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Arts & Entertainment

Peter Stenshoel's album of the week: Night Life by Ray Price and the Cherokee Cowboys

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By the time I was aware of America's celebrated country and western artists, most of them had embraced the Nashville sound, which I find to be a soulless commercial formula that reduces good songs to little more than glorified jingles. It took some archeological sleuthing on my part to find what country artists first sounded like, and that's where this album by Ray Price fits in. Columbia in their wisdom re-released this masterwork which finds Price at the midpoint between his marvelous honky-tonk beginnings (he actually led Hank Williams' band for a spell) and his Nashville sound days of lushly orchestrated vehicles like "Make the World Go Away."

And unlike Ray's later albums, most of the songs on Night Life have prominent pedal steel guitar (played with sophisticated gusto and appropriate pathos by the great Buddy Emmons), twin fiddles, and that bouncing walking country bass that Price is said to have invented (but that was all but scrubbed from country music for too many years).

The title track, "Night Life," was written in part by Willie Nelson (who has just celebrated his birthday on April 30). In a spoken introduction, Price amusingly refers to Nelson as "a boy from down in Texas way" though Nelson was fully 30 years old by the time Night Life the album was released. The song itself is an oddly constructed bit of naive blues, but lends itself to powerful performance (B.B. King did an electrifying version of it in the mid 60s). Price and Emmons give it their all. "Night Life," the song, suggested a new direction from the honky-tonk music, but it proved to be a stand-alone style as Price opted for the more bland Nashville sound.* In fact, the final two songs on the album have bland background strings, and are, in my opinion, forgettable, but the majority of the twelve songs are superb. Price gives confident, warm, full-throated warnings about the snares of honky tonks amid the "bright city lights" and what happens when you succumb to "the wild side of life."

Recorded four years before the Beatles conceptual Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, Night Life holds its own as a successful concept album. Thanks, Ray, and happy birthday, Willie.

* Willie Nelson played bass with the Cherokee Cowboys after this album's release. He had his own numerous Nashville sound albums, but eventually broke free from it to develop his "outlaw" style, decidedly a pared-down aesthetic Western rebellion to Nashville's heavy-handed ways.