then refuted that more rough and rockin' sound later, just as it was being embraced by the listening public in the 1970s.
"He brought country music to a different level I think," Haggard said. "He was laying pop music behind country songs and having success. He won an award for 'For the Good Times.' A lot of people said, 'What is Ray Price doing? He's got all those violins and things.' He held up that award and said, 'This is what I've been trying to do.'"
Country singer and songwriter Bill Anderson said he got his first major success in country music when Price recorded his song "City Lights."
"He leaves behind an unequaled legacy," Anderson said in a statement. "From 'City Lights,' where he sang about 'a purty picture,' to the beautiful pop-styled ballads like 'For The Good Times' and 'Night Life,' this man has been one of the greatest singers the Good Lord ever allowed to roam this earth. And right on through his last performance, he maintained that unbelievable vocal quality and the undeniable styling of a true artist."
Other country musicians also offered their thoughts of Price and his legacy on Tuesday:
"We are sad beyond words at the passing of our good friend, the legendary Ray Price. Our prayers are for Janie and his family as they cope with their incredible loss. But our loss is Heaven's gain, because a band of angels just got one of the best voices ever created." — Willie Nelson
"Ray Price had the gift of singing a song in such a way that no matter who else sang it, you would always associate that song with Ray. He just made it his own. He was one of kind." — Charlie Daniels
"He was great singer as well as a great human being. He will be missed not only by me but by millions." — Steve Gatlin
"Ray Price taught me to play bass... He taught us all. Oh, the hours I spent in front of our stereo listening and studying his albums! He leaves behind so many disciples, but there was only one Ray. Truly a giant of an artist and unsurpassed stylist who surely will be missed." — Steve Wariner
"The world of music will surely miss the smooth voice of the Cherokee Cowboy, Ray Price. I tip my proverbial hat to him and his country music legacy. We'll miss you Ray." — Josh Turner
"He was a one of a kind American original who reinvented country music twice over. We have lost a giant." — Ranger Doug
AP writer Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.
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