Ray Price | Night Life (April 1963)
Country – 37:36
“A lot of people want to keep country music in the minority of people. But it belongs to the world. It’s art.”
What makes one thing high art and another thing trash? It is very easy to become snobbish about this question (a trait that I freely admit I regularly fall into). But where do we draw the lines? Pop art, for example, proved that the everyday, the mundane, could also be regarded as high art. The images of celebrity, created by Andy Warhol, have attained the qualities of high art. But country music – can that ever be called ‘art’? Is there not the danger of alienating the music’s original fans, who want to keep it to its roots, yet never being able to convince the critics that it is ‘worthy’?
Ray Price was already a big star in the world of country music by the 1960s. Along with his group, the Cherokee Cowboys, he had amassed a huge following. But, like all good artists, he didn’t want to be stuck in a rut with his output. As the decade wore on, he began to experiment, opting to sing slow ballads and adding strings to the tracks, creating a much poppier sound to his recordings. It raised a few eyebrows among the country elite, who sensed he was abandoning the genre. But the move was perhaps more canny than those around him realised.
Night Life starts in an odd way. The title track is already playing, faded in as the album begins. Just as you begin to get into the song, a voice speaks over the top; Price himself introducing the recording to the listeners. It seems a strange start – and a rather frustrating one as Night Life is a beautiful lament – but fits in well with the rest of the album. Price was clearly aware that his new direction would make this a hard sell – both for country fans and the pop charts – and wanted to urge listeners to give it a chance. Given my dislike of country music, I was hesitant. Yet, as the opening track played out, I admit, the record began to grow on me.
Part of this is down to the music itself. Essentially a concept album in praise of the bums and drunks wandering the bars of a dingy city, Night Life has been compared to Sinatra’s mid-50s classic, In The Wee Small Hours. It isn’t hard to see why; the lyrics paint a picture of a world-weary man, making his way the best he can, trying to numb the pain of living with alcohol. And the similarity does not end there; listening to the track as it plays out, this could easily be sung by Ol’ Blue Eyes. The line between country and easy listening has been blurred, placing this closer to mainstream music than country. It works well too, giving the album an accessibility to the average listener.
As the record continues, it isn’t Sinatra who springs to mind with the consequent songs, however; instead, it becomes easy to hear the voice of Elvis in the style. The King seems to have been an influence in the direction that Price chose to take his music. True, some of them sound a little cheesy, perhaps more akin to Presley’s renditions of songs like Wooden Heart, but it does make the album more enjoyable to listen to. Both Lonely Street and The Wild Side of Life are wonderful while Sittin’ and Thinkin’ is a heartbreaking look at a man waiting for his love. Sadly, as the album progresses, it falls into the trap of becoming ballad-heavy, and these songs work less well. Rather, it is the more rock and roll-orientated versions nearer the start of the album which work better. They are still bearable, just not as fun as the openers.
Ray Price may have caused the heckles of die-hard country fans to rise when he began to move into what became known as the Nashville Sound, but it certainly helped to make an album which was not restricted to fans of a single genre. And while it isn’t a complete stand-out, he has at least managed to create something which I had doubted I would see – a country-tinged album which I enjoyed hearing. I hope there are more artists which follow his lead.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to Night Life here:
Next time: With The Beatles by The Beatles