"I'm Much Too Young to Die" was the name of one of Ray Price's lesser-remembered hits of the early 1950s. Fortunately, that title proved true, as Price went on to give us another 60 years of country-baritone greatness before passing away at the age of 87 on Dec. 16. His voice sounded relatively undiminished in the concert dates he did almost right up to the end, so there is an argument to be made that, even as a late-octogenarian, he was still too young to die. But what fan could fail to heed the words of his most classic hit, "For the Good Times": "Let's just be glad we had this time to spend together"?
There were two Ray Prices, really — stylistically, anyway — and fortunately for country fans, they were both fabulous. The first was the fellow who recorded hillbilly-friendly, hard-country, honky-tonk hits in the '50s and early '60s, working alongside roommate Hank Williams and ultimately adopting Hank's backing band after Hank died. The second was the gentleman balladeer who left twang behind and helped popularize the strings-laden "countrypolitan" sound in the late '60s and early 70s.
In other words, Nashville aficionados really got two country legends for the Price of one.
Here are a few of the late singer's most classic moments:
You could hardly ask for a better marriage of songwriter and interpreter than Price taking on one of Kris Kristofferson's most poetic breakup ballads. The lyrics are on par with Kris's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," but there's an extra level of heroic pathos as it quickly becomes clear this will be the last night these two lovers ever help each other make it through. "Hold your warm and tender body next to mine" accentuated the sensuality, while "Make believe you love me one more time" jerked the tears. No wonder that, along with George Jones, Price was one of the true masters of the Nashville Sound that brought a balladic pop sensibility to country.
"Crazy Arms" may sound like the name of the greatest apartment building that never was, but it's really the title of Price's first No. 1 hit in 1956, which stayed in that position for a startling 20 weeks. It remains the best example of how upbeat he could be in his pre-countrypolitan days — in tempo, anyway, if not in spirit. (Legendary pedal steel player Ralph Mooney co-wrote the tune and reportedly said it was inspired by his own drinking and marital problems.) Among those who later recorded the classic: Bing Crosby, Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Garcia, and Van Morrison. But any cover version was impossibly Price-less.
Price had eight No. 1 hits in his heyday, but it's worth noting that he also had eight No. 2 hits, including some numbers that are as well-remembered as the official chart-toppers. One of those was 1959's "Heartaches by the Number," a two-step-friendly tune repopularized in the mid-'80s by Dwight Yoakam.
The ultimate almost-divorced song. "Release Me" was, like "For the Good Times," a riveting end-of-the-line ballad...but in this case, Price is urging his lover to let him go, not stick around, because of the bad times. Rarely did any hit song have quite the cojones this one did in blatantly saying, "I don't love you anymore." In this live version from 2009, Price says that he prefers not to say when he originally recorded the song; "I just tell people in the year BH — that was 'Before Humperdinck,'" he added. Price's version was a breakthrough song for him in 1954 as a so-called double-A sided single that reached No. 2 on the country chart; Engelbert Humperdinck hit No. 1 in England with it in 1967.
Here's the flipside of that 1954 breakout single: the considerably more cheerful "I'll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)." (Martina McBride did a sterling cover of this on her 2005 salute to classic country, Timeless.)
Willie Nelson wrote "Night Life," which Price popularized on his 1963 album of the same name; the song continued to be identified with Price over the decades even though it only reached No. 28 at the time. (It was later recorded by B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and David Lee Roth, among many others.) The Nelson/Price partnership was a long and fruitful one. In 1980, they released a joint album, San Antonio Rose, which reached No. 3 on the country sales chart. In 2007, they made it a trio by enlisting Merle Haggard to join them for the Lost Highway release Last of the Breed, which entered the country chart at No. 7. These two collaborations with Willie marked the only top 10 albums Price had after 1975.
Whether he was singing honky-tonk in the early days or ballads later, Price was a calming presence who, even as a young man, seemed wisened, if not old, before his time. Now that he's gone, we certainly don't need more than one hand to count the like-minded or -voiced country legends who can truly make the world go away.