Ray Price died on Monday, George Jones died last April, and it’s been a bad year for the American culture.
Our more sophisticated readers might not recognize either Price or Jones, as their fame was limited to the working class folks in flyover land who comprise the core audience for country and western music, but they gave voice to an American age whose passing leaves us all poorer. The decline of the American economy can be measured in worker participation rates and per capita income, and our declining international influence is more subjectively measured by the alliances our erstwhile allies are making for a post-American epoch, but the diminution of the American spirit is perhaps best exemplified by the sad comparison between the days of Price and Jones and what’s playing out there now.
After a war-time stint with the United States Marine Corps, Price got his first taste of musical stardom singing on a small town radio station in his native Texas, then went big city with a regular gig on Dallas’ “Big D Jamboree.” After a full decade of honing his craft in the rough honky-tonks of Texas he enjoyed a string of country hits through the ‘50s with such rough honky-tonk standards such as “Release Me,” “Crazy Arms,” and “Heartaches by the Number.” With his crack Cherokee Cowboys band, which at various times included such future stars as Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller, who wrote Price’s hit “Invitation to the Blues,” Price defiantly resisted the smoother “countrypolitan” style and remained popular with his fiddle-and-steel-and-nasality style well into the ‘60s. When he finally relented and went countrypolitan he did so with a vengeance, producing the lushest and smoothest and most string-laden records in Nashville, and he did it well, producing such fine fare as the Kris Kristofferson-penned “For the Good Times” that he even found favor with the old-fashioned pop fans back east. His masterpiece recording was a lush but gritty rendition of “Night Life,” written by his protégé Willie Nelson, which expresses the broken dreams of a honky-tonk denizen so well it requires several beers to be fully appreciated.
George Jones loomed even larger in country music, with his first hits coming in the mid-‘50s and his last playing in the mid-‘90s and hardly a week going by in between with something on the country play lists, but he never came close to a cross-over hit and was largely unknown to anyone who wasn’t a hard-core country fan. His first hits had a raucous rockabilly sound, with the billy overwhelming the rock, and “Why, Baby, Why,” “White Lighnin’,” “The Race Is On,” and other Jones tunes remain standards for any country band wanting to enliven a dance floor. For most of his career he specialized in slower and sadder fare, however, yielding such gems of manic depression as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” and the saddest song ever written, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” There were occasionally the syrupy Nashville string arrangements, but always a heartfelt workingman’s anguish in the vocals, and an unmistakably genuine connection to his downtrodden audience best heard in his duet with sometime-wife Tammy Wynette on “(We’re Not) The Jet Set.”
Both men were just prominent members of a remarkably rich musical community in their heydays, but both stuck around even as it all gave way to a younger, better-looking generation of performers with more elaborate stagecraft and more effective marketing techniques. Our hometown of Wichita has always been kind to those great performers that the rest of the country tends to forget, and would pack the Cotillion or the Coyote Club or some other mid-sized venue for western swing stars such as The Texas Playboys or Hank Thompson and his Brazos Valley Boys, or a Kansas City jazzbo such as “Fiddlin” Claude Williams or Jay McShann, or a seminal rocker such as Sleepy LaBeef or Marvin Rainwater, until they all died off or went into retirement, and Price and Jones were always welcome here. Price was still filling the seats here until old age finally got him off the road, and he never failed to give a show that featured both the honky-tonk and countrypolitan hits despite the strain on his voice. Jones played a show at the venerable Orpheum Theater just months before his death, and although he was fresh out of the hospital and still suffering a respiratory ailment and hoarse throat he gave a memorable performance by using his impending frailty and impending mortality to imbue those drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs with an extra measure of hard-earned melancholy.
Those shows were one of the great things about living in a town like Wichita, and offered an satisfying assurance that our hard-working little city had an authentic artistic sensibility that those snooty cities back east could not duplicate or even comprehend, but they don’t happen so often these days. Country music is still a draw here, and the local paper even had a story recently explaining how only country acts seem to do well at the fancy new downtown that was built on one of those fishy public-private partnerships, but none of it justifies the exorbitant ticket prices or provides the same sense of working class authenticity. There might be good country music out there, but we no longer dredge through all the artificial studio concoctions and video marketing to get to it. The decline is not just in country music but across the American musical spectrum, with everything from Broadway musicals to black inner-city music to suburban garage rock in a similarly sorry state, but the loss of a Price and Jones is especially felt in a town like ours.
We still have the old records, though, and they’ve been getting a lot of play on the turntable today. They might even inspire another age of American greatness, and the good times can linger on.
— Bud Norman