Over the next few days, viewers can celebrate one of the great figures in Americana music.
Charley Pride died Saturday (Dec. 12) at 86, of complications from COVID. By various counts, he had between 29 and 36 No. 1 country hits, including “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?”Now come two chances to revisit his life, via:
– PBS. “Charley Pride: I’m Just Me,” an excellent “American Masters” documentary, is available through Dec. 26 at www.pbs.org/americanmasters and on the PBS app.
– The CMT cable channel. “CMT Remembers Charley Pride” will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 16), rerunning on 9 a.m. Thursday and noon Saturday. It will include clips of Pride, plus comments (new or past) from his wife of 64 years, plus Tim McGraw, Loretta Lynn, the late Merle Haggard, Shania Twain and Darius Rucker … who had a key connection with Pride this year.
That was at the Country Music Association awards, when Pride received a Lifetime Achievement Award. Rucker, who co-hosted, was only the second Black host of the CMA’s; the first was Pride – 45 years earlier.
Pride was, as “Masters” producer Michael Kantor put it, the “superstar (who) broke racial barriers through grit, perseverance and sheer talent.”
Kantor was talking to the Television Critics Association last year, about his profile of Pride. Then Pride told about early concert appearances, when fans had no idea he was Black.
The records had called him Country Charley Pride, with no photo. As an opening act, he told the crowd: “I realize it’s very unique, me coming out here on a country music show, having a permanent tan. I ain’t got time to talk about pigments; I only got 10 minutes. I’m going to do my three songs, and if I have time, I’ll do maybe a Hank Williams song.”
He did … then signed autographs until the evening show. “And that’s the way it’s been.”
It wasn’t how he thought it would be. His original goal: “I was going to go to the major leagues and break all of the (baseball) records that had been set by the time I was 35 or 36 years old.” But his parents, Mississippi sharecroppers, made two key purchases.
His mother, he said, ordered a guitar “from Sears Roebuck for $14. I picked cotton to buy it.”
And his dad “bought this Philco radio and nobody touched the dials on that radio but Daddy.” It was on that radio that Pride heard the Grand Ole Opry’ music would be his fallback career.
First, he tried minor-league baseball – Fond du Lac, Wis.; Boise, Idaho; Nogales on the Mexico-Arizona order – interrupted by the Army. Then came the Negro League team in Memphis.
“I did real well that year,” Pride said, “but they didn’t want to give me a raise. So I answered an ad in the Sporting News.”
He ended up with the Cincinnati Reds’ team in Missoula, Mont. He pitched four games in relief (7 innings, 8 hits, 3 earned runs) and was cut.
That’s how a Mississippi guy ended up in Helena, Mont., doing triple duty – working for a smelter … playing on the factory baseball team (hitting .444 his first season) … and singing before games and at local clubs.
He was discovered in Montana and stayed there for a decade, even as his country career soared. In the all-white world of country music. In 1971, the CMA named him Entertainer of the Year; for two straight years, he was also the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year.