by Rick Moore
It was December 16th of 2013 when one of the truly great, innovative voices of country music left us. Ray Price set the tone in the late 1940s for what country music would become over the next several decades, first creating the “Ray Price Shuffle” that lent an air of musical sophistication to the honky-tonk subset, and then developing a distinguished cosmopolitan sound that gave country a new sense of maturity.
In 2012 Price revealed he was fighting pancreatic cancer. But instead of hanging it up and leaving this earth slowly and unproductively, Price called famed Nashville producer Fred Foster, found 12 great songs, and made his way back into the studio to record his final album, Beauty Is…The Final Sessions. The recording is a celebration of his life and career that Price left behind as a love letter to his wife of 43 years, Janie. With songs by old friends like Willie Nelson, as well as standards that reach back into a bygone era of American music, the album finds Price sounding as great as ever, perhaps especially on duets with Martina McBride (“An Affair to Remember”) and Vince Gill (“Beauty Lies In the Eyes Of the Beholder” and “Until Then”). Beauty Is…The Final Sessions is one of the finest albums of 2014, regardless of genre. It’s not just an album, it’s an event.
When Price passed on, Janie – a onetime legal secretary and fashion model who has been in charge of all of Price’s business affairs since the day they were married – took the reins to make sure that as many people as possible heard her husband’s last album, a record as strong and in-the-moment as anything he ever recorded. Veteran music journalist Rick Moore, who, like so many singers and pickers, once performed Ray Price material as an up-and-coming musician, spoke with Mrs. Price in Nashville.
Ray was always a great song man, and he recorded some classics here as well as songs by contemporary writers like Larry Bastian, who has a cut on Garth’s new album. And they’re mostly love songs. What did Ray look for in a song, especially for this album?
He had the desire, with this album, to show the beginning of his career, the middle, and the end, to cover all eras of music. People were ashamed of country music when he first started out, and he said, “I’m not a second–rate citizen.” It was his lifelong dream to merge the honky-tonk with great material. He was, of course, from (country songwriter) Cindy Walker’s era…and then he had to put Willie in there, who has been a part of all eras of music. And then look at songs like “An Affair to Remember” (originally recorded by Vic Damone) and “Beautiful Dreamer.”
Stephen Foster did that one! Ray said that’s what he wanted people to hear, to see, that he didn’t care what era you lived in in our country, that it doesn’t matter if you’re country folk or city folk, it’s about love. If you’re from the 1800s, it’s love. If it’s about your friends, it’s love. Love is the only true gift we’re given and we so often skip it, we miss it. We go through life striving for wealth and fame and all the other things, and in the end, all we’ve got is love. He wanted to do some great songs that reflected that.
Speaking of old Texas friends like Cindy and Willie – were their songs chosen because of the relationships, the songs, or both?
Both. And Willie…the two of them have been devoted friends all these years. Willie has been in and out of his life, but they have always been in constant contact.
Whose decision was it to include Vince and Martina on the album?
Vince had always expressed an interest to Ray in being on one of his projects (Editor’s note: Gill sang on Last of the Breed, the 2007 album by Price, Nelson and Merle Haggard). Vince always sat like a little boy, watching Ray sing. Matter of fact, I’ve watched all those people watch from behind the scenes, I’ve watched Merle watch Ray from behind the curtain…they were all, like, learning from Ray. And that’s what Vince was wanting to do. He wanted to be a part of something of Ray’s and he loves singing harmony.
When Vince and Martina found out about this, they both wanted to know if there was anything they could be involved in. Ray said, “Of course, let’s bring those kids on board, let’s do one with ‘em.” That’s the way Ray was. Vince told Ray that he learned to sing harmony listening to Ray Price records, by listening to Ray sing harmony with himself. That was another new thing Ray did, singing harmony with himself, multi-tracking himself.
“Beauty Is…” is a wonderful collection of songs, and I know that Ray was singing through his illness much of the time he was recording it. Were you with him in Nashville when he was laying down the vocals?
He had wanted me to come with him, but then, just before we were supposed to leave Texas, he said, “You know, why don’t I go up there and do this by myself.” I was worried about him, being so sick, needing to eat certain things at certain times, take his medications…but I knew what he was trying to do. He needed to be able to go do this by himself. But then I also figured out what the real reason was. He didn’t want me there because he didn’t want me to know what his real intention was for doing this album.
The whole thing, in the end, was that he was really doing it for me and he was going to make it a surprise. When the album was mixed Fred Foster called to tell him it was done just the way he wanted it and he was FedExing a copy to us. Then Fred asked to talk to me. Which surprised me because Fred never talked to me, you know, those guys always did their own thing. He said, “Janie, I want to ask you a question. How does it feel to be the most loved woman in the world? Because Ray Price dedicated this entire album to you.” It just blew me away. And then I realized what this whole thing was for.
After I put the phone down Ray said, “Honey, I did this for you, because we both know I’m not gonna be here much longer, and I want you to have something that I’ve done for you that you can hold in your hands when I’m gone, that you can listen to and you can look at and you will never, never, ever wonder that question anymore: ‘Do you really love me?’” Because we wives all do that, you know, we all ask that. He said, “I did this for you to have. Now you can do what you want to with it. I did this for you.” I told him we were going to share this with the fans, and he loved that idea. So that’s what happened, and that’s why I’m out on the road talking about it and about himeH jddc.
Did Ray say much about, or care much about, his legacy?
Ray was accused by a lot of people (in the 1960s, when he added strings and other instrumentation) of leaving country music, but Ray Price never left country music. He just wanted to take country music to town. He wanted people in the city to know what beautiful music country music was. He said country music was America’s music, it was about our lives and our life stories. He was so proud of country music, and so proud to be a country music singer. He devoted his entire life to furthering country music.
He told me, “I want to do an album for my fans that, when they sit down to listen to it, is a culmination of my life and career. I want them to feel like they’re in this musical moment, I want to deliver a message.” That’s what he wanted to project. He always said that, when he was singing, he wanted people to feel like he was just talking to them, and telling them a beautiful story. See, Ray was very religious, which was something he kept quite private. But what he was always trying to convey was love, and he said that’s what this album is about.
He said at the end of his life, “I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve achieved everything that anybody in America has ever dreamed of. I was just a country boy who rose to fame. I’ve been from the outhouse to the White House” – he really said that – “and I want this album to be a culmination of all the experiences that I have had, all the things that I have learned in 65 years of a career. I want my fans to hear the love, the love that I have. In the end, at the end of my life, that’s all that I have is love. It’s our love that we’ve shared, that’s what I’m gonna take with me. And that’s what I’m gonna leave with you. And that’s what I want my fans to share.” So that’s this album, and his legacy, are all about.
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