Merle, Willie and Ray: Country’s elder statesmen have the ‘prime’ of their lives with tour and release of definitive CD

BY TERRY MATHEWS | News-Telegram Arts Editor

Mar. 25, 2007 - With close to 100 years of performing under their collective belt buckles, country music legends Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Ray Price have certainly earned the right to enjoy a quiet life of retirement. 

Last of The Breed
Lost Highway Records. $19.98

Turning 70 on April 6, Haggard is the youngster. Willie will celebrate his 74th on April 30. Price is the elder statesman, having hit mile marker 81 in January. 

Rather than easing into their twilight years, however, the three superstars are wrapping up a whirlwind tour tonight in Rosemont, Ill.,   covering 15 cities in 17 days, and they have just released a new 2-CD set, “The Last of the Breed.” 

During the tour, which included the great Texas Swing band Asleep at the Wheel, the legends played to rave reviews and sold-out houses as intimate as The Backyard in Austin and as large as Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Haggard, who spent time in the infamous San Quentin prison, had his first hit with “Sing a Sad Song,” in 1964. His number one hit list includes “The Fugitive,” “Okie form Muskogee,” “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” and the classic “Pancho and Lefty” (with Willie).

Nelson, raised in Texas, started his career as a songwriter in Washington state and then Nashville, but returned to his Texas roots when he became disillusioned with the trappings of traditional country music. 

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Willie Nelson

He’s written some of country’s biggest hits, including “Night Life,” (recorded by Price) “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Hello Walls,” and of course, the classic “Crazy” made famous by Patsy Cline.

Price, who was born in Perryville and now lives near Mt. Pleasant, is credited with adding a smooth, swinging sound to country music with his 1956 hit “Crazy Arms.” 

Price gave Nelson a place in his band when Willie first came to Nashville.  He took the nickname “The Cherokee Cowboy” after organizing a band called The Cherokee Cowboys in the early 1950s. Over the years, the band included musicians like Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, and Roger Miller.

Price is most famous for the 1970 smash hit “For the Good Times.”

Write it down. This CD will rake in a trophy case full of honors. There’s not a bad cut out of the 22 classics that made it onto the set list, although some may be disappointed by the omission of hits like “Night Life,” “For the Good Times,”  “Pancho and Lefty,” and “Okie from Muskogee.”

According to Price, the trio had a good time making the new CD. 

�The fun was just the three of us being together,� he said in a recent telephone interview. �We did a lot of the old time songs that a lot of young people haven�t heard.�

Courtesy Photo

Ray Price

Although Asleep at the Wheel was backing up Merle and Willie, Price brought his own band out for the tour, complete with a string section.

�I�ll have my band, but at the end of the show, with the three of us together, then Asleep at the Wheel will back us up,� Price said.

When asked to explain the difference between country music then and now, Price was quick to respond. 

�First of all, the stuff they play today that they claim is country music is definitely not country music. It�s 1960s rock and roll and they didn�t have any way to sell it except to claim it was country. That�s exactly what happened in our industry,� he said.

Price says he’s always liked sharing the stage with other artists and admits a particular fondness for Patti Page.

�She�s a sweetheart,� he said.

When asked what it takes to make it in the country music business, Price said, “You have to be really determined. And you try everything you can, until finally it will happen somewhere. If you’re not good enough to make it, and I don’t like to say that about anybody, but if you’re not able to make it musically, well maybe you’ll learn something in the business that you’ll like.” 

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Merle Haggard

�� Price says his favorite songwriters are Hank Cochran, (�Make the World Go Away� and �I Fall to Pieces�), Harlan Howard,� (�Tiger by the Tail�), Willie, and Kris Kristofferson.� � Kristofferson wrote �For the Good Times,� Price�s 1970 number one hit, which became the song that introduced Price to a whole new group of country music fans.

�There are some real gems on the new CD.� � �Heartaches by the Number,� the Mickey Newbury song that became one of Price�s first hits in 1959, features smooth supporting vocals by Vince Gill.�

Haggard and Nelson’s poignant cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad Waltz” is haunting and will make you stop whatever you’re doing to listen and remember those who have gone on. 

Price and Nelson tip their hat to Hank, Sr. covering “Lost Highway,” Williams’ hit written in 1948 by Leon Payne. Price and Nelson seem most comfortable together and just when you think it can’t get any better, the Jordanaires, Elvis’ beloved backup singers, chime in with pitch-perfect harmonies. Goose bump time, for sure. There’s a touch of jazzy blues in “I Gotta Have My Baby Back,” with each musical master  taking a phrase or two. The cover of Floyd Tillman’s tune is one of the nicest little surprises, tucked in at the conclusion of disc one.

If there was any doubt about Price’s staying power as a pure singer, his work on this cut puts it to rest. He’s smooth, suave and the king of cool. Nothing against Merle and Willie, but the years of hard-living show up in each note they sing.  Price must have gone to bed early during his years on the road, because his pipes are still strong and silky. 

Cindy Walker’s song “Going Away Party,” originally recorded by Bob Wills, is enjoying a recent revival. These men owe a lot to Wills, the King of Western Swing,  and the prolific Ms. Walker, who died last year in her hometown on Mexia. Willie released a CD called “You Don’t Know Me: The Songs of Cindy Walker” last year.  

This cut is a great way to honor  two of country music’s most influential artists. Having Johnny Gimble’s fiddle and the Jordanaires’ backup makes the cut sheer perfection. Walker and Wills would be proud.

�Why Me,� the 1972 Kris Kristofferson song, is a tour de force. Willie and Merle delivery is captivating. Kristofferson makes a brief appearance, too. Listening to these men sing, knowing their much-publicized histories of wine, women and more than a few brushes with the law, just deepens the heart and soul of the melody. It�s a haunting moment not soon forgotten.

� �The Last of the Breed� will go down in the history books as one of the best collections ever to have been laid down in a recording studio. It will clean up at the Grammys and will take all comers at the Country Music Association�s big annual awards bash.� Write it down.

Enjoy!

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