The Ray Price Cherokee Cowboys Proving Ground
Before there were reality show contests and overnight sensations in country music, artists were expected to pay dues in music before they could hit the big time. They had to prove their muster as performers, musicians, or songwriters before making it to the spotlight, and one of those proving grounds was behind an established musician, holding down a spot in their band. When it came to the band of the recently deceased Ray Price called the Cherokee Cowboys, that proving ground has a pretty remarkable list of alumni that made their way up the country music ranks with the help of Ray.
Much can be written about the influence and impact Ray Price had on country music. But there may be no better evidence then the list of performers who felt honored to play behind Ray during their rise. Here’s some of the most notable Cherokee Cowboys that went on to bigger fame.
In 1961, just as Willie Nelson was beginning to make it big as a songwriter with Faron Young cutting “Hello Walls” and Ray Price Recording “Night Life,” Willie heard that Ray’s bass player was leaving and applied for the gig. “Ray didn’t ask if I knew how to play bass, which I didn’t,” Willie recalls. Willie’s stint in the Cherokee Cowboys was not very long, but it was legendary. Willie would take his $25 wage and songwriting royalties and upgrade his hotel rooms to suites to throw big parties, and pay for commercial airfare instead of riding the band bus. Willie bought Ray Price’s 1959 Cadillac and gave it to his then wife Martha. But as Willie became a hot songwriting commodity, he moved on from Ray’s band. The man Willie replaced on bass was known as Donny Young, whose real name was Donald Lytle, later to be known as Johnny Paycheck.
Johnny Paycheck was known simply as Donny Young during his Cherokee Cowboy days, and he had a lasting impact on the band and Ray Price before being replaced by Willie Nelson. Just like Paycheck did when he played in George Jones’s band, he was not only a capable bass player that also could also sit in on steel guitar, Paycheck brought a tenor harmony to the table that made him an invaluable and influential resource to any band he played in. Paycheck’s tenor is given credit for heavily influencing George Jones’s singing style, and Paycheck’s harmonies can be heard on early 60’s recordings by Ray Price, Faron Young, and fellow Cherokee Cowboy Roger Miller.
Roger Miller’s career path was quirky to say the least, but just like Willie and Paycheck, it ran through Ray Price. After starting as a songwriter and collaborating early on with George Jones during his Starday Records era, Miller moved to Amarillo to become a firefighter. Of course Miller was a horrible firefighter, and made his way back into the music business and out to Nashville by becoming a Cherokee Cowboy in 1958. Miller wrote the Ray Price hit “Invitation to the Blues,” and sings harmony on the recording. Ray Price returned the favor in 1982, singing harmonies on Roger Miller’s final hit, “Old Friends,” which was the title track of a collaborative album between Roger and former Cherokee Cowboy Willie Nelson.
Picture of Ray Price and Roger Miller on the Grand Ole Opry. rogermiller.com
Talk to anybody familiar with the history of the pedal steel guitar in country music, and they’ll tell you Buddy Emmons is one of the gods of the instrument, if not the best to ever play. He was the founder of Sho-Bud, and the innovator of the “split-pedal” setup of the steel guitar in 1956 which revolutionized the instrument and is still in practice with most steel guitar players today. After doing stints in the bands of Little Jimmy Dickens and Ernest Tubb, Buddy joined the Cherokee Cowboys in 1962, recording and touring with Ray Price until about 1967. He plays the famous steel guitar break on “Night Life,” and became Price’s bandleader during his tenure in the Cherokee Cowboys, contributing many of the arrangements to Ray’s most famous songs from that era. Lloyd Green once said of Buddy Emmons, “He is probably the most intelligent and talented musician who’s ever played the instrument. He’s like Picasso or Michelangelo.” And when he joined Ray’s band, he replaced another steel guitar virtuoso, Jimmy Day. Emmons left the Cherokee Cowboys to move to California and work for fellow Cherokee Cowboy Roger Miller.
Honky tonk country singer and performer Darrell McCall grew up in Ohio with Donald Lytle, aka Donny Young, aka Johnny Paycheck, and the two moved to Nashville as a duo. When the duo thing didn’t work out, McCall, just like Paycheck, ended up in Price’s Cherokee Cowboys, both in the session recorder and touring band member capacity as a backup vocalist in 1958. A year later, McCall was contracted to be part of the band The Little Dippers, and a year after that, he was signed to Capitol Records as a solo artist, becoming a performer in the honky tonk style of country, and later in the Outlaw country realm.
The legendary Texas performer and songwriter whose most famous for penning Willie Nelson’s signature song “Whiskey River” joined Ray’s Cherokee Cowboys in 1963. Like so many artists before him, the opportunity Ray Price bestowed to Bush led to greater success, and made lifelong friends of fellow Cherokee Cowboy artists. Johnny Bush also spent some time in one of Willie Nelson’s first bands, The Record Men, and Willie was a financial backer for Bush’s first record in 1967, The Sound of a Heartache. Bush was signed to RCA in 1972, but vocal problems kept Bush from being the huge star his talent afforded. To this day, Johnny Bush is a big star in his native Texas.
Other Notable Members of the Cherokee Cowboys:
- Jimmy Day
- Pete Wade
- Steve Bess
- Jan Curtis
- Shorty Lavender
- Buddy Spicher
TX Music Jim
December 17, 2013 @ 2:59 pm
Has the ever been another band to have so many people cycle through it that had so much success individually ? I honestly do not think so. Thanks for the history lesson Trig.
December 17, 2013 @ 4:45 pm
I’ve been trying to think of a better one, and can’t come up with one. Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys had quite a few legendary members, and would probably be the equivalent in the bluegrass world. In the rock world The Yardbirds would be a rough equivalent, with Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page all coming from that class. BUt to have such stalwarts of the genre like Willie, Paycheck, and Roger Miller is truly something remarkable.
December 18, 2013 @ 10:08 pm
The Byrds come to mind.
Roger Miller’s band launched several artists in it’s own right. I didn’t realize he was a member of Ray Price’s band…
Emmylou’s hot band cycled through some talent.
Buck Owens launched a lot of talent, either through the band or backup vocals and duet partners.
I don’t think any of them quite reach this list, but I’d say the Byrds and Buckaroos come close.
January 12, 2016 @ 9:58 am
Miles Davis’ various bands included: John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderly, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Sonny Stitt, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Jack DeJohnette, Airto Moreira, Larry Coryell, Billy Cobham, and many I have forgotten.
December 17, 2013 @ 3:06 pm
Great read, a huge foundation in Country music history!
December 17, 2013 @ 4:46 pm
This is similar to the way playing in Miles Davis’ band in the fifties and sixties, made the careers of a lot of superstars in jazz.
Very interesting, won’t be seeing this kind of writing anywhere else.
December 18, 2013 @ 8:02 am
FANtastik read Triggerman! Glad you shared some history with us. I knew about the Willie and Roger Miller link but had no idea there was so much talent spawned from The Cherokee Cowboys! http://youtu.be/Wvzm63dN-GQ
December 18, 2013 @ 12:31 pm
December 18, 2013 @ 9:07 pm
good stuff… always found the statements of Paychecks influence on Jones vocal style debatable. Jones has said, “if anything I influenced him”. Paycheck has stated he felt they both influenced one another.
In Jones late 50’s and early 60’s “just one more, window up above, white lightning, she thinks I still care,treasure of love” he is already beginning to establish his distinct phrasing before Paycheck ever joined him in late 62. In Paychecks 65′ hit “a-11”, you can notice obvious influence from Jones 62′ “you’re still on my mind”.
However Paychecks upbeat 59 “shakin the blues” (written by Jones) has some noticeable phrasing licks similar to Jones “race is on” and “love bug” in the mid 60’s (paycheck sang harmony on both hits).
People often exaggerate Paycheck’s influence on Jones as if to make his career seem more relevant in country music history, but this is not needed. If anything, Jones probably had a bigger influence on Paychecks vocal style. Good discussion nonetheless..
Ray Price band pictures:
George Jones/Johnny Paycheck
December 19, 2013 @ 8:02 am
The Ray Price band link is really good. a tribute, posted December 17th from his drummer.
Thanks for that.
December 20, 2013 @ 8:02 am
Ray Price explains what happened to the Cherokee cowboys
December 21, 2013 @ 10:11 am
My dad was a front band for Ray back in the day as well. Dick Hammonds and The Hammers. Played on road with him for 4 years.
January 18, 2014 @ 7:20 pm
You forgot to include Bobby Flores in the group.
Bill C. Graham
April 22, 2017 @ 4:56 pm
Ray Price was my favorite singer from the first song I ever heard him sing. The artist that moved me to California in 1965 to play bass with him was Roger Miller, I was with him about a year when his guitar player at the time told me Roger was letting me go. The guitarist told Roger I quit. In reality, Buddy Emmons had just quit Ray and the guitarist hired Buddy to play bass with Roger.
Willie was a family friend with my brother, Clyde, a great steel player himself.and I met him in a club in Fort Worth and he introduced himself. Still a dear friend. At that point, I drove back. to Oklahoma and took a job playing bass with Wanda Jackson, a sweet, wonderful lady who recorded 2 of my songs.. But, I was homesick tor California and Wanda allowed me to go follow my heart. I was playing bass with Jimmy Bryant in a club in North Hollywood when Glen Campbell came out to sit in with Jimmy. That night, Glen hired me for a weekend that lasted almost 10 years. He recorded 10 of my songs.including the closing theme song on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour:.I have been wonderfully blessed in my life.. Bill C. Graham
April 21, 2019 @ 1:34 am
One of the original Cherokee Cowboys that was with Ray Price a total of 18 years, Kenneth “Little Red” Hayes, fiddle, is still alive and playing at 84 years young. After leaving Ray’s band he was with Mel Tillis for appx. 12 years.
January 3, 2021 @ 8:06 am
Good morning Ed. Kenneth “Little Red” Hayes is my grandfather I hate to say he just passed away few days ago, December 31 he was 86. And I can tell you he played that fiddle to the end. He will be greatly missed but his memory’s will live on.
January 3, 2021 @ 9:07 am
Yes, I was notified of Little Red’s death Friday. Really sorry to hear that and I knew was having problems. I at least have the CD’s that I copied from some old cassettes that he made many years ago and he actually sold a few for a bit of income. IF you guys run across any other VHS or cassetts that he made and you think they would be good to copy I’ll be glad todo it. Give Nina some extra income maybe. I’m in Crosby so not far away.
Cindy Evins Stephens
July 31, 2021 @ 5:45 pm
My dad, Jack (Curly) Evins, played steel guitar with Ray Price. Cherokee Cowboys. Love seeing any photos and videos. Precious.