Veteran singer Merle Haggard has paid tribute to late music icon Ray Price, praising his old friend for taking country music "to a different level".

The Release Me hitmaker lost his battle with cancer on Monday (16Dec13), at the age of 87, and Haggard reveals he had long admired Price for his musical innovation and his refusal to simply stick to traditional sounds, earning him a reputation as one of the pioneers of the outlaw country genre.

Haggard, who teamed up with Price and Willie Nelson for the late star's last album, 2007's Last of the Breed, tells the Associated Press, "He was probably the first outlaw. I think Willie will agree. He was out there fighting for what he believed and doing it his way, and being criticised and all that. I remember when he laid the guitar down and started hiring violin players and all that, and everybody thought he was crazy. Crazy like a fox. He knew what he was doing.

"He brought country music to a different level I think. He was laying pop music behind country songs and having success. He won an award for For the Good Times. A lot of people said, 'What is Ray Price doing? He's got all those violins and things.' He held up that award and said, 'This is what I've been trying to do.'"

Price won the coveted Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 1971 Grammy Awards for his version of For The Good Times, while he also scored Single of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards in 1970.