Music has taken Lampasas native Donnie Price all over the world and back again.
Now 66 years old, Price dropped out of school in the 10th grade to pursue a career in music. He started out playing lead guitar, switched over to the bass, and has enjoyed a run that includes 27 tours of Europe, and sharing stages with the likes of Texas legends Rusty Weir, Augie Meyers, Steven Fromholz, Ryan Bingham, and last but certainly not least, the one and only Willie Nelson.
“I wasn’t in Willie’s band … that kind of gets blown out of proportion,” Price said, sipping coffee up in the loft at Alamo Coffee Shop in Lampasas. “I’ve jammed with him out at his house, and I’ve played at Poodie’s (famed Hill Country roadhouse) with him when we backed up Billy Joe Shaver right after his son died.
“So, me and Willie were in Billy Joe Shaver’s band one time, for one night.
“I’ve known Willie since the late ‘80s, something like that. A dear friend of mine, David Zettner, was his original bass player and lived down on Willie’s ranch, so I started hanging around out there.
“Willie used to shoot movies just for the hell of it. He had a (mock) western town on the ranch, and we’d just get out there and play cowboy. We never put any of ‘em out. It was a lot of fun.
“You’d run into people like Merle Haggard, (Kris) Kristofferson ... David said one time they were shooting some movie out there and he looked up, and here comes Willie and Bob Dylan and Neil Young walking up the street. They sat down on the porch and started jamming. After a while, the director says, ‘Can I have my cast and crew back, please?’
“Those were fun days.”
Price’s dad was a country music singer-songwriter and a major influence on his early development as a musician. He says he learned to play guitar as a young boy; so long ago he doesn’t remember exactly when.
“It’s like making a pan of gravy – I don’t remember not knowing how to play the guitar and I don’t remember not knowing how to make a pan of gravy.
“I was a lead guitar player for years. Predominately rock and roll, and a lot of country. Then I discovered the bass, and it was just a lot more fun. You’re a drummer with notes – how cool is that, you know?
“If you’ve got the groove – if you’ve got the right-hand for bass – you’re doing a disservice to the world if you don’t play the bass. There are too many people who can’t play it. Everybody thinks it’s easy, but it’s all about the groove and the timing.
“I always liken us (bass players and drummers) to the back tires. We keep things rolling. We’re the cruise control; we keep it going. Then those hotshots out front can lead us wherever they want to. We try not to pay too much attention to them.
“I still play guitar. I toured Europe as lead guitar player several times. Mostly, though, I play bass. I can’t sing and I can prove it.”
He was making a little money now and then playing guitar as a teenager, but it wasn’t until Price was in his early 20s that he decided to jump into the music business with both feet. He played in some bands, including gigs long ago at venues in places like Killeen and Harker Heights.
Somewhere around 1973, he nearly landed a job as house band at a place called National Hall in Harker Heights.
“It was a big dance hall,” Price said. “I played two nights there and they were going to hire me as the house band. Two hundred bucks a week.
“How’d that fall apart? Oh, yeah, the manager … I don’t know what it’s like now, but there was a lot of mafia over there running the clubs in those days. This manager, they had sent him down from Chicago to get him out of town, and he ended up screwing up down here and everything went to hell. So there went my first professional job.
“I never played in Temple. Played somewhere in Waco but it’s been so long ago, I couldn’t tell you where it was. I played in Killeen a long time ago … 1978, maybe?
“One place in Killeen – I couldn’t tell you what it was – tried to pay us in beer signs. He wanted to give us $200 and some beer signs. I said, ‘No, we’ll take what we agreed on.’”
Fast-forward a couple decades and Price began landing gigs in Europe – France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy. He has not played in one particular band in years. Instead, he favors working as often as possible as a hired gun.
“I’ve toured Europe extensively with people you’ve never heard of, like a guy named Mike Blakely. In the early 2000s, we had a hit record over there. I played with Augie Meyers (founding member of the Sir Douglas Quintet and Texas Tornados) over there; Bo Porter over there; Thomas Michael Riley.
“When we were young, we all had bands, but we didn’t need the money as bad. Now, we’re older and have taxes and mortgages, child support and everything else, so we gotta work. This guy’s working one night a week or two nights a week – or one night every other week – so I can’t work with him all the time.
“Hardly anybody has a band anymore. They have a phone book with a lot of musicians in it. It’s impossible to have a band and pay them enough to keep them – unless you have a bunch of guys who have (day) jobs.
“Some people have a steady band, but they have day gigs. They’re not really depending on (music) to make a living. Guys who are trying to make a living, you’ve just got to be in everybody’s phone book.
“So, you book the gig and then put the band together. Don’t worry about the mule; just load the wagon.”
Along with playing music, Price recently has delved into acting. He has landed roles in some indie films and says he hopes to do more in the future.
“The first guy to really put the bug in my ear about acting was (Hollywood star) Billy Bob Thornton.
“The first time I hung out with him was backstage at Willie's (Fourth of July) picnic, and then off and on after that. We always got a kick out of one another because we're both really just country boys and he could be himself.
“He asked if I had any acting experience. I said, ‘Hell yes, I was married twice!’ He said I had a look and a personality that may lend itself that direction. He still hasn't called.
“I just did one (movie) down in San Antonio a few months ago, which was fun. I got to knock water over on a big ol’ cop and have a standoff with him. I got to knock a guy out with a shotgun butt. I did a ‘proof of concept’ shooting over in Waco, where I was a homicide detective and I got to shoot a guy.
“I really enjoy doing it, and I want to do more, but I’m new at it and haven’t really done that much.”
Right now, Price is recuperating from shoulder surgery, and after COVID-19 shut down the music scene here, there, and everywhere last year, he began to take a hard look at the future. He still loves playing music and always will, but he wants to consider other options, as well.
“I’m kind of re-evaluating right now,” Price said. “Kind of looking at what I want to do; what the next chapter is going to be. Usually around springtime is when I get going.
“People have these New Year’s resolutions, you know, (but) I say the hell with that – I’m still hibernating. Don’t talk to me about this year in January – I still haven’t thawed out yet. Come April or May, I start getting a little frisky. I don’t know. You know the word ‘ennui.’ I’ve got a light case of that going right now. It’s just like, man, I need a change.
“I need forward momentum – whatever it is. If I’m going to be playing with a bunch of guys and all we’re gonna be doing is playing at some little honky tonk from now on … I need this to be going somewhere.”
As for any advice a seasoned professional can give young people trying to break into the music business, Price recalls something one of his buddies said back in the day.
“One time, Fromholz (a renowned singer-songwriter who was selected as poet laureate of Texas for 2007) and I were playing Kerrville Folk Festival. A young man came up and said, ‘Mr. Fromholz, I’m an aspiring singer-songwriter. Is there any advice you can give me?’“
Fromholz said, ‘Yeah, don’t put your weight on one leg all the time. Be sure and shift back and forth.’
“So, if anybody asks me for advice, that’s what I tell ‘em.”
John H Clark III is a longtime central Texas journalist and author. Go to www.johnhenryiii.com for more on his books and writing services.