Charley Pride, often seen as a trailblazer, built on a deep history of Black country music
With little recognition, Black people made huge contributions to the genre
When Charley Pride received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, it would turn out to be a fitting final performance for the culture-shifting legend. During the telecast, the man hailed as the genre’s first Black superstar shared the stage with platinum singer-songwriter Jimmie Allen.
“Here’s the truth: I might never have had a career in country music if it wasn’t for a truly groundbreaking artist who took his best shot and made the best kinda history in our genre,” said Allen, 34, who today finds himself sharing the same rarefied air as Pride as one of country music’s few African American success stories.
Allen had the honor of introducing an icon who in 1967 became the first Black performer to play at the landmark Grand Ole Opry in Nashville since harmonicist DeFord Bailey, who was a regular on that radio show in the ’20s and ’30s. But the pairing of Allen and Pride in November has taken on even more generational significance when Pride, one of country music’s most celebrated figures, died of COVID-19 on Dec. 12 at the age of 86.
Darius Rucker, the former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman who has had the most commercial success of any Black country music act since Pride’s heyday, released a poignant statement about the man who busted through doors for Black artists. “My heart is so heavy. Charley Pride was an icon, a legend and any other word u wanna use for his greatness. He destroyed Barriers and did things that no one had ever done. But today I’m thinking of my friend. Heaven just got one of the finest people I know. I miss and love u CP!”
There’s a reason why the emotional embrace of Pride from fellow icon Dolly Parton to recent hit-maker Maren Morris feels like a classic tear-jerking country song. After scoring his debut hit in 1967 with “Just Between You and Me,” Pride’s baritone propelled him to eight No. 1 singles between 1969 and 1971. By 1987, he had amassed 52 top-10 country hits, including 29 chart-topping songs, such as “All I Have to Offer You Is Me” (1969), “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?” (1970), “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” (1971), “Someone Loves You Honey” (1978) and “Night Games” (1983).
The son of a Mississippi sharecropper and former two-time all-star Negro Leagues pitcher, Pride was a beloved change agent and deserved all his accolades. “I learned to maneuver around a lot of the obstacles that you encounter as a Black man to be able to get to where I am today,” he said.
Yet, while it’s tempting to go along with his title as the “Jackie Robinson of country music,” Pride was much more. He was an avatar for people who have largely been written out of the origins of an entire musical artform.
“I get tired of carrying the ancestral weight of what happened,” a frustrated Rhiannon Giddens told Rolling Stone in June about misconceptions of the contributions of Black musicians to country music.
Giddens, a Grammy-winning instrumentalist and vocalist whose musical range includes country, bluegrass, folk and Negro spirituals, has been on a one-woman mission to set the historical record straight. Pushing back against what she sees as “this manufactured image of country music being white and being poor,” starts with recognizing that perhaps the genre’s most ubiquitous instrument was brought to America by enslaved Africans.
“One of the biggest triumphs of African American music is the banjo,” she said. “The banjo took over the world. That means we helped create America’s music. Not blues. Not jazz. America’s music, period.”
Then there’s the little-known influence of Frank Johnson. The 19th-century fiddle prodigy was a sensation. He was also Black and a slave. Perhaps that’s why Johnson’s historical impact as a visionary who helped innovate square dancing, the string band and the hoedown has been obscured.
In her 2013 essay collection, Hidden in the Mix: The African American Presence in Country Music, editor Diane Pecknold starts off with a chapter entitled “Black Hillbillies: African Americans on Old-Time Records, 1924-1932” that traces 22 studio sessions featuring Black and white musicians who established the foundation of country music’s recording era.
And where would the Carter Family (often called the “First Family of country music”) be without the contributions of Lesley Riddle, an African American blues musician who took group leader A.P. Carter to Black churches to compile songs and helped with melodies? But you will barely find Riddle and other Black pioneers such as Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne and Arnold Shultz prominently noted in the annals of country music innovators.
Maybe categorizing Pride as country’s “first” pure Black grassroots artist has become an unconscious means to explain away so-called outliers such as Ray Charles. The soul originator crossed over to Hank Williams’ turf with his landmark Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962), which would sell over 1 million copies. Charles got immense radio airplay on country stations. But the blind genius who was as brilliant with covering The Beatles as he was reworking country music’s Don Gibson was seen as an anomaly.
How then to explain that Lionel Richie, who at the time was known as the lead singer/songwriter of the R&B-funk band the Commodores, wrote Kenny Rogers’ huge No. 1 single “Lady” (1980)? Again, that song was viewed by the industry as much a pop record as it was country.
Decades later, country music purists dismissed the mammoth-selling Lil Nas X and his seven times platinum Billy Ray Cyrus collaboration “Old Town Road” as a novelty hit. Same for country rapper Cowboy Troy. Rucker was largely pegged as an outsider before proving his knowledge of and dedication to country music.
Being an African American in a mostly white, politically conservative genre that in the past has embraced the Confederate flag is a tough gig. Pride, whose record sales at RCA were only eclipsed by Elvis Presley, often endured racial taunts from country music fans. Some of his own peers openly referred to him as “Supern—-r.”
An exhausted Pride routinely steered clear of discussions about race. “They used to ask me how it feels to be the ‘first colored country singer.’ Then it was ‘first Negro country singer,’ then ‘first Black country singer.’ Now I’m the ‘first African American country singer.’ That’s about the only thing that’s changed,” he said to the Dallas Morning News in 1992. “This country is so race-conscious, so ate-up with colors and pigments. I call it ‘skin hang-ups’ — it’s a disease.”
While you can’t fault Pride for wanting to be known more than just as a “Black country singer,” it’s also important to note that he did take issue with not always being accepted as part of the family. In his 1994 memoir, Pride recalled a conversation he had with revered country music figure Webb Pierce, who said to Pride, “It’s good to have you in our music.” The usually stoic Pride replied back: “Webb, it’s my music, too.”