Having outlived many of his contemporaries, Willie Nelson is well on his way to being the last man standing among his generation of country performers. His latest effort is a tribute to the late Ray Price. It is the latest in a long line of tribute albums from Willie, but an especially poignant one given his own advancing age and his lifelong friendship with Price, which began with Willie’s stint as one of Price’s Cherokee Cowboys band members in the 1960s.
The legendary Fred Foster came out of retirement to produce the collection, and Bergen White was responsible for all of the string and orchestral arrangements. Country music fans of a certain age will no doubt recall seeing White’s name on virtually every country album in the 70s and 80s that featured strings, as most of them did in those days.
Even at his peak, Willie was never in Price’s league as a vocalist and at 83 his vocal abilities are greatly diminished, and it is most likely for this reason that The Time Jumpers were brought in to join Willie on half of the album’s tracks, providing fiddle steel and background vocals, which in some cases are badly needed. Ray Price started his career as a hardcore honky-tonker, and in later years he was a crooner of middle-of-the-road ballads which often featured lush orchestral arrangements — despite having once been a harsh critic of countrypolitan and the Nashville Sound. The Time Jumpers are featured primarily on the more hardcore country numbers such as “Heartaches by the Number”, “I’ll Be There”, “Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me”, “Crazy Arms”, Bill Anderson’s “City Lights” and Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”.
All of the songs are beautifully produced and lovingly performed, never straying far from Price’s original renditions. Willie sounds better on some tracks than others; he is at his best on “Heartaches by the Numbers”, “Night Life” (his own composition) and “City Lights”. His age-imposed limitations are most apparent on some of the more vocally challenging numbers. “Faded Love” isn’t the easiest song to sing and also not one I immediately associate with Ray Price, although his 1980 duet version with Willie enjoyed greater success on the singles chart than any other. Presumably that is why it was included. Similarly, “Make the World Go Away” is a song more closely associated with Eddy Arnold, although Price did enjoy a #2 hit with it in 1963, two full years ahead of Arnold’s chart-topping version. It’s given (appropriately) the full orchestra treatment here with the backing chorus doing so much of the vocal heavy lifting it could almost be billed as a duet.
The album contains two songs with which I was not previously familiar: “It Will Always Be” and “I’m Still Not Over You”. Both were written by Willie and the latter was a top 10 hit for Price in 1967. Both are decent but not as memorable as the others on the album.
For the Good Times is a bittersweet affair. It’s forty minutes of some of the best music to ever come out of Nashville, but it is of course very sad that Ray Price is no longer with us, and to hear Willie in decline. But aside from Willie’s vocal limitations (which can mostly be overlooked considering his age), I can’t find fault with anything on this album.