Week 52: Charley Pride, Mellow Fellow
In 2009, A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: Nashville Or Bust, a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Charley Pride grew up with a seemingly impossible dream: He wanted to be part of the tiny subsection of talented baseball players who make it to the big leagues. It was an audacious dream for an impoverished, abused, black high-school dropout at a time when black major-leaguers were rare and the Negro leagues were limping their way to extinction.
Through a combination of talent, drive, slick talk, and hard work, Pride nearly made it. He only gave up after following a last-ditch attempt to crack Major League Baseball by showing up uninvited at a Mets training camp following the team’s famously disastrous 1962 season—though he made sure to have a handful of bats with his name emblazoned on them sent to the clubhouse to create the illusion that he was a big deal and belonged there—and trying to sneak his way into a tryout before Casey Stengel had him ejected from the team bus.
Pride’s baseball dreams died hard. After he threw out his arm early in his career, he developed a tricky knuckleball. When his career in the Negro American League and minor leagues petered out, he got a job at a smelting plant specifically so he could pitch and hit for the plant’s formidable company team. But when arguably the worst team in the history of professional baseball decided they didn’t even want to give Pride a chance, even he was forced to concede his days as an aspiring major-leaguer had ended. With that impossible quest having reached an unmistakable end, Pride embarked on an even more quixotic endeavor: becoming the world’s first, and to date, only, black country superstar—Darius Rucker doesn’t count—in the midst of a decade wracked by civil unrest and racial anxiety.
Pride succeeded at this second impossible quest in ways few could have imagined. No one could have guessed that the sharecropper’s son with what he referred to in concert as a “permanent tan” would become one of the best-selling and most venerable artists in country history. The Country Music Hall Of Famer is the personification of the American dream of infinite upward mobility. As a kid, Pride picked cotton alongside his 10 siblings; as an adult, he’d buy banks and multiple private planes, perform for presidents, and even own part of the Texas Rangers.
I began the long, strange journey that is Nashville Or Bust two years ago as an outsider to country whose field of quasi-expertise was black music. So it seemed appropriate that I end the series with a man who transgressed country’s racial barriers. It’s pretty much impossible to discuss Pride’s career outside the context of race, even if the singer prides himself on being colorblind.
Pride simply performed music that spoke to him on a profound level, music that reflected his hopes, desires, and anxieties, and made him laugh, cry, and empathize with the world around him. According to his autobiography, Pride: The Charley Pride Story, the author never saw anything strange in a black man performing country music. Though a black man growing up in the long shadow of Jim Crow couldn’t pretend that race didn’t matter, Pride never thought of country music as white.
In a characteristic act of quiet bravery, Pride defied musical segregation. He wouldn’t accept that country was the exclusive domain of white people. Why should he? Why reduce the rich cultural melting pot that is country into something sterile and lily white? Heaven knows there’s an awful lot of black DNA in the music of giants of the field like Jimmie Rodgers (who was as much a blues singer as a country crooner), Bob Wills, Hank Williams (whose mentor, as chronicled in last week’s My Year Of Flops entry, was a black street performer), and Waylon Jennings.
It would be tempting to say that Pride took the white man’s blues and made it universal, but country was universal long before Pride rose to prominence. It was universal in its exploration of what it means to be human and its tragicomic take on the agony and ecstasy of being alive. If it weren’t universal, it would never have spoken to a sharecropper’s son from Sledge, Mississippi in such a powerful and direct manner.
Country needed Pride more than Pride needed country. In a time of unrest and uncertainty, when society cracked along racial, gender, and generational lines and country was still very much viewed as the official music of bigots and rednecks, Pride was a conciliatory and soothing figure. In the abstract, Pride should have terrified white country fans of the mid-’60s: He was a handsome, strong, athletic, black high-school dropout with money and fame.
But if the idea of a strong black man performing country music in the ’60s seemed borderline revolutionary, Pride’s music was anything but. If I had to reduce Pride’s oeuvre to a single adjective, it would be “nice.” Other adjectives that would apply include “pleasant,” “mellow,” “smooth,” “soothing” and, for some reason, “Fergalicious,” which isn’t applicable or even a real word.
In an uncertain world, Pride’s music felt homey and safe. White country fans in the ’60s might have worried about Black Panthers spouting incendiary rhetoric, race riots, and the contrasting yet complementary philosophies of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, but they sure didn’t have to worry about the handsome young man with the big, easy smile and affable demeanor who just wanted to perform nice songs for them in a reassuringly traditional fashion. Pride’s skin color may have deviated from the Nashville template, but everything else about him was soothingly familiar.
That was only partially by design. In his autobiography, Pride writes about how he would love to have covered a song like “The Green, Green Grass Of Home,” but the line about the object of his affection having “hair of gold” would have instantly and, in the skittish psyches of record executives, negatively altered the meaning so that it would become a song about interracial relationships instead of a quintessential prisoner’s lament.
White country audiences might have enjoyed hearing Pride perform favorites from the Hank Williams songbook—he writes that he performed so many of Hank’s songs that rumors spread he was Williams’ illegitimate child—but that didn’t necessarily mean they wanted him to date their daughter or move next door. Similarly, Pride wouldn’t even think about releasing a song like Willie Nelson’s “Blackjack County Chain,” a grim story song about an abused black prisoner ultimately rising up and killing his white oppressor with the instrument of his oppression. If Pride had recorded the song, it would be interpreted as a militant political gesture; Nelson didn’t have to worry about the song’s tricky racial subtext when he recorded it.
So Pride’s introductory track was of the utmost importance. In a savvy bit of calculation, his first singles were delivered to DJs devoid of publicity photos as the work of “Country Charley Pride.” This forced DJs to play or not play the songs on the basis of their commercial prospects or even, in rare instances, on their artistic merit, instead of the color of the artist behind them.
It was a tactic that quickly became a piece of Nashville lore. In 1966, for his first single, Pride and his manager settled on “The Snakes Crawl At Night,” a mid-tempo ditty so cheerful-sounding that it’s easy to miss that it’s a murder ballad upon first listen. Pride certainly sounds chipper and upbeat as he sings from the perspective of a man who murders his wife after catching her sneaking out with her lover. Pride’s ebullient delivery drains the song of much of its sinister portent, while the production bears a blinding Nashville gloss.
In retrospect, it’s a fairly ballsy way to introduce a black country singer at the height of the Civil Rights movement, but Pride has a genius for making potentially dark and troubling subject matter palatable to a vast mainstream audience. Another country singer might have imbued the song with gut-wrenching despair, but Pride seems strangely nonchalant about the whole affair.
Pride’s cover of “You Win Again,” for example, loses the poisonous vitriol of Hank Williams’ original and replaces it with a world-weary sadness, just as his cover of “Me And Bobby McGee” trades in the elegiac tragedy of Kristofferson and Joplin’s versions for a fuzzy, rose-colored nostalgia.
Pride alchemizes heartbreak, poverty, and despair into something pleasant and audience-friendly on songs like “Mississippi Cotton-Picking Delta Town,” which casts an affectionate, nostalgic glimpse at the backwater burg where Pride was born and grew up.
In his autobiography, Pride writes of managing Gary Stewart—in time-honored country superstar tradition, Pride has a finger in just about every pie in the entertainment industry—and trying to wean off his self-destructive ways so he could attain true stardom, only to have Stewart sneeringly reply that maybe he didn’t want to be a star. I find it fascinating that Pride helped steer Stewart’s career since, creatively at least, they’re complete opposites. Stewart could break your heart reading a laundry list; Pride could make a global apocalypse seem like a minor matter at most. Stewart radiated pain from every pore; Pride always seems to keep his feelings and anguish in check, even when singing melodrama. Take “Just Between You and Me,” one of Pride’s signature hits: The lyric concerns a heartbroken man who doubts he’ll ever get over a lost love, but Pride’s chipper delivery suggests no one needs to hide the knives or rope while old Charley’s around.
In the ’70s, Pride and producer Jack Clement remained consistent chart-toppers by capitalizing on the trendy countrypolitan sound with big hits like “Is Anybody Goin’ To San Antone,” which ambles breezily in the direction of Margaritaville, and his 29th No. 1 country single, “Night Games,” a song whose silky strings, back-up singing, and disco flourishes epitomize the Urban Cowboy fad prompted by the iconic John Travolta film of the same name.
The very bearable lightness of Pride’s being is even more remarkable considering the singer has wrestled with bipolar disorder for decades. Before medication helped control his dark moods and rages, Pride was a man divided against himself. Yet this remarkable man, born to dire poverty, abused as a boy by a cold and controlling father, and forced to deal with racism in its countless permutations throughout his life, found peace and tranquility in the music he listened to as a boy, and was able to share that comfort with people who otherwise might reject him.
Pride learned early on what it’s taken me two years of traversing the highways and byways of the country universe to figure out: Good music is good music, whether it’s performed with fiddles and steel guitars or two turntables and a microphone. The boundaries separating black and white music and insiders and outsiders ultimately exist only in our minds. I wrote earlier that I came to country as an outsider, but this process has made the very idea of being an “outsider” seem absurd. Two years ago, country music seemed intriguingly exotic. Now it feels like home for many of the same reasons it felt like home to a young black kid from Mississippi who could never quite figure why his skin color was supposed to keep him from signing the music he felt deep down in his soul.
This marks the end of Nashville Or Bust proper, though I have not entirely ruled out the prospect of turning out a new entry or so every couple of months. It’s been a wild, rewarding ride, but now it’s time for me to leave my home, literally and metaphorically, and head out on the open road in search of country’s eternal soul. I’ll be making my climactic trip to Nashville in February, so thanks to everyone who has followed me on this journey. This is an ending of sorts, but in so many ways our journey through country has just begun.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust
The big trip!