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What Country Music Owes to Charley Pride

Charley Pride was one of the finest vocalists in country-music history, and among the genre’s most successful recording artists. He died last week, victim to COVID. This retrospective was written last year.

The genre would not exist if it weren’t for black music serving as an inspiration and a source. But there was no modern black country star before Charley Pride.,Photograph: American Masters / PBS // The New Yorker

Charley Pride, who was born in Mississippi, in 1938, and has spent much of his adult life in Texas, is one of the finest vocalists in country-music history, and among the genre’s most successful recording artists. In the early nineteen-seventies, when the competition included the likes of George Jones and Merle Haggard, Pride won back-to-back Male Vocalist of the Year awards from the Country Music Association. Pride’s chart career includes twenty-nine No. 1 records, outpacing such legends as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette and a number of contemporary stars, including Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley, and Carrie Underwood. Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2017. Pride is a great American artist, and he has the résumé to match.

But, here in the real world—to borrow from the title of a hit by Alan Jackson, which Pride recorded in the early nineties—

But, here in the real world—to borrow from the title of a hit by Alan Jackson, which Pride recorded in the early nineties—Pride’s sheer talent and success often take a back seat, in accounts of his career, to the fact that, for decades, he was country music’s only black recording star. That’s where the new episode of “American Masters” devoted to the singer—“Charley Pride: I’m Just Me,” which will air on PBS, on February 22nd—inevitably begins. “Charley Pride’s prolific career is brimming with chart-topping hits and millions of albums sold,” the documentary’s narrator, the country star Tanya Tucker, explains. “What isn’t noticed on the album covers is his uncharted pathway to success, breaking country music’s color barrier.” But that puts it precisely backward. Three decades after his last radio hit, Pride has become best known for being the first black star in mainstream country. Meanwhile, appreciation for his hits and albums on their own terms has, rather unfortunately, dimmed.

Pride himself determined early on in his now half-century-long career that it was best to cut straight to what made him “a little unique,” as he would say with wild understatement. Onstage, he made sure to acknowledge what fans were wondering (“Why you don’t sound like you supposed to sound?”), and often made cringe-y jokes—seemingly much appreciated by many of his white fans—about his “permanent tan.” On “In Person,” a live album recorded in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1969, Pride shares the story of a white woman who attended one of his concerts. The woman especially loved “Just Between You and Me,” a brokenhearted love song that had been Pride’s first real hit, a couple of years before. At the show, he says, another fan asked the woman, “Did you know he was, uh, a . . . ?” Pride pauses, not quite imperceptibly, letting that night’s crowd fill in the blank, then shares the woman’s incredulous response: “Oh, no, no. I have the records,” she said—and, to her, the voice on the records sounded unmistakably like a white man’s. But when Pride sings “Just Between You and Me,” right there in front of her, the woman can no longer deny that her favorite country singer is a black man. “It’s true!” Pride shouts, mimicking the woman’s high, startled voice. “It’s true!”

Pride’s father was a sharecropper who passed his love for the Grand Ole Opry on to his son. At fourteen, Pride bought a Sears, Roebuck guitar and taught himself to play. In his 1994 autobiography, “Pride,” co-written with Jim Henderson, Pride recalls the first time he ever saw a live country-music performance. It was by the singer and d.j. Eddie Hill, who played the show from the back of a flatbed truck parked in front of the local grocery. Pride later got the chance to tell Hill about seeing him there, and about wishing, at the time, that he could pick up a guitar and join him. “You should have asked,” Hill replied. “We probably would have let you.” But Pride knew that such a thing would have been impossible. “Music overcomes a lot of things,” he writes, “but not the segregation of Mississippi in the 1940s.”

Pride was a gifted baseball player, and after Jackie Robinson broke the major-league color line, in 1947, he resolved that the sport would be his escape from laboring in the fields. He continued to dabble in music—in 1958, just out of the Army, he cut a subdued, Elvis-style rockabilly side, called “(There’s My Baby) Walkin’ (The Stroll),” for Sun Records, though it was not released until years later. In the meantime, Pride bounced between the minor leagues and the Negro Leagues. In 1960, he moved to Helena, Montana, to play semi-pro ball while working days at a smelter. It was hardly a racial utopia, but it wasn’t the Jim Crow South, either. Soon Pride was playing country shows in the area. The Nashville-based singer-songwriter Red Sovine happened to be touring Montana then, and saw Pride perform. “Go to Nashville,” Pride recalls him saying, in the memoir. “I don’t care what color you are.” The headliner on Sovine’s tour, Red Foley, was less encouraging. When Pride introduced himself as a country singer, Foley asked, “Is this something pertaining to civil rights?”

Such anecdotes don’t seem to fit the placid and agreeable Charley Pride persona, and they don’t make it into “American Masters,” either. But, on the page, Pride achieves a candor that didn’t always appear in his stage act. In the book’s most horrifying story, he recounts an episode in which two menacing white men kidnapped his little brother, and the county sheriff, after catching the men, told Pride’s father “to settle down,” and that the two men “were probably just having a little fun.” (Pride calls it “the most traumatic experience of my life.”) Pride also describes being so angry as a teen-ager that he dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, flying over his home town, and “strafing everything in sight.”

“I decided a long time ago I’ll be Charley Frank Pride, person, American, All-American,” Pride told Life magazine, in 1971, using language he’s returned to over and over in the decades since. Even the version of himself that Pride offers in his autobiography sometimes seems to possess a bottomless capacity for resisting offense. Pride writes, for instance, that his friend George Jones “didn’t have any problems with my skin color,” and then immediately describes the time when Jones and another man spray-painted “KKK” on Pride’s car, as a practical joke. Pride pointedly does not say whether or not he found the joke funny.

Even in his book, Pride remains an enigmatic figure; he never explains how he tamed the murderous, Jim Crow-born rage that he felt as a young man. Yet “Pride” powerfully complicates his persona, and hints what should have been obvious all along: that Pride has always been as savvy and knowing as he’s been forbearing.

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When he did go to Nashville, in 1965, Pride quickly landed a manager—albeit one who figured, at least initially, that a black country singer would do best as a novelty act. Maybe with a name “like George Washington W. Jones III . . . something like that,” he told his new client. Pride informed him that he planned to perform under his own name, and that he was going to avoid clichéd hillbilly signifiers like rhinestones and cowboy hats. Though his first album, from 1966, was called “Country Charley Pride,” and featured a cover image of the singer sporting drawstringed rawhide, he soon dropped the “Country” from his name and began wearing fitted suits and the occasional turtleneck. When someone told Pride that performing “Green, Green Grass of Home,” with its lyrical reference to a blond girlfriend, might not be so wise for a black man, Pride dropped the song—a country standard that he calls “one of my favorites”—from his set lists. But he still included it on his début album.

Pride’s first singles on RCA were sent to d.j.s without publicity shots, the better to let the music speak for itself. But Pride’s record company couldn’t hide his blackness for long. According to Pride, some radio stations refused to play his records—but none in the major markets. And there were valuable endorsements from the beginning. In the early seventies, Loretta Lynn, slated to present a C.M.A. award for which Pride was nominated, was warned not to hug Pride onstage if he won. When he did, Lynn not only hugged him, she kissed him, too. Earlier in Pride’s rise, Willie Nelson—who, in 1971, name-dropped Pride in his proto-Outlaw number “Me and Paul”—won over a resistant small-town Texas crowd by strolling out onstage and kissing Pride full on the mouth. One of the new documentary’s sweetest moments is when we witness a thankful Pride return the favor aboard Willie’s bus.

Pride quickly became not only a star but a phenomenon. He launched his chart career with a string of seven Top Ten country-radio hits across 1967 and ’68. Then, starting with the poor boy’s proposal “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” in 1969, every non-gospel single that Pride released until 1973—thirteen in all—topped the country charts. In those years, he was selling more albums than any RCA artist since Elvis. “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” from 1971, was the biggest, sunniest hit single of his career, but the catchy breakup ballad “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone,” from 1970, might have been his best. “Sleeping under a table in a roadside park a man could wake up dead,” Pride sings, his voice a little shaky but determined not to turn back. Pride’s distinctive baritone has often been characterized as smooth, but that’s not quite right. Pride does croon, mostly, but his voice has a dry, gravelly warmth that somehow feels vulnerable and indomitable at once.

Pride’s music often gets pegged as nostalgic and perhaps overly dominated by straightforward songs of romantic devotion. Pride has nostalgic moments—the easeful “Roll On Mississippi,” from 1981, for example—but he has more typically been an anti-nostalgia artist. His 1974 hit “Mississippi Cotton Picking Delta Town” is a brisk two-and-a-half-minute list of everything that had him hitting the road away from there in the first place. A staple of Pride’s live sets for decades has been the Huddie Ledbetter standard “Cotton Fields.” Pride always explains that he sings the song to remind himself of the life he wanted to escape.

Pride continued his radio successes at an only slightly diminished pace through the end of the seventies and into the eighties, though his later hits have yet to be canonized the way his earlier ones have been. (Many aren’t even readily available today.) But these records are sincere and intense and, to those unfamiliar with them, surprisingly innovative and varied. As might be expected, Pride covered Hank Williams and George Jones in these years, and he cut sing-along versions of rock and rollers like “Mountain of Love.” But his “Whole Lotta Things to Sing About” is straight-up country disco; “When I Stop Leaving (I’ll Be Gone)” is brassy, bouncy country soul; and the calypso-styled “You’re My Jamaica,” from 1979, the first No. 1 country record ever recorded in Great Britain, is a prime example of what we would now call yacht rock. His lover-man ballad “You’re So Good (When You’re Bad),” another chart topper from 1982, shows off the most bluesy vocal of his career.

The country genre would not exist if it weren’t for black music serving as an inspiration and a source—and the history of black musicians tutoring white country acts and performing what we now think of as country music extends back to the string-band era and even earlier. But, with apologies to DeFord Bailey, an African-American harmonica player who was a Grand Ole Opry star in the thirties and forties—and whom Pride might well have heard on the radio growing up—there was no modern black country star before Charley Pride.

There was no black country star after Pride, either, for some forty years, until the former Hootie and the Blowfish front man, Darius Rucker, went country and scored the first of his several No. 1 hits, in 2008. Black singers had been signed by Nashville labels—Stoney Edwards and Linda Martel, for instance—in the aftermath of Pride’s breakthrough; Ray Charles had a brief country-radio moment in the early eighties, including a No. 1 duet with Willie Nelson; and country music has seen a few other successful singers of color, including Johnny Rodriguez, in Pride’s wake. Neal McCoy, a Filipino-American country star, began his career in Pride’s road show, and released “Pride: A Tribute to Charley Pride,” in 2013.

A decade into Rucker’s country career, and half a century since Pride’s began, things may at last be changing, just a little, as two young black country stars have emerged: Jimmie Allen, who recently scored a No. 1 hit with the single “Best Shot”—and who, along with Rucker, is a talking head in the “American Masters” episode—and Kane Brown, whose album “Experiment” topped Billboard’s country chart. As they’ve progressed in their careers, Allen and Brown could look to Rucker as a colleague and a been-there-still-doing-that role model. Charley Pride is a more distant inspiration, someone who fought, before they were born, for something that, perhaps, will someday become simply the way of things.

In his memoir, Pride shares an encounter with the country star Webb Pierce. When Pride had recorded a couple of big records, Pierce told him, “Charley, it’s good to have you, good for you to be in our music.”

“I loved Webb,” Pride writes. “I truly did. But that statement made me bristle,” he explains, before recounting the rest of the exchange.

“Webb, it’s my music, too,” Pride said.

“What was that?”

“It’s my music, too.”

[David Cantwell is the author of “Merle Haggard: The Running Kind” and the co-author of “Heartaches by the Number.”]