Ray Price’s Honky Tonk Heaven

Every now and then a record comes along that rises above everything around it and hits the sweet spot that separates the sublime from the mediocre, good, or even great. It doesn’t necessarily have to break any new ground, but it does inhabit it’s particular space as perfectly as possible.  

Let us, then, take a breather from everything else and pay tribute to a sublime piece of honky tonk heaven, Ray Price’s 1963 classic Night Life album.
First, a bit of back-story. Night Life first crossed my turntable as a gift from Dave Gonzalez, prime-mover of The Paladins and The Hacienda Brothers, who were  untouchable purveyors of modern day honky tonk and western soul until the untimely death earlier this year of Brothers co-founder Chris Gaffney. While hanging out with Dave, Gaff and Hacienda Brothers manager Jeb Schoonover, it became obvious that, in their estimation, honky tonk country in it’s purest form was and is the qualitative equal of anything ever recorded–classical, jazz, whatever. This is not something they generally teach you in the College of Musical Knowledge. 

This is a belief, not a thesis, but if you needed to make that argument Ray Price’s Night Life could certainly be Exhibit A. Moving directly off the honky tonk blue-print perfected by Hank Williams, Price and his Cherokee Cowboys deliver 12 tracks of straight-up, hard country that differs from 100s or 1000s of other similar albums only in that it’s just a little bit to a lot better than most of the others. It’s a pure distillation.  

Night Life is something of a concept album, or a song-cycle, revolving around the title cut; a series of songs exploring the night life and all the vagaries of the night lifestyle. Which includes plenty of opportunities for drinking, dancing, playing music, infidelity, heartbreak, remorse; the stuff of country & western music from time immemorial. Many of these are  classics, recorded before and since then by numerous artists. But seriously; show me a better version of “Night Life” and I’ll eat Ray’s black hat. 

The title cut incapsulates what is so right about this record. After a mood-setting spoken intro by Ray (“Well Hi neighbors!…We want to thank you for being so nice on our last record…we’ve chosen…songs of happiness, sadness, heartbreak, songs of the night life…”), the band kicks in with a pedal steel guitar swell that just takes your breath away. Ray steps up to the mic with his velvet voice, the band falls in behind him at a stately pace and it all just comes together. And therein lies the magic: Price’s genuinely emotive voice embedded in arrangements that are absolutely not in a hurry to get anywhere. The pacing is everything, the key to the mansion, where macaroni becomes Mozart. It’s subtle, methodical and sensual; this is music that really, genuinely swings. The band is so precise, so perfectly in synch that it’s actually hard to imagine it getting any better. Ray and his voice, of course, are worthy of being on the Mt. Rushmore of honky tonk. Willie Nelson does a lovely version of “Night Life,” but Ray Price owns it.

Ray’s version of “Sittin’ and Thinkin'” beats writer Charlie Rich’s by a country mile, and Rich was an absolute master. I’ve listened to it a hundred times, and I’m sure I’ll listen another hundred. Again, perfection: the steel guitar swoons, the lower register guitar (or perhaps a 6 string bass) picks out a walking groove, the supple rhythm section swings and Ray delivers the goods. “I got loaded last night/on a bottle of gin/and I had a fight/with my best girlfriend/When I’m drinking/I am nobody’s friend/Baby please wait for me/until they let me out again.” The band sounds both hard and soft, the pace is a leisurely amble, the destination the truth. The song-titles tell the whole story: “Lonely Street,” “The Wild Side of Life,” “If She Could See Me Now,” “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women.” No crap strings, no corny choruses mucking everything up. The fact that Ray only wrote one track doesn’t raise any heat here. Even the cover is cool, as much cocktail lounge as road-house, with Ray looking slightly amused while a couple (illicit, no doubt) nuzzle and sip cocktails. He doesn’t even wear a hat in the front cover; what confidence.

It’s no secret that much (most) contemporary, Nashville-based country music sounds manufactured, calculated and insincere. There are legions of rebels, eccentrics and iconoclasts in the Americana camp, of course, turning out new twists on the twang and keeping it real. But in 1963 Ray Price was before the fall, when Nashville could still be fresh, competition was more genial, gigs were plentiful and the music hadn’t yet been relegated to Squaresville by the coming tide of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, James Brown, electric Miles Davis and all that came after them. Ray Price has made many more fine records over several decades, maybe some of them as good as this one. But Night Life, with it undercurrent of sensuality and blue collart dissipation, remains a high-water mark and a good primer for any songwriter and picker with a cowboy hat who wants to get really, really real and get it right.    

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