Charley Pride wanted to be judged by his work, not his race
Fierce and humble, the Grammy-winning country singer focused on the strength of his work
It’s 2014 and Charley Pride is slated to appear on the popular Canadian television talk show, George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight. The big moment arrives and Pride is invited onstage. No sooner does the singer sit down does the show’s host put his guest on the spot.
“I see you backstage, and what do you tell me?” Stroumboulopoulos asks Pride, to which the Grammy-winning country singer matter-of-factly replies: “I said we’re not gonna talk about the first Black, the first colored.” And just like that, Pride — country music’s first and only bona fide Black superstar — takes the topic of his most historic achievement off the table. It would be like Hank Aaron not wanting to discuss overtaking Babe Ruth’s home run record, or Michael Jordan refusing to talk about The Shot. Can you imagine Michael Jackson declining to relive 1983, when Thriller became the bestselling album of all time? It’s inconceivable.
That 2014 television appearance speaks volumes about Pride, who died Dec. 12 from complications related to COVID-19. Like many Black superachievers, he was both a fierce competitor and humble guy, someone who yearned to be viewed simply as a human being; a man to be judged solely on the strength of his work. He seemed perfectly willing to leave all that “Voice of His People” stuff to someone else, rarely calling attention to his race. As he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “I wanted to stand or fall on my music, not my skin color.”
Fair enough. If we’re to judge Pride solely by his work, then we must first examine the records behind his records. Over the course of a 54-year career, Pride nabbed four Grammy Awards, three Country Music Association Awards, the Cashbox award for top male country artist of the decade for the 1970s and more. He was the first Black person inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He scored more than 50 Country Music Top-10 hits, in the process becoming RCA Records’ second bestselling artist, just behind a guy named Elvis Presley. By the time Pride’s hit streak subsided in the mid-1980s, he had placed 29 singles atop the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, along with 12 No. 1 long-players on the Top Country Albums chart. By every industry metric, Pride was a beast.
But while we celebrate Pride’s stats and career, we have to acknowledge that his polite brand of country music eventually alienated enough country music fans that it eventually prompted a backlash. He was a major proponent of the “countrypolitan” sound, a dominant Nashville, Tennessee, subgenre in which producers sanded the edges off rough-hewn honky-tonk. The result was a pop-influenced sound marked by tranquil orchestration, gently weeping steel guitars and cordial background harmonies. Those old hits are still good listening — warm and reassuring, a musical haven for rock-rattled radio listeners.
Pride came up during a time where Nashville singers and songwriters mostly specialized at their crafts, seldom working double duty as both composer and recording artist. Thus, he sang tunes that were written for him. That’s not a knock, it’s just to say that he wasn’t a singer/songwriter who revealed the depths of his soul through his own original compositions. In his songs, he mostly assumed two musical personas. The first was the jilted man overboard, as evidenced on his 1970 hit, “Is Anybody Going to San Antone.” (“Is anybody goin’ to San Antone or Phoenix, Arizona?/ Any place is all right, as long as I can forget I’ve ever known her.”) When he wasn’t performing tear-in-my-beer ballads, the singer was casting himself as the ever-loyal spouse, as evidenced on his 1978 single, “Someone Loves You, Honey.” (“I wanna share your life/ Every minute, every day and night/ Someone loves you, honey/More than anything in the world.”)
As good as they were — and they were good — Pride’s woebegone tear-jerkers were standard Nashville melodramas, songs that didn’t reflect what was occurring in his happily married personal life. However, devotional love songs such as “Anywhere (Just Inside Your Arms)” and the aforementioned “Someone Loves You Honey” accurately expressed the genuine affection the singer obviously felt for wife Rozene, who survives him. That emotion is evident on his massive 1971 crossover hit “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” in which Pride waxes philosophical about keeping the home fires burning: “You’ve got to kiss an angel good mornin’ … and love her like a devil when you get back home.”
He delivered his songs in a pitch-perfect baritone that hummed like an idling Rolls-Royce, topped by a vibrato that kicked in at just the right moments (no less than country legend Dolly Parton said Pride “sang … so much better than so many of the good country artists were at the time”). And while today Pride’s songs can seem almost eerily sedate, they also evoke a picture-postcard version of America most listeners can’t help but long for, a fair and democratic USA that never really was, especially for many ethnic Americans.
As befitting a man whose music conjures a bygone time, Pride himself was the last of a breed. While he and his mellow ilk were tearing up ’70s country radio, FM rock artists such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Eagles and Lynyrd Skynyrd were plotting countrypolitan’s overthrow, tipping their cowboy hats to Nashville while simultaneously flipping it the bird. In the hands of these ruffians, country music would be appointed mule-kicking rhythms, distorted guitars and coyote-howl vocals. To his credit, Pride never tried to go toe-to-toe with the rockers, much less with back-to-basics country “outlaws” such as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare.
Today, Black country crooners such as Darius Rucker and Blanco Brown owe Pride a debt, as well as Lil Nas X, whose 2019 country-rap hit “Old Town Road” is the longest-running No. 1 song in Billboard Hot 100 history. With its “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” refrain, “Old Town Road” echoes Pride’s 1971 hit, “I’m Just Me,” wherein the barrier-breaking singer offers no apologies for being a Black country singer during a racially explosive time:
“For I was just born to be exactly what you see …
… every day I’m just me”
If that isn’t the perfect epitaph for a man named Pride, then I don’t know what is.