Imagine this – it’s 2018. You can have Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and whatever else there is all at your fingertips. Your favorite artists are right there and ready to interact with you as if you’re meeting them face to face. You can be best friends!
If this sounds like a new phenomenon, it’s really not. The only thing that’s changed is the way we interact with these artists. The original “stans” in country music wrote letters to their favorite artists. Remember that scene from Walk The Line when Johnny Cash came home from his tour and found himself swarmed with letters from fans?
Of course, that’s a separate issue. Artists have never really incorporated that into their music. On the opening introduction of his 1963 album, Night Life, Ray Price asks fans that if we like the album, “tell us about it. Won’t you?” Through letters sent to Price as well as fan clubs, fans very well could tell Price what they thought of the album.
I bring that technology comparison up for a reason. Upon listening to Night Life in a modern context, it may be hard to see why it’s regarded now as a classic in country music. Yet illusions continue to prevail.
I said that the only thing that’s changed with the “stan” culture is the way in which it thrives, and the same be said for what we now regard as classic themes in country music – heartache, drinking … did I mention heartache?
As such, Night Life was actually an incredibly ground-breaking project for 1963, and despite what I said earlier, it’s an album that continues to shine brightly in 2018 and truly remain a masterpiece in the genre.
Night Life wasn’t the first concept album in country music, but it was arguably the first concept album to revolve around those classic country themes. With the exception of a few projects here and there, country music simply wasn’t an “album” genre by this point. It wouldn’t really be one until at least the ’70s. Country music relied on the power of a song, with the typical “album” during these times consisting of a fairly standard formula:
- The big hit single(s)
- Covers of other well-known hit singles (it is admittedly pretty cool to hear Loretta Lynn do “Harper Valley P.T.A” or hear Merle Haggard try out “Folsom Prison Blues”)
- Filler material
Price had No. 1 and No. 2 covered, but No. 3 was nowhere to be found on Night Life. It’s an album that saw Price compile songs written by the likes of Willie Nelson (or as he says, “a young boy down in Texas”), Hank Thompson, Hank Cochran, Charlie Rich and of course, his own material into one, cohesive project that told a story.
As Price says in the introduction to this album, this is an album “for the people of the night life” – the downtrodden and the lonely. The title track shows hints of the style Price would adopt on later works, with his crooning, powerful vocal style not too far removed from a country-Frank Sinatra. The jazzy feel to this blends in well with the moodiness of the night, especially when it’s the first taste of music we get here.
Included here is a cover of Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side Of Life,” a song that inspired the answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” by Kitty Wells, the first country song to go No. 1 for a female artist. With that said, while the choice to cover it might draw ire from a few of you (especially when a song such as this likely wouldn’t fly today), remember, context is important here. The entire point of including this song is how well it relates to the flow of the album. Near the beginning of the album we see more instances of a man who, despite being down on his luck, still pushes said luck because he feels like he’s in control, when in reality everything is coming apart at the seams. He can blame whoever he wants, but at the end of the day he’s still the lonely one.
If you want evidence of that claim, take a listen to the next track, “Sittin’ and Thinkin’ ” where Price drinks to the point where he causes trouble and gets thrown in jail. The downtrodden in these songs aren’t just “sad,” they’re literally getting the you-know-what kicked out of them by the world, sometimes justified and sometimes not-so justified.
To further the progressive legacy this album carries, take a listen to “A Girl In The Night.” From here on out, the perspectives change between downtrodden male and female narrators, an especially compelling narrative considering country music is a traditionally male genre. Here, the female narrator does everything we expect a traditional male “protagonist” in country music to do – go down to the honkytonks and drink away troubles because it’s all that’s left to do. Again, while this was originally cut by the aforementioned Thompson, the focus is on the sequencing here and the reason why it was placed where it was in the album. Showcasing both perspectives was cutting edge for 1963. Take that “Different For Girls.”
As such, it’s what leads me to believe that the male narrator and female narrator are connected to one another, with both loving one another but still losing one another over their own demons. The album’s only single, “Pride” which comes right after “A Girl In The Night” tells of a male narrator who’s conflicted about leaving his lover because she’s wild and rambunctious. Yes, judgment and hypocrisy is another subtle element of this album as well.
It’s not like that isn’t addressed either. “If She Could See Me Now” quite literally sees a man poking fun at himself by telling the audience what a mess he is without the woman he loves. Basically, we’re not tough when we’re at our lowest.
The following track, “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women” sees him sinking even further by relying on the cheap thrills to ease his pain, only they just leave him more and more lonely instead of rejuvenated.
Fans who don’t know this album perhaps know “Are You Sure?” from Kacey Musgraves’ 2015 album, Pageant Material (the song was a duet with the aforementioned Nelson who also wrote the song). To me, this song is the turning point of the entire project. This doesn’t come from the male or female perspective. Instead, it comes from an outside perspective – a conscience of sorts. Like any good old country song, it’s simple and direct, with the ultimate theme boiling down to a question of “do you really want to be at your lowest when you could be with the one you love?”
Of course, “Let Me Talk To You” doesn’t offer a clear resolution, thus also nodding toward country music’s commitment to keep things real. Still, there’s no more judgment or sorrow. They’ve both wronged, and the only question left is whether or not the damage has wrecked either of the two to the point where there’s no going back.
Beyond its wonderful story though, Night Life has endured for truly being a complete package. Price and his Cherokee Cowboys are in full form here. “Lonely Street,” with its fiddle and honkytonk sound is one of the album’s best songs, and I don’t think there’s a better steel guitar opening than on “Bright Lights and Blonde Haired Women.”
In addition, Price is in top-form vocally, with one of the most commanding, sincere voices the genre has to offer. Price will drag you down to the lowest depths alongside him, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The melodies to tracks like “The Twenty-Fourth Hour” and “Pride” just don’t leave your head.
If Night Life is any other thing too, it’s the piece of evidence we have to crown Price as the link between Hank Williams and the aforementioned Nelson. Whether or not Price’s adoption of strings and near-abandonment of his honky-tonk style evident on later works is a bad thing is up to you. Personally, considering we’d later hear Price record Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times,” I don’t think it could be much of a bad thing, but one thing that’s been in near consensus is that Night Life is one of the best the genre has to offer. Again, these aren’t “sad” songs – they’re songs you listen to when life has nothing left to offer you. It’s purely amazing at how progressive this album was and still is today, and when every element from the instrumental to the vocals is in top-form, Night Life is one of those rare perfect albums.
Huge thumbs up
Producer: Don Law
Album highlights: … the album itself