Ray Price’s 1956 hit “Crazy Arms” made history beyond its lengthy run atop the country charts. It’s the first chart-topper for Price, a classic honky tonk singer who would later change with the times and become the voice of the Nashville Sound. In line with future Price hits, it features that definitive 4/4 rhythm sound with pedal steel guitar and walking electric bass accompaniment. It’s also a co-write by Ralph Mooney, the legendary steel guitarist for Wynn Stewart, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard’s backing band the Strangers.
The song’s record of 20 weeks spent at number one was nearly breached by a couple of all-time great country hits — Leroy Van Dyke’s 1961-’62 hit “Walk On By” (19 weeks) and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ 1963-’64 standard “Love’s Gonna Live Here” (16 weeks)–between ’56 and Florida Georgia Line’s history-altering run of success with its immensely popular 2012 single “Cruise.” FGL didn’t redefine Billboard’s all-encompassing Hot Country charts for long thanks to the even bigger success of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road.”
At a time when Elvis Presley had already shifted Southern music toward a teen-friendly focus, a late ’40s composition still resonated with the public for nearly half a year. Despite being a little old-fashioned, Price’s first hit was pop-friendly by the standards of the time. With an opening line as memorable and potent as “now blue ain’t the word for the way that I feel,” it’s no wonder the song dominated the airwaves, jukeboxes and retail sales for weeks on end.
Co-written by Chuck Seals of the famous Seals family in 1949, the song allegedly came to Mooney after his marriage reached the end of the road due to his drinking problem. The “lonely all the time” and “my troubled mind” sentiment and defeatist “you win again” and “the storm’s brewing in this heart of mine” outlook came from a real place, which may account for why the song soon set the standard for country’s best sellers. With lines like “crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new,” it’s disappointing that the pair never co-wrote another hit. Imagine similar lyrical depth lent to the crooner-friendly eras of Price, Eddy Arnold and others–and by proxy, the current sounds of Joshua Hedley and other Nashville Sound devotees.
Like other honky tonk standards, the song got covered down the line by a wide range of artists. Notable versions appear on titles by Bing Crosby, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Gram Parsons, Mickey Gilley, Patty Loveless, Chris Isaak (for his album Beyond the Sun), Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, the Jerry Garcia Band and others. Price relived that “crazy dream,” too, appearing on Barbara Mandrell’s 1990 version for her album Morning Sun. In all, Price’s story of “my yearning heart,” as lived by Mooney, set the standard for keeping a country hit in print and near the top of the charts.