In 1954, country singer Ray Price was just another talented Hank Williams protege -- that is, until after one Colorado show when a fan told him he sounded more like "ol' Hank" all the time.
"The guy meant it as a compliment," Price remembers, but what had once been flattering -- and had even opened some doors -- had begun to feel like an albatross. "When we started that night from Colorado, I told the guys -- Hank's old band -- I love all y'all, but this ain't gonna make it. I gotta make my own way.' And they understood."
Returning to his native Texas, Price promptly put together his own band and forged a new sound, a hard-swinging shuffle beat that became standard currency on the honky-tonk hardwood for years to come.
One of country's great stylistic innovators, Price has refined and redefined his trademark shuffle throughout his 50-year recording career. His music has at times roamed from its roadhouse roots, but his influence on generations of performers, from Willie Nelson and Patsy Cline to neo-hillbillies BR5-49, is undeniable. And the 82 singles he's placed in Billboard's country Top 40 have put him among the 10 most commercially successful performers in country music history.
Price, who at 72 remains a deeply emotive singer, plays the Birchmere on Thursday. Apart from his appearances at the Bush White House and at a private fund-raiser, the Country Music Hall of Famer says the show is his first date in the Washington area in more than 20 years.
Country historian Eddie Stubbs, who hosts a weekly broadcast on WAMU-FM, calls Price's show one of the major musical events of the year. "When you see Ray Price," he insists, "you're seeing one of the architects of our business."
No less than Bo Diddley's "hambone" beat, or James Brown's one-chord funk workouts, "the Ray Price beat" is an enduring part of America's musical vernacular. Oddly enough, the birth of Price's signature sound, which he dates to 1956, came about more or less by accident.
"We went in to record Crazy Arms,' my first million-seller," Price recalls. "We were having trouble getting a good clean bass sound. So instead of going with a standard 2/4 beat, I said, Let's try a 4/4 bass and a shuffle rhythm,' and it cut. It cut clean through."
Spurred by swinging fiddle and sobbing steel guitar, Price's new sound was unmistakably country, but its driving rhythms hit nearly as hard as big-beat rock-and-roll -- hard enough, in fact, to knock Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" out of the top spot on the country charts. For the moment, the single's success -- it spent 45 weeks on the charts, including 20 at No. 1 -- helped allay fears along Nashville's Music Row that the rockabilly of Presley and Carl Perkins would supplant honky-tonk in the hearts of young record buyers.
"It was a real scramble," Price remembers. "Rock-and-roll was just eating us alive. Some of my peers even tried to record it, but once I found my sound, I didn't need to go that route."
"A lot of traditional country entertainers really suffered during the late '50s, but Ray never compromised his sound," observes Stubbs, referring to the way some honky-tonkers pandered to the emerging rock-and-roll market. "Ray stuck with the 4/4 country shuffle beat, and the fiddle and steel -- the country instrumentation. He was a real saving force for traditional country music at that time."
In the process, Price sold truckloads of records, 25 of them reaching the country Top 10 from 1956 to 1966, four of them climbing as high as the top spot. Not only that, his band, the Cherokee Cowboys -- named for the county in East Texas where Price was born -- featured some of the hottest instrumentalists of the era. It also served as a proving ground for future stars. Willie Nelson, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck all apprenticed in Price's band.
Somewhat surprisingly given his run of hard-country hits, Price's music took on a decidedly pop cast as the '60s wore on, the apotheosis being his 1967 recording of the Irish ballad "Danny Boy." Intent on doing something different, Price says, he told his arranger he wanted "as many strings as we can put on the record." In this case, that meant hiring the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.
Price had been recording with string sections for almost a decade, but his reinvention as a saloon singer vexed many who viewed him as a champion of fiddle-and-steel honky-tonk.
"I wondered what Ray was trying to do," admits Don Helms, who played steel guitar with both Price and Hank Williams. "It wasn't that I didn't think he could do it, because he could sing pop music as good as Perry Como, Tony Bennett or any of those guys. But I thought to myself, Why?' He had the best thing in the world going. But Ray was always reaching out. He always knew what he wanted and went after it."
Others accused Price of abandoning his country roots. "It almost destroyed me," he admits. "It got to where some disc jockeys refused to play my records. A few fans even spit on me. That was fun. But now of course everybody uses strings and not a one of those disc jockeys says a thing about it."
Deejays got used to the countrypolitan Price soon enough, though: They spun his velvety 1970 recording of Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" so often that it topped the country and reached No. 11 on the pop charts that year. Price scored two more No. 1 singles, but hypoglycemia kept him close to his East Texas ranch until his former bass player Willie Nelson invited him to record a duet album in 1980, the artistically and commercially successful "San Antonio Rose."
Although Price is no longer a factor on the country charts, he has, since his recovery and return to the stage, remained in fine voice.
"Thank God I still have my pipes," Price declares. "My voice is my instrument. I've worked all my life to make sure I enunciate properly. I try to make the melody be true -- I can't stand an off note. And a song has to appeal to me. It's got to be about something I can relate to. Other than that, I just try to give it the best reading I've got."
His latest recording, due out on Justice Records this fall, is a gorgeous collection of pop standards titled "Body and Soul." Backed by a 54-piece orchestra and recorded live in the studio in three days, the album has much of the warmth and presence of the '50s recordings of Frank Sinatra and Price's longtime pal Tony Bennett.
"Nowadays they just lay down a sound track, then they go in and they put the instruments on it, then they go in and they sing with it, and it has just about as much feeling as a tire tube," says Price. "But when you do it like we did it, when you get everybody turned on to what's happening, you create a lot of excitement." CAPTION: Still making hay, Ray Price at his ranch near Tyler, Tex., right, where he raises beefaloes, above.