Sunday, December 29, 2013

When he sang, Ray Price was always right

From Sunday's Times and News-Star

A lot of country music entertainers through the years have brought me much joy without being able to -- what you’d call in the strictest sense -- sing.

Not the case with a chosen few like George Jones, Larry Gatlin, Merle Haggard, Tammy Wynette and, the subject of today’s effort, Ray Price. Price, who passed away this month in Mt. Pleasant, Texas, could sing the sandspurs out of a cow’s tail.

Maybe it’s because he didn’t score a classic in the 1980s, as Haggard and Jones and Willie Nelson did, that he’s not mentioned as often as those three, who would comprise three-fourths of the male country music Mt. Rushmore. But he picked up the slack left by the death of his old roommate, Hank Williams, back in the day, then kept the ball rolling, adding strings along the way and hired for his band some now-familiar names like Willie, Roger Miller and Johnny Austin Paycheck. 

And all the while singing a hard-to-match country tenor. If you’re covering a Gatlin or Price song, you’d better buckle your chin strap.

According to Billboard, Price charted 46 Top 10s, eight No. 1s and 109 titles total from 1952-1989 on the Hot Country Songs chart. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.

A Ray Top 10? That’s tough. In this bureau, it would go like this:
10. Faded Love (we always say “Faded” as if it rhymes with “Batted,” just because;
9. Night Life;
8. San Antonio Rose with Willie Nelson, a Bob Wills classic like “Fadded Love,” and also like No. 3 on this list;
7. Burning Memories;
6. Crazy Arms;
5. City Lights, written by Whisperin’ Bill Anderson;
4. Heartaches by the Number, a Harlan Howard classic;
3. My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You;
2. Danny Boy
1. For the Good Times, with thanks to author Kris Kristofferson.

Two quick Ray Price stories:

The night was smoky and the music was too in the little bar, either in Shreveport or right across the line in East Texas. It was late late and my old friend Speedy, a former all-American football player and now a young cowboy – the real kind – was relaxing with a cold one and minding his own when somebody said Ray Price was in the joint. Not only that, he was about to sing. Right there. In this little bar.

Speedy figured that would happen about the same time the cattle he’d worked that day started flying. Paid it no mind. Until the house band started playing again and the guest lead singer, at least for this set, was Ray Price, fresh off a nearby gig, still in his Nudie suit and fine voice.

Speedy stayed til past closing time.

The mid-December weekend that Price’s battle with pancreatic cancer ended, a Mt. Pleasant Justice of the Peace and friend of the Price family called my old pastor buddy to please come pay with the family. He went over and waited while the phone rang, friends calling to check on Ray. Larry Gatlin called, and Ray’s wife, Janie, put the phone to her husband’s ear. Gatlin launched into the old gospel favorite, “In the Garden.” Wow…

A few minutes later, Willie Nelson called. He didn’t sing; he was just calling to check on his friend. That was Sunday, Dec. 15.

Ray Price died the next day. My friend was called back to pray with the gathered family, and as he prepared to, another interesting moment occurred, one of those surreal times you know you’ll never forget. Willie’s Roadhouse XM station was playing on the television. Just before the family prayed, the station played Ray Price. He was singing “Danny Boy.”


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We'd All Be Better With A Heity In Our Lives

From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

Alan Burdziak is the crime reporter at the Columbia Tribune in Missouri, the paper our old friend and former Shreveport sportswriter Kent Hietholt worked for when he died in its parking lot after midnight  Halloween of 2001.

In light of recent developments in a murder case revisited by national media through these 12 years, Alan wrote me the first week of December. “I'm now working on a story remembering Kent Heitholt,” his note read, “something our paper hasn't done in years and that hasn't been done lately at length.”

That story, part of it concerning the entire ongoing tragedy, ran Dec. 8 and is easily findable online. What I did was write Alan back off the top of my head; most of what I wrote back is this:


I don't know how many times I roomed with Heity: at Final Fours, at tournaments, at regular games. Don't know how many times he spent the night with me when I was in Baton Rouge working for the Times-Picayune and he'd drive down from Shreveport. One memorable week was the SEC baseball tournament in Starkville. The maid told us, “This room looks like pigs live here!" So I can't say he was particularly neat. But he was neat in his writing: he always gave you the meat and potatoes. But he always tried to give you the little extra too. And he'd cover local things no one else wanted; the readers who cared about the paper, that's who he worked for.

And he was neat with his friendships. He kept messes cleaned up. Things can get dicey on deadlines. Lots of egos in a newsroom, and lots of egos in the sports world. But Heity got along with everyone. Not because he bowed down or sucked up to anybody: just the opposite. He got along because he was sincere and hard-working and an example of how to do things the right way and still have fun. He helped young writers and young wanna-be writers. Heity didn't give up on people.

Funny how some things stick in your head, when they were nothing at the time: me and Heity and his daughter Kali were eating at a Wendy's once. She probably wasn't even 6 yet. We must have been covering something in the middle of the day and needed to get her from school. Anyway, she spilled her drink. I don't think Heity ever stopped whatever it was he was talking about. "Fumble!" he said, and we wiped things up, and Kali said she was sorry and kept eating. No big deal. Just an everyday typo. He rubbed her hair and gave her some of his drink and kept talking and nothing missed a beat. He was a very big guy but a gentle man.

You wanted to have the seat by Heity on press row, at a press conference, in the newsroom, even at a Wendy's when drinks got spilled all over your French fries. Who cares? He made you feel better...Me and Heity and the late, lyrical Shelby Strother of Detroit ordered milk shakes in the pressroom in Seattle once at a hotel during a Final Four, writing late in the afternoon after practice, or maybe on the day between the semis and the finals. Soon, nearly every writer in there, dozens, were ordering milk shakes. Heity apologized to the waiter who'd just happened to wander through the press room at the wrong time...It is odd that I dropped both those guys at the airport for early flights the next morning after the Finals, and both are gone now, Shelby to cancer and Heity to whatever this mess is, one that can't be cleaned up.  

Anything I'd say about Heity would be less than what he was and probably not totally true to how good he was to other people, how much he loved his family and cared for his friends, how he turned into a little boy when he talked about the little boy he once was, photographed sitting in the lap of a college-aged Dean Smith, a teammate of his Dad's on those championship Kansas basketball teams back in the day. Heity was a pro but still he was always that little bitty boy; that’s what made him so good as a writer but even better as a person. We'd all be better with a Heity in our lives.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Devilishly Good Holiday Fare; It's Not A Bad Thing

From today's Times and News-Star

You learn something new every holiday.

Not until this past Thanksgiving week did I know that some people look forward to cranberry sauce on toast the morning after what is the first of the best back-to-back eating days of the year.

Cranberry sauce on toast. Chew on that for a minute…

I like a cranberry. I like them in one of those cranberry fruit salad thingys. I like cranberry juice. But do not love a cranberry. And can’t make room on my holiday plate for cranberry sauce. It’s not so much the taste as it is the consistency. Its palatability. Like apple butter; something is just not right.

But, to each his own. I wish I liked it so I could eat it on toast. Sounds like a well-thought-through plan, and I love me a culinary plan.

All that to say this and this:

Park of the beauty of the eating part of Thanksgiving is that, in your plan, you know that Friday might be better than Thursday. All these foods heat up well. Turkey and ham. Green bean casserole. Sweet potato casserole. Crab dip (Joy!) on the unheated Ritz. To me, Thanksgiving always tastes better on Friday than on Thursday. It’s a beautiful thing.

And two, cranberry sauce would be near the bottom of my list of Holiday Sides, the foods that play backup to the All-Conference Thanksgiving Dishes: your turkey, your ham, your dressing, green bean stuff, sweet potato stuff. Those are the lead singers.

Here’s the band, and see if you agree: cranberry sauce, deviled eggs, fruit salad, crab dip if you are so inclined, giblet (you say GIB-let, I say JIB-let) gravy, yeast rolls. My spousal unit fries cauliflower for this day but that is such an odd notion that we can’t even include it in the band. At best, it is a roadie. It walks in with the amps and microphone stands, with help from the macaroni salad and the random beet.

Now, in that lineup, which food is the lead guitar or keyboard player, the leader of the band? I surprised myself this week to discover the answer, which came to me in, of all places, Sunday school.

It was in Sunday school that I realized, without even being particularly hungry, that the deviled egg was more than an unsung hero. The deviled egg was a “playah,” THE playah, the man with the plan, the indispensable key to a good time being had by all. In a vision, it seemed little deviled egg halves were floating over everyone’s head, like New Testament flames of fire.

Why I thought and saw this at that time, I don’t know. We hadn’t talked about the devil, or the logic would be obvious. But often in church, I get these thoughts -- we’ll call them “truths” -- that I wouldn’t get elsewhere. While the deviled egg is not in the same plane, my knowing and accepting its true worth is handy info, especially if you are trying to plan your holiday eating.  

If you make them correctly – the yellow stuff is not too yellow and is soft, not hard, as good potato salad would be, which is a whole other yet similar ballgame – you can eat a half-dozen of these things before you know what hit you, same as you can with hot donuts. One minute you are hungry and want “just a taste,” and a half-minute later you are bloated and leaning up against a kitchen door jamb, with either white egg flakes or hot sugar on the sides of your mouth.

Been there. Heavens!, they’re devilishly good.