03 April 2015

"Beauty Is..." Ray Price - The Final Sessions

Ray Price
Beauty Is... The Final Sessions
Produced by Fred Foster
Album Release: 15 April 2014

Ray Price once defended his adoption of lush strings in his music by saying he didn't know that country singers weren't good enough to use them. He'd watched for too long as pop and rock artists raided country music for songs and had bigger hits with them than their originators, and so he felt that meant he - and any other interested country performer - could likewise take from pop and rock what suited them. (I suppose if we follow this line of thinking far enough, Ray Price is to blame for the mediocre pop and rock music that's marketed as contemporary country music, but that's a whole 'nother matter.)

It's fitting, then, that for his final album Price should have insisted on bringing in strings to sweep us through this punctuation on his illustrious career. Those who know me know that I tend not to be all that into this aesthetic, in part because I think I'm accustomed to strings used in film scores, all too often clumsily intruding on emotional scenes by shouting at us, "THIS IS AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT! FEEL EMOTION!"

Here, though, the strings service the art. If these same songs had been performed in stripped-down, acoustic arrangements a la Johnny Cash's famed American Recordings series, this might even be too morose to play all the way through. The strings work here largely because their purpose is to carry us through the album, rather than to make sure we fixate on specific moments. They also help to supplement Price's vocals - still commanding, though for the only time in his career are there signs of his powers diminishing. It took being 87 years old and dying of pancreatic cancer to blemish Ray Price's singing voice.

What of the songs themselves, though? This is one of those instances where an album is more than a collection of songs. I suppose "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder" could be extracted from the album and stand solidly on its own. Price's duet with Martina McBride on "An Affair to Remember" (from the 1957 film) is a wonderful celebration of romantic storytelling. But for the most part, Beauty Is... was crafted as an album and needs to be heard in its entirety as such. I also salute the decision not to re-record "For the Good Times". It might have fit into the album, it might have been a powerful recording, but I feel it also would have overshadowed and undermined the rest of the album. I imagine that was Price's reasoning for excluding it, and I base that assumption entirely on what little I've come to know about his philosophies on music through some sporadic interviews. He wanted Beauty Is... to stand on its own.

I am not a crier by nature. That isn't any kind of machismo; it's a physiological thing. There have been times when I've wanted, even needed, to cry but have been unable to do it. I'm in need of that kind of release right now as I write this, in fact. But man...when I got to "No More Songs to Sing", and I thought of Price's widow Janie...God. I can't even guess whether that would be impossible for her to ever listen to again, or if she would find some kind of comfort in playing it repeatedly for hours on end. I'll never know, of course, and that isn't even the point I'm getting at here, but rather how moving it was for me to feel privy to something so clearly intimate.

Each month in 2015 so far has brought death to my inner circle; my friend's stepfather in January, my own grandfather in February, and another friend's father just two weeks ago in March. I don't know why I held off buying Beauty Is... for nearly an entire year after its release. Maybe because I wouldn't have been ready for it then. I needed it now, though. Price intended this as everything from a farewell to a self-crafted epitaph, but also to comfort those left behind. He and I never met, never interacted in any way whatsoever. I was not on his mind when he planned and recorded Beauty Is.... And yet, I can't help but to feel that this album was made for all of us - myself included - to have it there to turn to when we need to be comforted by someone who knew he was running out of time.

This isn't the kind of album that one throws on for "background". It isn't for everyday listening, or something to be played casually, or to be talked over, or any of the other ways we often mistreat music. It is, however, a powerful work of art and I am truly grateful that Ray Price elected to dedicate his remaining time to its creation.

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