Ray Price may not exert the mythic power of Hank Williams, Bob Wills, or even Lefty Frizzell, but he is unquestionably one of the titans of 20th century country music, one of the musicians who created the foundation of modern country through his skipping shuffles, soulful ballads, and exceptional ear for talent in songwriters and supporting musicians. He was one of the most popular singers of his era, staying on the charts until the early '80s (!), but Columbia/Legacy's 20-track 1991 collection The Essential Ray Price (1951-1962) chronicles his peak of creative powers and as a hitmaker. It's possible to hear him evolve from a Hank/Lefty disciple to minting his own style, equal parts hardcore honky tonk and Western swing, supported by a prominent swinging two-step backbeat that was known as the Ray Price Shuffle even after countless other singers used it as the foundation for their own music. It's thrilling to hear this develop over the course of his '50s hits, taking hold around 1955 (about a third into this collection) and reaching full flower on 1956's "Crazy Arms," which arrives halfway through the collection. From this point on, Price's music is propelled by the shuffle, even on the ballads, and it's a body of work as individual and influential as anything else in country music, perhaps best heard on the hits "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You," Roger Miller's "Invitation to the Blues," Bill Anderson's "City Lights," and Harlan Howard's timeless "Heartaches By the Number." This is the sound of modern honky tonk music -- Hank and Lefty were the godfathers, but on the sides Ray Price cut from 1955 onward, he invented the template that neo-traditionalist country singers followed. It remains vital, lively, and essential music, and there's no better place to hear it than Columbia/Legacy's excellent The Essential Ray Price (1951-1962).
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine