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'American Masters' Charts Charley Pride's Improbable Route to Country Music Star
February 22, 2019  | By David Hinckley
 

A new documentary on country singer Charley Pride captures some of the surreal world in which he has earned his remarkable success.

Charley Pride: I’m Just Me, titled after one of his many hits, debuts Friday at 9 p.m. ET in the PBS American Masters series.

Like most American Masters productions, this plays as a well-deserved tribute. Between 1966 and 1983, Pride put 52 songs on the country charts: “Kiss An Angel Good Morning,” “Is Anybody Going to San Antone,” “Mississippi Cotton-Pickin’ Delta Town,” “Does My Ring Hurt Your Finger,” “Kaw-Liga,” “Burgers and Fries and Cherry Pies,” and dozens more. Twenty-nine went to No. 1.

That’s a remarkable batting average for a guy who originally hoped to make his big score in professional baseball. Inspired by Jackie Robinson, he played in some of the final years of the Negro Leagues and talked his way into a tryout with a Minor League team in Idaho before someone heard him sing one night and his aspirations shifted.

It turned out that singing paid better than lower-level baseball, which isn’t saying much. The remarkable part, then and now, is that Pride was getting paid to sing country music – and a black man getting paid to sing country music is about as common as butterscotch topping on a pepperoni pizza.

It’s not that black folks don’t listen to and sing country music. Talk to black artists, particularly from the South, and they’ll almost all tell you country is part of their musical palette.

It’s not unlike the way white artists routinely listen to different kinds of black music – point being that artists rarely draw lines. They listen to music they like, and that almost always crosses genres and styles.

It’s the music industry that puts artists and their songs in boxes – and while the music industry says it is simply reflecting the wishes of listeners, it’s always been an open question how much the industry shaped those reported wishes.

Enter Charley Pride, embraced by country music fans even though country has been marketed by record companies and radio stations for a century as white people’s music.

I’m Just Me director Barbara Hall does a good job of tracing Pride’s improbable route, driven by a blend of talent, persistence, timing and a few lucky breaks.

His manager Jack Johnson and the RCA label sort of snuck him in the side door, hoping that by the time listeners realized he was black, they would already have grown to like his music and therefore would accept him.

It worked. It wouldn’t have worked, however, if Pride didn’t have the personality for it. Not only are his songs friendly and universal, he comes across himself as just a guy with a guitar who loves a catchy tune.

You imagine a couple of old-timers sitting at the bar wondering how in the world this colored fella got to be singing country music, then Pride sitting down beside them, buying everyone a beer and saying, “Yep, don’t that beat all?”

He’s disarming, and if he’s heard anything hurtful over the years – a good bet – he doesn’t let it show or let it seem to simmer. By all appearances, he learned some time ago to accentuate the positive, and that gives him a lot to accentuate.

Several black cultural historians weigh in during the show, talking about how Pride learned to navigate the wind. Multiple country artists, including Dolly Parton, Marty Stuart, Brad Paisley and Willie Nelson, talk about how he made music too good to resist.

I’m Just Me makes the journey sound almost easy, as if Pride broke into a Hank Williams song at some point and the world said, yeah, that’s cool, this guy can sing Hank all night.

For the viewer, this may leave two questions. First, was the country music industry really that accommodating, and second, how does Charley Pride really feel about his journey? Are there things he’s never going to mention to anyone?

The answers may be yes and no. Charley Pride and his music may be as uncomplicated as I’m Just Me suggests.

But when any artist is this much of a unicorn – in half a century, only the smallest handful of others have followed his path – you do ask those questions.

 
 
 
 
 
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