The Man Comes Around 

Ray Price is the overlooked titan of the "Last of the Breed" tour.

Sure, Willie Nelson's tour bus was infamously loaded with marijuana and magic mushrooms. And Merle Haggard was a terrible thief who did time at San Quentin after multiple arrests for petty offenses. But of the three country music icons touring behind the presumptuously titled Last of the Breed album, Texas crooner Ray Price is the true outlaw who has never been duly exonerated for his crimes against country music. Nor, in spite of his status as a Country Music Hall of Famer, has Price been given his due as the legitimate heir of Hank Williams and one of the genre's greatest innovators. Columbia's new 40-song collection, The Essential Ray Price, presents listeners with excellent — if not always essential — samples from each major period of the singer's career and helps to set the record straight.

Price got teary-eyed during a rare public interview prior to his 1996 induction into the Hall of Fame, when a questioner asked about his string-laden 1967 recording of "Danny Boy," which prompted critics and fans alike to call him a traitor and a sellout. Price offered no apologies for his earnest attempt to put his spin on a classic and expand the number of people listening to country music, just as Ray Charles had done with 1962's Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and as Willie Nelson would do with 1978's Booker T. Jones-produced Stardust. Price merely thanked God for giving him strength as he struggled to regain his composure.

As the '60s drew to a close, Price, who had risen to fame as the "Cherokee Cowboy," traded his rhinestone-crusted Nudie suits for a tuxedo, hired an enormous violin section, and — in spite of his vociferous detractors — started making hits again. So it's not like "Danny Boy" ended his career. But even in 1967, the overproduced recording was an anachronism, and it unfairly colored the way Price would be viewed and remembered. With one stroke, the great chronicler of the honky-tonk nightlife, whose signature shuffle beat kept country music on the charts throughout the rockabilly era, became Mr. Easy Listening — the godfather of countrypolitan.

The Essential Ray Price kicks off with 1950's "Jealous Lies," Price's first (and only) recording for Nashville's Bullet label. The charming single may have been released to the sound of chirping crickets, but it's the perfect cornerstone for any Price retrospective, as the singer's impeccable pop phrasing is fully on display.

Price was the product of a broken home. He spent his summers working on his father's farm and listening to Ernest Tubb. He spent the rest of the year living in Dallas and listening to the Ink Spots with his mother, who was a fashion designer for Neiman Marcus. "Jealous Lies," which was more reminiscent of Hank Penny's western jazz than anything being played on the Grand Ole Opry, reflects both the simplicity and the sophistication of his early influences.

Shortly after recording "Jealous Lies," Price met and became roommates with Hank Williams. The two bonded over a belief that the country music establishment was too conservative and that there was no reason why hillbilly artists couldn't appeal to a more cosmopolitan audience. Price became Williams' opening act as well as an understudy for those increasingly frequent occasions when Hank was too drunk to perform. In 1951, Williams wrote "Weary Blues" for Price, who had by then fully adopted his friend and mentor's piercing wail and lonesome yodel.

After Williams' death, Price inherited his band, the Drifting Cowboys. Subsequent songs such as "Talk to Your Heart" and the iconic "Release Me" sound nothing like Price and everything like the work of a gifted Williams impersonator. Indeed, Price came to be viewed by many an appreciative fan as nothing more than a tribute artist, and that, combined with the rockabilly revolution of the mid-'50s, prompted Price's first significant metamorphosis.

In 1956, Price debuted what has come to be known as "the Ray Price shuffle," and "Crazy Arms" rode high on the charts, which were increasingly dominated by acts such as Little Richard, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.

Price had an eye for spotting new talent, and the Drifting Cowboys evolved into the Cherokee Cowboys with the addition of future stars Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Roger Miller, and Willie Nelson. Nelson would ultimately have a profound influence on Price's style, and the fellow Texans have worked together and helped each other throughout their careers.

Night Life, Price's 1963 masterpiece, begins with something of an apology to fans who might not be expecting a platter full of jazzy barroom blues and a hat tip to Nelson, who penned the title track.

"Listen to the blues that's playin' and listen to what the blues is saying," Price croons around the beat and Nelson's acrobatic guitar. Night Life was experimental honky-tonk — a richly sophisticated concept album full of wonder, heartache, and regret. The Essential collection is poorer for the omission of songs such as "Lonely Street" and "Is This Where You Want To Be."

Disc two of The Essential Ray Price begins with Price's brilliant cover of Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose," before moving on to the Night Life period, the pre-countrypolitan of Burning Memories, and the lush but ill-fitting "Danny Boy." Fortunately, the Essential collection doesn't linger too long over Price's strange orchestral fixations.

By 1970, the country music industry was reinventing itself and ridiculously large string sections were becoming par for the course. Price hit again with Kris Kristofferson's sensual toast "For the Good Times." Though he would chart songs as late as 1989, this is really Price's swan song.

Commingling classic country themes with smart writing and superb musicianship, "For the Good Times" feels like the culmination of every Price song that came before it.

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