Charley Pride in 1975
Photo: Bettmann / Contributor
For Charley Pride, Black Country Music Was A Self-Evident Truth
Charley Pride was on the on-ramp to Nashville fame—then his audience discovered how he looked. In 1967, after two non-charting singles, his third, "Just Between You And Me," had pierced the Top 10 on the Hot Country Songs chart. Pride had guitar pioneer Chet Atkins, producer “Cowboy" Jack Clement and manager-agent Jack Johnson in his corner. In short, he was moving. But when Pride strolled into the spotlight at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, clamorous applause curdled into an awkward silence.
Undoubtedly aware of the audience's reaction, Pride hesitated before laying into his first song. Instead, he leaned his arms on his acoustic guitar, as if to drag over a chair and say, "Let's rap for a moment."
"Ladies and gentlemen, I realize it's kind of unique, me coming out here on a country music show wearing this permanent tan," he quipped. "But my name's Charley Pride, and I am from Mississippi. My daddy was a farmer down there, and I sing country music. And I want to entertain you if you'll let me."
Was Pride unique in the country music world? Absolutely. To date, the Grand Ole Opry has welcomed 211 performers as members; Pride is one of only three Black members. (The others include DeFord Bailey, the harmonica trailblazer, and Darius Rucker, the singer of Hootie & The Blowfish.)
That said, was Pride an anomaly? An interloper? A novelty act? God, no. The three-time GRAMMY winner and Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was right where he belonged, alongside country music's giants. He stayed there until his death, caused by COVID-19 complications, this weekend (Dec. 12). He was 86.
"Music is about breaking barriers. As one of the first Black superstars in country music, Charley Pride did just that," Harvey Mason jr., Chair & Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said in a statement. "A three-time GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee, the Recording Academy feels this loss deeply. During his nearly five-decade-long career, Pride inspired artists and paved the way for so many in the industry, which is why the Academy honored him with our Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. He’ll be sorely missed, but we are grateful for the remarkable legacy he leaves behind."
If you trace country music's lineage, it's a straight line through Black American sounds, from the Civil War to Lil Nas X's genre-bending "Old Town Road," despite an apparent lack of visibility of Black artists in the genre.
"I think the history books, unfairly, will mostly note that Charley Pride was a great country singer who was African-American," radio host Bobby Bones said in the 2019 documentary, American Masters: Charlie Pride: I'm Just Me. "You can take off the African-American part."
Exhibit A of country music's Black origins lies in the banjo, which has so many roots in Africa that Béla Fleck once spent a whole multimedia project tracking them down. Flash-forward to the late-19th and early-20th centuries: Pride was keenly aware that Black folks formed the country's musical building blocks. "American music is made up of gospel, country and the blues. Those three," he explained in the documentary. "And I think each one borrowed from the other over the years that I've grown up and listened to the music."
Comb through Wikipedia, and you'll find numberless examples of this transracial interchange, from Jimmie Rodgers' and Louis Armstrong's "Blue Yodel No. 9" to Buck Owens' and Bettye Swann's long-unreleased collaborations. Since the 1920s, though, when labels segregated albums by "hillbilly records" and "race records" and effectively scrubbed Black fingerprints from country music, many people have associated the genre as a largely white sound. Country's historically whitewashed hegemony, which made Pride out to be less a natural participant than an interloper, still reflects this artificial wedge between the two races.
Any critical analysis of Pride's life and career will tell you he was country to the bone, regardless of his melanin content. Hard-luck story? Check: Pride was the fourth of 11 children born to sharecropper parents in Sledge, Miss. He ran from the punishing, unrelenting work of cotton-picking for the rest of his life. "It reminds me of what I don't ever want to go back to doing because it hurts my fingers and my back and my knees," Pride said during a televised performance before launching into Lead Belly's "Cotton Fields." Does his music check out? No doubt: Pride played straight-ahead, traditional country and western with a magnetic voice somewhere in George Jones' zip code.
Pride was anything but oblivious to racism, but he once maintained that he never caught as much as a flippant remark. "It never did happen," he said in I'm Just Me. "I've never had one catcall, or iota of something like Jackie Robinson went through in my whole career, to this very moment. When that question is asked, I say, 'No, I haven't.' I get that 'I can't believe' look or 'You gotta be kidding' look or 'I don't believe you.'" As his mother, Tessie Pride, told him, according to the documentary, "Don't go around with a chip on your shoulder. There's good people everywhere. You've got a lot you're going to have to do, and you can't do it carrying a load of resentment with you."
Pride could have ignored that maternal advice and wielded his Blackness in a provocative or inflammatory way. Given the history of anti-Black violence, segregation and oppression in America, few would have blamed him. Instead, he chose to acknowledge his racial background good-naturedly and good-humoredly, and he never wavered from the idea that God put him on this Earth to be a country singer.
No matter what the good old boys in Music City, U.S.A., might have thought, Pride was a Black artist in a rightfully Black art form. As such, the story of country music contained a blank page with his name on it. Zoom out and consider the whole timeline, and you'll find that Pride playing country music was like Chuck Berry architecting rock 'n' roll, Mary Lou Williams braiding jazz, gospel and swing, or Kendrick Lamar recoding the DNA of the rap game. No person would question their credentials in their genres, and no matter how outnumbered Pride was in a white-centric market, he belonged to the country music world just as much.
Back to Pride on stage at the Olympia Stadium, standing alone against stunned silence. He could have rightfully hectored the crowd as a bunch of bigoted hillbillies, but that wasn't Pride. Instead, he disarmed them with a joke. "Then, he started singing," Vanderbilt professor Alice Randall said in I'm Just Me. "The applause came back."