Millions of fans mourned the passing of one of the great legends of country music this past Dec. 16 when Ray Price died. For one local musician and businessman, it hit on a more personal level as his father, also a musician, was not only colleagues with Price, but was also a good fishing buddy.
Mychael Thomas, owner of The Music Emporium in Centre, also recalls his family going on vacations with Price and family and will be forever grateful for the kindness and hospitality shown to him by the late country and western entertainer.
Thomas is the son of the late Tommy Jackson who played for the Louisiana Hayride and move to the Grande Ole Opry in the late 1940s and early 1950s after the War.
From there he was a solo fiddler and signed to MCA Records.
“He did like 11 albums,” said Thomas. “They did Square Dance albums. He was one of the A Team Nashville session players. He started playing records early. He played on Hank Williams’ records. My daddy played the fiddle on ‘I Saw The Light.’ He started playing with Ray I guess early mid to late 1950s. He was one of the original Cherokee Cowboys and I don’t know how they met, but he was one of the original Cherokee Cowboys.”
“Of course they started doing the records in Nashville and daddy was into that because he played on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night,” said Thomas. “He was a session musician for all of his career, plus playing with all of these other people. He played with George Jones, played on all of his records and was usually what they called session leader. The Union would hire Union Musicians and the producers had to have a contract.”
“My daddy was usually session leader on all of those,” said Thomas. “The producer worked with the session leader to hire the musicians for the sessions. A lot of times they would give them song demos and say ‘we want this.’ And so the session leader was usually a person that knew all the musicians like my daddy did. And they would go through and would hire musicians that would fit the music they were going to record. As a boy, my daddy would take me with him on a lot of those things. He also played good old Nashville Music and the Wilburn Brothers Television Show, He would take me to that.”
Thomas said he considers his growing up in the music business environment a mixed blessing.
“As a writer, I am especially appreciative of the quality of the irony like in a story or a song or whatever,” said Thomas. “That little twist that you are rocking along and then you have the irony. The irony for me was that my daddy was really good to take me to these situations, He took me to sessions, he took me to the Grand Ole Opry, I got to hang out back stage with all of the big stars. Most of them knew me. I wanted to play music and my daddy wouldn’t let me play.”
“Not for a long time,” added Thomas. “He bought me a guitar when I was 11, but then he wouldn’t give me lessons. I wanted to play sax. I was a big Boots Randolph fan. And the first record I ever owned was a jazz record.”
“For me the magic was watching these guys put this stuff together,” said Thomas. “These musicians were like family and everybody just jumped in and did their part. They had everybody in the room, two fiddlers, a rhythm guitar, a piano, base drums, lead guitar and steel guitar and singers and they would have all these people spaced out over a room and whoever was doing the lead singing would be kind of right in the middle and then they would have these sound baffles, and they would kind of isolate the singer to get a little bit of separation and they would record the record one take on the spot. And then they got to listen to it.”
Thomas recalled a Florida vacation his family shared with the Price family where his father and Ray did a show.
“They took a few days off and my mom and I flew down there on a Pan Am,” said Thomas. “I got to see a picture of it. My mom had this book of planes I loved air planes and she showed me pictures and said ‘that is the plane we are going to be flying on.’ It is one of those Pan Ams that had four prop engines and the three tail things on the back. I remember thinking ‘wow, I am going to get to fly on that plane!’”
“We flew down there to meet them,” said Thomas. “I stayed on the beach and got sunburned. There was nothing that could relieve a sunburn because we didn’t know about aloe yet. It was a medicated white cream they used on me.”
Price’s death, Thomas said, hit him hard, not only because of his talent and the loss to the music world, but also because of his close friendship and admiration.
“I loved him,” said Thomas. “I thought he was a great guy. Of course that is from a kid’s point of view. Most of those guys that my daddy worked with talked to me like an adult.”
“They didn’t talk down to me,” said Thomas. “It was lateral, I can remember Jim Reeves coming over the week before he had his plane crash. He came to the house and he and daddy were going fishing. Daddy fished a lot. He fished as much as he played music. As a matter of fact, I have a picture of him in the newspaper for getting a big catch. He got in the newspaper more for being a fisherman than being a musician. That was the thing a lot of those guys shared was fishing. I never caught on to that passion. I was a real disappointment to my dad in some areas. I couldn’t hunt, I didn’t like killing animals.”
“Daddy was always getting stuff ready and he told him ‘Jim I will be ready in just a minute,”’ said Thomas. “Jim came back there were I was in the backyard and I had these big blocks on which I would paint model cars and monsters. Jim squatted down next to me and said ‘whatcha’ doing pal?’ I will never forget that. And I said ‘I am building a model’ and he said ‘wow, that looks really neat.’ He just talked to me, was interested in what I was doing and asked questions.”
“I can’t remember anybody who was mean, but most of the people my daddy worked with, including Loretta Lynn, loved kids,” said Thomas. “When I came on the scene, they were like ‘well, what’s your name? Who are you, and I was like ‘wow, people talk to me.’ I felt important. That was kind of a gift for me because I was the nerd kid at school. I had really bad eyes and when I was 6, they put me in glasses. The nerd look got big in the 1980s. They had the charcoal look and they were so thick my eyes looked like Coke bottles. Kids are cruel. They would go ‘four eyes’ and I had really big ears. People called me Dumbo and four eyes so when I go into this world, with all these really cool people, that was kind of a good offset for me.”
“Ray was more slap you on the back, hug your neck, that kind of stuff,” said Thomas. “I could crawl up in his lap and sit. When I was nine or 10, they had the disc jockey convention. Ray played some place downtown where they had a ballroom and everything and had a dance and so they played. Of course he had a new record out and my daddy played with him.”
“I talked my daddy into taking me to the disc jockey convention and while they were playing, Ray’s wife, Linda, taught me to two-step,” said Thomas. “She said ‘would you like to dance?’ And I was like ‘I can’t dance!’ I was a kid and it embarrassed me, but she said ‘well come on it’s easy’ and so she taught me to two-step. They were playing the slow songs. She was blond and good-looking with that Marilyn Monroe look. She was a beautiful lady.”
Thomas recalled some advice his father gave him about the entertainment business, which has served him well in his own career.
“When he figured out I was going to be in the music business he helped and encouraged me,” said Thomas. “He said no matter what you do always be an artist. He said ‘I am an artist.’ He was a big country fiddler and everybody started to copy his style. I remember him telling me he was on a session one day and somebody said, ‘can you do that thing like so-in-so.’ He said ‘no, I am Tommy Jackson I do Tommy Jackson and if you want him why don’t you
call him up an get him over here?’’’
And while there is a lot of great talent on the country and pop stage today, things will never be quite the same, Thomas said.
“Seeing these old guys pass away, George Jones last year and Ray Price this year was kind of the end of my childhood really,” said Thomas. “Daddy passed away in 1979. I dealt with that, but seeing these older country artists and things, that was just such a part of my childhood and my life. We are seeing them pass on and a lot of them just forgotten and unnoticed because a new generation.”