Willie, Ray and Me

I like Willie. I shouldn’t need to apologise for that, should I? I was once expected to – but that’s another story. I hope Willie, like Keith Richards, can go on forever – that the drugs that addled their past, but left the music undiminished, will be as death-defying for Willie as for KR. For Willie, his DOC (Drug Of Choice) is the weed – will that embalm him, too, even if it’s a softer tote to what the Rolling Stone has imbibed down through the decades? And to be cliched, I’m hoping there are many more years of him giving us great music and being still frisky enough to get out there to be ‘on the road again’. All this brings me to Willie’s latest – ‘For the Good Times’, a tribute to Ray Price. Who’s Ray Price, you may ask? For unless you’re steeped in country music history, he may have passed you by. Well he was no less than Nashville royalty – and I owned him, once upon a time, on vinyl. On this new album Willie works his way through some classics Ray recorded during his long career. One of the titles, though, did make me ponder on the reasoning behind its inclusion. It’s a Willie original – and one that I love. So I took to the ether and as a result of that puzzlement, discovered a tale that was, or is, a thing of beauty.

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Now I knew Ray and Willie went way back, even if Ray is old style Nashville and straight as a dye. Willie, of course, is the godfather of outlaw country and not afraid to flaunt the rules in every way, including his copious partaking of the weed. So imagine the stir when Ray, the Grand Ole Opry superstar, was pinged, back in 1999, for the possession of marijuana. Yes, he had been consorting with Willie.

Ray was a Texan, born in 1926. Growing up he had aspirations of becoming a vet, but learnt the guitar and found he possessed a high lonesome style of singing that was popular then. He started plying both around his local area during his teenage years. He achieved some recognition on Texas radio and then tested his luck by moving to Nashville in the early 50s. For a while he actually roomed with Hank Williams. Remember the Engelbert Humperdinck’s hit ‘Release Me’ – well Ray successfully covered that song a decade beforehand when he was honky tonkin’ around the traps. In the sixties he joined the singers who converted to the Nashville Sound that WN and co abhorred – lush ballads, with a big orchestral backing and a chorus of thousands. He blanded out Kristofferson’s ‘For the Good Times’ and had a huge hit with it.

Now for much of his career Ray’s producer was long time friend Fred Foster. When the time came around for a new album Fred’d send around to RP a stack of songs on cassette for consideration. Ray would drive up and down the country roads of his vicinity in his pick up, listening to the tracks, settling his mind as to which would feature on his new product. It was his tried and tested method that worked right up till and into our new millennium. In these later years he began touring with Willie and Merle Haggard, now also sadly departed, as a trio, in Highwaymen style. He was well into his eighties when he recorded ‘Last of the Breed’ with his touring buddies. This contained some of the threesome’s favourite tunes and was his third collaboration with Mr Nelson, released in 2007. A few years later, in 2012, Fred rang Ray’s wife, Janie, asking her, ‘How does it feel to be the most loved woman in the world?’

So the composition that interested me on Willie’s ‘For the Good Times’? The song was in the mix with tracks such as the title tune, as well as ‘Heartaches by the Number’, ‘City Lights’, ‘Make the World Go Away’ and ‘I’m Still Not Over You’. I thought when Willie originally recorded the particular song in question Ray would have been long gone, but I was wrong. He was still very much around, as is obvious from the above, when it came out on a Willie album. ‘It Always Will Be’ was the eponymous song of a 2004 collection that I think is the best of the great man’s recent product. The lyrics are a heartfelt paean to the love of a woman – a track that is lovingly sung as only Willie can do. When I first heard it it sent shivers up and down my spine – still does each time I play it. With its inclusion again on this new 2016 selection of songs, it takes on a whole new meaning.

By 2012 Ray knew he was dying. He’d confirmed to the press he had pancreatic cancer, but joked that, at 87, he was far too young to go. By then he had contacted Fred, telling him that, despite the odds, he thought he had one more in him.

Price had married Janie way back in 1970. She was the love of his life, but the dying musician was concerned that he had never really expressed that fact to her. As Janie herself states, ‘Ray wasn’t a mushy man, and there wasn’t all that ‘I love you’ stuff. If I’d asked, he’d just say, ‘I would not have married you had I not loved you‘. Ray and Janie were a Nashville success story as far as marriages went. Compare him to fellow country troubadour Steve Earle who has been married and divorced seven times. The couple worked as a team. Janie managed all his paperwork and had an input into his song selections for recording on all of his discography, except for this last outing.

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Just before his death the couple were riding home in the pick-up, after a painful bout of chemotherapy, when Ray’s phone rang. It was Foster, calling him to say the final mix on his album had been completed and the results would be in the mail the next day. Ray then passed his mobile over to Janie and Fred posed her that question. Janie asked Fred what he meant by it and the producer explained. He told her that her husband’s final album would be dedicated to her and contain her favourite tunes – a duet with Martina McBride on ‘An Affair to Remember’, ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, ‘Among My Souvenirs’, ‘I Believe’, ‘Beauty Lies Within the Eye of the Beholder’ as well, of course, as ‘It Always Will Be’, amongst others.

When she heard this news, Janie was overcome with emotion – so much so that she had to immediately park the vehicle. In the car park of a local restaurant, old Ray, at death’s door, turned to his soul mate and stated, ‘All these years you’ve asked me if I really loved you, and I have been remiss in telling you how I feel.’ He was now doing it, albeit somewhat late in the piece, in the best way he knew how. ‘I want you to have it to listen to when I’m not here, to hear me telling you how much I love you.’ The album’s title? ‘Beauty Is’.

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The following day Ray took his beloved Janie to the pick-up to listen to his mint new, but final, collection of songs. On hearing it in full, she cried and cried and cried. She knew what it meant. And within two months the old country crooner was dead. Nowadays she still goes through a box full of tissues each times she listens to it. Perhaps a tear will also come to your eye if you travel to YouTube to source either Willie or Ray’s version of ‘It Always will Be’ – where there also resides much else by the great Ray Price.

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Now your scribe has an atonal voice like a foghorn, but there is a Janie in his world too who is remarkable and much loved – his beautiful Leigh. I can’t leave such a heartfelt musical legacy to her, but my dear lady you do know that forever and a day – ‘It always will be. It always will be.’

YouTube – Willie Nelson ‘It Always Will Be’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tp4XePyJW6c

YouTube – Ray Price ‘It Always Will Be’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WtSsTnSN6HU

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