A decade after 22-time Grammy winner Vince Gill and steel guitar virtuoso Paul Franklin (who has more than 30 CMA Awards nominations to his credit) crafted Bakersfield, which paid homage to the central California country sounds made famous by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, the two musicians have reunited to shine a light on the music of Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Price on Sweet Memories: The Music of Ray Price & The Cherokee Cowboys, out Aug. 4.
Seated in Gill’s home recording studio in Nashville — a space with shelves lined with many of the Grammys, CMA Awards and ACM Awards Gill has amassed during his nearly five-decade career, but also a room filled with dozens of guitars, including a white guitar he’s played since 1978, another guitar his parents gifted him for Christmas and one he bought when he was 18, living in Kentucky and “dead broke,” Gill says — Gill and Franklin discuss an album that chronicles Price’s life and career, pairing Gill’s illustrious tenor and fleet guitar fretwork and Franklin’s nimble steel playing.
“I’ve told everybody that in the making of these records, it’s more about the musician in both of us than it is about me as the singer,” Gill says. “We chose the songs we chose because it gave us more freedom to play than maybe we would have had on some of those big ballads.”
Between 1952 and 1989, Perryville, Texas native Price entered more than 100 songs on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, earning 46 top 10 hits and eight No. 1s, including “Crazy Arms,” the Bill Anderson-penned “City Lights” and the Kris Kristofferson-penned “For the Good Times.” Price also recorded more than 50 albums during his career.
Gill and Franklin eschewed recording many of Price’s biggest hits; instead, Sweet Memories largely favors more obscure Price recordings.
“I gotta be honest, there were several songs that I didn’t know who wrote them. I didn’t know ‘Kissing Your Picture’ was a Mel Tillis song, and I didn’t know Bobby Bare had a part in writing ‘Walking Slow and Thinkin’ About Her.’ I knew Willie Nelson wrote ‘Healing Hands of Time,’” Gill says with a soft laugh.
Longtime on-air personality and music scholar Eddie Stubbs, who retired from his roles as WSM Radio personality and Grand Ole Opry announcer in 2020, played a key role, pointing Gill and Franklin to more arcane songs.
“He’s the greatest disciple of loving Ray Price,” Gill says, recalling a time when he listened to Stubbs’ radio show while on tour with the Eagles. “He played a song I had never heard before and I called him from Australia and said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘I’ll play it again for you again.’ And I’d just call him up out of the blue and say, ‘Play me something,’ and I would take notes and write down some of the songs he would play. He was a big part of pointing me toward some stuff that was not the obvious choices.”
“I remember we were trying to find five or six songs. I came over and Vince broke out this legal pad and I’m expecting it to be one page — but Vince had like a hundred songs,” Franklin recalls. “I didn’t know a lot of these. We’d listen to songs and compare them — it wasn’t like, ‘We gotta pick a shuffle.’ We listened to a lot of shuffles.”
During his career, Price helped usher in two major sonic innovations in country music, beginning in the 1950s with his signature “Crazy Arms,” written by Ralph Mooney and Charles Seals. That song introduced what would become the signature “Ray Price Beat,” a 4/4 shuffle, spearheaded by Buddy Killen’s bass line, bringing a ferocity to his brand of honkytonk that would influence country music for decades. The song cemented itself atop Billboard’s Country Songs chart for 20 weeks, toppling Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” from the chart’s pinnacle during a time when rockabilly artists such as Perkins and Elvis Presley were regularly making inroads on the country charts.
A decade later, Price was again prominent as country music recalibrated into the pop-aimed, string-laden sounds of the 1960s. Sweet Memories includes a rendition of the classic folk song “Danny Boy,” written by Frederic Weatherly, which became a top 10 country hit for Price in 1967, representing a shift from hard-charging honky-tonk singer to countrypolitan crooner.
“He was probably the first successful country singer to do the full orchestra with ‘For the Good Times,’ and all that,” Franklin says.
Unlike Price’s version, the Gill/Franklin rendering of “Danny Boy” features steel guitar front and center. “This song allowed Vince [to do] voice leading, when the voice gets up to the change and it’s like he’s pulling the band along. You can’t hardly do that in modern music, but these old songs had a lot of space. It’s a unique cut,” Franklin says.
Two songs on the album — “Healing Hands of Time” and the Hank Williams Sr.-written “Weary Blues From Waitin’ — nod to two of Price’s essential musical connections.
In the early 1950s, Price joined Williams on tour and recorded “Weary.” At one point, the two musicians were roommates and Price used Williams’ backing band, The Drifting Cowboys, as his own backing band. After Williams’ death on New Year’s Day in 1953, Price continued touring with members of the Drifting Cowboys, which later morphed into Price’s the Cherokee Cowboys.
Price’s musical acuity bore out not only in his ability to encompass an array of styles, but also in the caliber of talent that passed through the Cherokee Cowboys over the years: Johnny Bush, Buddy Emmons, Buddy Spicher, Nelson, Roger Miller, and Johnny Paycheck, among them. Meanwhile, Nelson, Harlan Howard and Hank Cochran wrote for Pamper Music, which Price co-owned (two Cochran tracks, “I’d Fight the World” and “You Wouldn’t Know Love,” appear on the album).
“That speaks to his talent,” Franklin says. “You can see it happening in any period of country music, where there’s somebody out there that everybody’s going ‘Wow, this guy,’ and everyone wants to be around them. Ray was that guy and he schooled a lot of other great artists.”
While Nelson was playing bass as part of the Cherokee Cowboys, Price recorded his song “Night Life,” making it the title track for his 1963 album. The two would go on to record together several times, including the 1980 album San Antonio Rose, the 2003 project Run That by Me One More Time, and their 2007 album with Merle Haggard, Last of the Breed. Nelson and Price earned a Grammy for their duet “Lost Highway” in 2008.
“Their friendship played a part in this,” Gill says. “All this stuff has a deep, personal meaning. He and Willie were best buds, and these are just crazy great songs.”
Adding to the musical ties, Franklin and Gill worked with Price on his last album, Beauty Is…The Final Sessions, which released in 2014, just four months after Price’s death in December 2013, at the age of 87. Gill lent vocals to two tracks on the album. Franklin and Gill, as part of The Time Jumpers, also played an indelible role in another Price tribute project: Nelson’s 2016 album For the Good Times: A Tribute to Ray Price.
“The Time Jumpers were on about half of those songs and we cut a bunch of great shuffles and triple fiddles. Gill recalls, adding, “It was a great experience until [producer] Fred [Foster] called me and said, ‘I need you to sing harmony on about half of this record.’ I said, ‘That’s hard to do,’ and he said, ‘You’re the only man I know that can do it,’ so I gave it a whirl. I was doing like three words at a time. It was painstaking, but it was cool,” Gill says of the process of singing harmony to Nelson’s famously fluid vocal phrasing.
Franklin and Gill hope Sweet Memories will bring listeners deeper into Price’s works.
“I think that Ray’s legacy will be how much he changed music,” Franklin says. “Everybody was following him because he was a singer. When he put strings on, you had Faron Young, you had everybody else doing the same thing. I think there are new artists now, like Ernest, who want to know about the past, and have a deep respect for older artists. Hopefully this record will say, ‘Hey, it’s worth looking at these songs.’ And there are a lot of great singers out there, but the songs they sing are really wordy. It’d be nice every now and then, maybe they’ll slip a song in there and get influenced by Ray.”
Gill notes that Bakersfield and Sweet Memories are just the beginning of salutes by Franklin and him.
“We always intended on doing a series and we still have several in our back pocket that we’d love to do — George Jones, Conway [Twitty], Little Jimmy Dickens, are still kind of in the works of possibilities.”