It's hard to believe there are 225 years divided among the three artists on the Last of the Breed tour. Country-music legends Ray Price (81), Willie Nelson (74) and Merle Haggard (70) are long past the age of retirement, but all three are still working full-time and having a ball. The current tour, now on its second leg, has been one of the top draws of the season. And, according to Price, "the audiences have been pretty wild, just unreal. Each night is like walking onto the Opry stage with a big hit record."
Of course, none of these three has had a big hit in years, because mainstream country radio stations won't play their new music in spite of the fact that the new stuff is just as good as their classic songs. "Country music ain't dead, but radio refuses to play it," Price says. "What they play just isn't country anymore. They may be making a fortune, but they are destroying our culture."
Price is not alone in his lament, but he cites a few of today's artists who remain true to country's roots. First and most notable in his list is Austinite Dale Watson, who has been highly vocal in his contempt of the current country-music industry. Noted for songs such as "Nashville Rash" and "Country, My Ass," Watson is proud that his work and stance is recognized by folks such as Ray, Willie and Merle. "Wow, it makes my day to hear that Ray said that," Watson says. "And I agree with him 100 percent. That's why I call my music 'Ameripolitan.' The name 'country' has been stolen from us by the media. We don't fit in with Kenny Chesney or Rascal Flatts. And that's what people today think is country music."
Watson, a hardcore country traditionalist, recently released From the Cradle to the Grave, written and recorded in a five-day span at the late Johnny Cash's Tennessee cabin. The spirit and inspiration of the setting is heard all over the record. "Cash's presence is undeniably there. I tried not to cop his 'boom chicka boom' sound, but it kept showing up in songs," he says. "I finally gave in."
While five days is an instant by current recording standards, the Last of the Breed trio topped that by recording its recent double CD in two days. "We did 22 songs," Price recalls with a laugh. "Here it is. Start it. Finish it. Next?" Of course, with the experience these guys have, what would you expect?
"We had a good time, and the songs were all great," Price continues. "Willie is one of my best friends, and it's a joy to be able to do things like this when you get to be my age." Price has no secrets when asked about his longevity, and the ability to sing with as much control and style as he did 50 years ago. "I never really did anything to preserve my voice, but never had too many bad habits. I've been lucky, I really have." Actually, it has often been reported that Price and Nelson share a taste for a certain herb, and their obvious ability to sustain successful careers certainly contradicts a few of the myths about that.
Regardless of what goes on in the tour bus, the Last of the Breed shows are business as usual. Each night on stage is loosely constructed to allow all three a moment in the spotlight, while providing time to showcase their duet and trio work. "On the first leg we had Asleep at the Wheel [backing] us, but on this run we are all using our own bands." Price says. "It is a lot of fun, and everyone is saying this is history with the three of us together."
Watson, who is a big fan of all three artists, agrees. "That's heaven to me. Just add George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Pride, and you will have just about all the legends we have left."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This feature is dedicated to the memory of my father, Jimmy Kelly, who truly was one of the "Last of the Breed."