With the classic honky-tonk sound blowing over the contemporary country music landscape like a revivifying breeze, you would think that Ray Price would catch a waft of that bracing air, see a wide-open window of opportunity and try to climb on through.
Price, after all, had a lot to do with establishing honky-tonk as a classic style in the first place. A protege of Hank Williams, he was an early master of honky-tonk.
Starting in the early 1950s, Price produced a series of hits that brimmed with enduring virtues: solid tunes, ambling bass lines fit to fill a dance floor, the earthy, unfettered play of fiddles and pedal steel guitar, and, above all, his wonderful voice, so full of vitality that his sheer pleasure in singing cast a sunny light on the lovelorn tales he was telling.
Performers such as George Strait and Randy Travis have succeeded over the past few years with a similar approach, supporting their exceptional voices with simple instrumental arrangements unspoiled by unnatural sweetening. They have helped make "tradition" a buzzword in Nashville--and a chapter in that tradition belongs to Ray Price.
In his early show Tuesday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, Price established that, at 62, he remains an exceptional singer, rich in tone, precise in diction, able to muster powerhouse force without straining, and savvy enough to use it judiciously. But Price wasn't inclined to enlist his voice or his generally sharp Cherokee Cowboys band in any back-to-basics movement.
He evidently remains comfortable with the about-face he made in the early 1960s, when he swept the sawdust off the honky-tonk hardwood, overlaid the dance floor with lush orchestral carpeting and became a middle-of-the-road crooner of pop ballads that maintain only an intermittent and tenuous tie to country music.
That is not to say that Price has turned his back on honky-tonk. His hourlong set included capable renditions of "Crazy Arms" and "Heartaches by the Number," early hits that he set back-to-back in that rarity, a medley that didn't give the songs short shrift.
But on those songs and a few others from the same period, Price couldn't match the energy and sense of freedom that still bursts from the original recordings. Not because of the ravages of time--Price's voice isn't ravaged in the least--but simply because of the passage of time. Having spent a quarter of a century largely devoting himself to a more mannered style of singing, Price can't leap back and recapture all that he could convey in his earliest, most memorable days.
Bland as it may be in comparison to his old honky-tonk adventurism, Price's pop-crooner style offered some good moments in concert. A section of three violins provided the inevitable sweetening and instant overlay of sentimentality, but the arrangements were restrained enough to avoid smarminess.
"Make the World Go Away" and "For the Good Times" worked well, with Price assuming a convincingly misty, faraway look, instilling the songs with a sense of durable melancholy, and capping them with crowd-pleasing dynamic leaps. A new song, "I Don't Want to Be in Love Anymore," also stood out.
The best ballad of the evening was Price's tribute to his roots, a lovely, straightforward version of Hank Williams' "A Mansion on the Hill." It starred Buddy Emmons, a celebrated pedal steel player who has been a longtime accompanist for Price. Emmons took over the song with a sweet, melodic solo, then dabbed on high, ethereal colorings that painted an aural image of a spirit passing in the wind. Emmons also threw some swing into the show, leading the eight-piece band on a fine instrumental hop through "I Love You Because." Emmons and company got sufficiently hot and bluesy on "Night Life" to egg Price into his brashest, freest singing of the night.
The show had its problems, too. A vacuously breezy run through "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was so disengaged from the song's meaning that Price forgot half the lyrics. It sounded like an outtake from a bad lounge act.
But that was nothing compared to a truly offensive novelty song sung in Spanish by another of Price's longtime sidekicks, pianist Moises (Blondie) Calderone. Far from honoring Mexican influences on country music, the song dirtied itself in the low humor of ethnic stereotype.
For his turn in the spotlight, Calderone donned a garish, red Plasticine sombrero, punctuated his singing with pig squeals, and remarked halfway through the number that "I hate to sing this song here 'cause all the help comes out of the kitchen when I do."
If they had come out throwing tomatoes, they would have been entirely justified.