Charley Pride: American

by Bill C. Malone

How did the only African American superstar of country music assail the walls of what is commonly perceived as the “whitest music” in America? At the beginning of his professional career, Charley Pride often defused the anxiety of his all-white audiences by jokingly referring to his “permanent tan” and by saying he was the singer who didn’t sound like he was “s’posed to.” But soon Pride could abandon such survival tactics intended to put his listeners at ease and ensure their acceptance; his remarkable voice earned their confidence and undying loyalty.

While the phenomenon of Pride’s success cannot be separated from its historical context or from the politics of the day, we can understand it only by beginning with the man himself. Pride possessed the perfect country voice—a resonant, mellow, supple, and broad-ranging instrument that moved easily from slow love songs and hymns to honky-tonk weepers and rockabilly tunes. When he chose to do so, as in “Lovesick Blues” or “Kaw-Liga,” he could yodel or moan with the best.

At the beginning of his career, Pride attained the ardent devotion of fans with his ability to sing most of the country standards, whether they came from Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, or Bill Monroe. Fans sensed immediately that his commitment to the music came from a lifelong immersion in its traditions. Above all, Pride exhibited that essential quality described by country singers and fans as “sincerity”: the ability to communicate a song with such heartfelt conviction that the individual listener feels that it is being delivered to him or her alone. He did not simply attract people who were new to country music or those won over by his personal magnetism. He gained the crucial support of the good-old boys and girls who, like Pride himself, grew up on country music. They loved him because he knew “their” music and because he sounded like he had lived the life he sang about. The knowledge that he spent his youth on a sharecropper’s farm in Sledge, Mississippi, seemed to confirm the wisdom of Hank Williams’s reputed statement that to “sing like a hillbilly” you had to have “smelt a lot of mule manure.”

Regardless of his considerable talents, Pride’s success cannot be sufficiently understood without recalling the currents of social and political change that swept America in the decades after his birth in 1938. He often acted, implicitly if not explicitly, as if his career evolved independently of politics. But, like most African Americans, he skillfully played the politics of survival. His voice and repertory may have won the confidence of bedrock country fans, but his non-confrontational, middle-of-the-road stands on public issues did much to preserve that support. He consistently ignored most controversial topics (including civil rights) and tended to be outspoken only on those safe issues, such as the Farm Aid crusade, which mirrored the values of the conservative country music community. Of course, his passionate love of baseball and his habit of working out annually with the Texas Rangers team did not hurt him either. (In fairness to Pride, though, he did quietly support minority causes for years. According to family friend Jerry Lastelick, Pride devoted countless hours to the United Negro College Fund and personally underwrote the education of many Black students at historically Black colleges and universities throughout the South.)

While Pride’s talent, conviction, and charisma contributed powerfully to his success, they alone cannot explain his emergence as the first African American country music superstar. His ascent, in fact, cannot be separated from the seamless web of laws, court decisions, population migrations, protests, and individual acts of heroism that for thirty years and more provided the underpinning for racial progress in the United States. Was it merely an accident that Pride was discovered in 1963, the year of the great March on Washington, or that his first recording came in 1965, the year of the historic Voting Rights Act? The quickening pulse of change in those years encouraged African Americans to be more assertive of their rights and more willing to venture into previously forbidden territory. Increasing numbers of white people similarly abandoned their prejudices, or strove in various ways to adapt to a historic movement whose time had come. We will never fully understand why Red Sovine and Jack Johnson chose to sponsor Charley Pride, or why Jack Clement and Chet Atkins chose to record him, or why the white country audience took him into their hearts. Did they ignore the issue of race and see only the potential of the man, or did they see an opportunity to make some kind of statement about racial justice? Many white country fans have probably known someone, perhaps a brother or cousin, who vehemently defended racial segregation but who nevertheless bought all Pride’s records and sat or danced rapturously in some honky-tonk like Fort Worth’s Panther Hall while Pride sang. I can’t help but think that their views were softened by the experience and that it was a first step toward acceptance of racial equality.

In demonstrating his mastery of various country idioms, Pride also continued to remind us of something that may not have been readily apparent when he first launched his career—that music cannot be neatly segregated and that it has, in fact, always flowed across racial lines regardless of taboos, statutes, or court decisions. African Americans have been well acquainted with country music for far longer than most white fans have been aware. While racial prejudice may have hindered an easy interchange among listeners and performers of different races and inhibited and even prevented African Americans from attending live country music performances in any venue, it could not prevent the young Charley Pride or Ray Charles from listening to the Grand Ole Opry on their battery-powered radios. Nor could it stop Aaron Neville from hearing and loving the music of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers in a segregated movie house in New Orleans. Charley Pride was not afraid to embrace the music he loved and to stake his career on his singular talent and devotion. Luckily for him, and for all of us, he found a large and enthusiastic audience ready to return that devotion.

“Growing up, I always wanted to sing, but there were certain things you just grew up not having an idea that you had a chance to do. Like being president of the United States never crossed my mind. That kind of thing. We were taught not to go out and step beyond your bounds in terms of segregation policies. I always felt I could go as far as I would be allowed to as an American, if all those boundaries would ever be struck down. I’m sure that you’ve felt, and still probably do feel, this separatism we have in our country, which just shouldn’t be. But it just happened that I grew up with an ability to keep myself focused and not get bitter singin’ the kind of music I sing. And things have come a long way. After all, I’ve been voted the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year.”

—Charley Pride, interviewed by Paul Kingsbury, May 1995