Album Review: Ray Price — Beauty Is…: The Final Sessions
Beauty Is…, Ray Price’s beautiful new album, was recorded only a few months before he died—and in the weeks just following his learning definitively that he was going to. When the project was completed, the singer told Janie Price, his wife of more than forty years, that he had made it especially for her. As Mrs. Price remembered the moment to Tennessean journalist Peter Cooper, “He said, ‘All these years, you’ve asked me if I really loved you, and I have been remiss in telling you how I feel…I’ve done this for you. I want you to have it to listen to when I’m not here, to hear me telling you how much I love you.’”
That quote comes from “Ray Price Tells His Wife ‘I Love You’ with Last Album,” Cooper’s immediately essential piece of country music writing that is nearly as gut-punch, teary-eyed beautiful as the recording that inspired it. I can’t imagine I will ever be able to listen to Beauty Is… without also recalling Janie Price’s, and Cooper’s, words about it. If you haven’t already read the piece, I very much hope you will.
Of course, the great majority of Ray Price fans who are going to hear the album will not have read that article, or even heard of it. In fact, I think we can say that most casual Ray Price fans—by which I just mean most Ray Price fans—will be unaware of this particular back story altogether. They’ll love Beauty Is…, I’m guessing, even without knowing that one way of listening to it is as a love note from a devoted and dying husband to his soon-to-be widowed wife.
The story of Ray Price, Country Star, is somewhat unusual in this regard. The country audience has long heard the music of its favorite stars biographically. It is regularly assumed—often incorrectly, and even more often too literally—that Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, George Jones and Loretta Lynn right on up to Taylor Swift and so on, are all singing or writing in some way, always, about the dramatic real lives fans have heard and read about. Price was never that sort of celebrity. Across a half century of stardom, he kept his personal life mostly to himself. He wasn’t faceless, exactly, but he was hardly iconic. His career had a strong narrative, but the story to which Price is most deeply connected was not (unlike the folks listed above) a primarily personal story but a musical one: hardcore honky tonker to countrypolitan crooner to legendary Last of the Breed.
So, with all that in mind, allow me to underscore a more purely artistic assessment: In addition to being a humbling and touching romantic gesture, and beyond being a fitting coda to a classic career, Beauty Is…: The Final Sessions is a great album. Period. Indeed, it should go down as among the greatest Price ever made. It definitely places in my own short list of Price’s best original albums, landing just below, just barely, 1962s’ Night Life, 1964’s Burning Memories and 2000′s Prisoner of Love. The song selection here, I believe, is that unified and strong. Price’s singing is that characteristically smart and that unaccountably powerful. The album’s arrangements are that beautiful.
Indeed, Beauty Is… sounds like the big pop album Price must have always wished he could make. For the last several decades of his career, whether he was playing a rowdy club or a college concert hall, Price would pause at some point in the set and announce, smiling: “Ladies and gentlemen… strings!” Then, a small group, usually a quartet at most, of local hired-gun violinists (not to be confused with fiddlers) would play the charts provided them. He made a point of drawing attention to that arrangement choice because some industry types, and a minority of his audience, had once fought him on their use. And because he just loved the sound of them.
The credits to Beauty Is… list 17 string players, with earthy low cello tones regularly prominent. And the parts those strings perform—arranged and conducted by longtime Nashville studio ace Bergen White—sound old-school and right now, counter-melodically complex, jaw-dropping, beautiful. Other sonic surprises abound: harpsichord, vibraphone (by Charlie McCoy) and even, once, a pan flute. These all fall in and out of the arrangements, alongside more expected interjections from acoustic guitar, piano, pedal steel and a small vocal group.
Each time I listen to the album I find a new favorite soundscape. This last pass I settled on “No More Songs to Sing,” which begins with just voice and guitar, builds slowly, then builds some more, then some more, until its cruising hard down the middle of the road like one of those supersonic Al Delory productions for Glen Campbell.
I’ll probably love something else even more next time through. The various sounds and moods that producer Fred Foster, along with White and his crew, achieve here—foreboding or tender, dreamy or wide-awake, atmospheric or dramatic, strings hovering high or plummeting fast, and all of it helping to sustain a feeling of romantic intimacy—are an enormous part of what the record is all about.
The spell is broken only once. Forty seconds into the sixth track, “An Affair to Remember,” the voice of Martina McBride enters, and her arrival is so unexpected that it feels as if someone’s just barged into your intimate, private conversation—but she sings her part evenly, quietly, so that feeling of intrusion lasts but an instant. For Price’s part, he remained to the end a crooner’s crooner. If you focus on The Final Sessions part of the album’s title, you may expect Price’s voice on to be compromised. But while it surely must have been, it never sounds that way, not in the least. His voice is resonant, warm, rising from deep in his chest, and the songs Price and Foster have chosen give him all the room he needs to live and breathe in every line.
Those songs, mostly love songs—from old friends Willie Nelson, Sonny Throckmorton and Cindy Walker, from Stephen Foster even—add up to something bigger than the sum of their parts. If we listen with Cooper’s article in mind, we might note the presence of a cheating song and of a someday-you-may-just-walk-out-on-me song and wonder if those numbers too are secret handshakes, eloquent caresses of a shared history between husband and wife, but only if we are listening in such a biographically limited sense and, anyway, it’s none of our business.
Price keeps coming back to the same images: the beauty of his lover and the beauty of her love for him, the beauty of the world. And he returns as well to the same necessary, contradictory ideas: “forever,” “eternity,” “always” and yet so very little time. The inevitable end of life stands toe to toe with a promise of love with no end.
In “This Thing of Ours,” Price considers waking his lover “just to see you smile / And hold you gently to me…” He pauses then, to make sure we get the point. Then he makes it: “…for a little while.” So much beauty, so little time. There’s a message there, I think, to everyone one of us who is willing to hear it, and even if we weren’t married to the late and great Ray Price.
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