Charley Pride Tells His Story in PBS 'American Masters-Charley Pride: I'm Just Me'

Ben De Rienzo
Charley Pride

Country music's first African-American superstar scored 29 No. 1 hits.

How did Charley Pride navigate the racial tensions that raged throughout the South in the 1960s so skillfully that he not only broke through as the first prominent African-American country music artist, but did so in such a way that he celebrated his first #1 on Billboard's Country Albums chart — 1967’s The Country Way — within two years of signing his first record deal?

How could the singer best known for such hits as "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin,’” "Mountain of Love” and “Kaw-Liga,” keep the ever-present smile on his face when presented with hostile live crowds, and during music industry events where he was often the only person of color in the room?

These are some of the areas of Pride's life that are touched on in the PBS documentary, American Masters - Charley Pride: I'm Just Me, which makes its premiere tonight (Feb. 22). The program follows the singer's life from his beginnings as one of 11 children in a poor sharecropping family, where he developed a love for baseball and country music. Those two passions sent him throughout the country in an attempt to make a living at either trade. It was a journey that stretches from the cotton fields of Sledge, Miss., to the recording studios of RCA Records in Nashville, where he would become the biggest-selling artist on the label's roster since Elvis Presley.

The film is full of great moments, several of them unshared until now,  and tries to answer many of the questions that have dogged the singer throughout his career. Why pursue a country music career, when R&B artists were finding fame throughout the country during the same timeframe? (His father controlled the radio and was a country music fan.) How could he stand the looks that he was sure to get, just by walking into many buildings in Nashville? (He and his family enjoyed living in Helena, Mont., during that time, which as late as 2010 had African-Americans making up only 0.4% of the city's population.)

Pride tells Billboard, "When I was first approached about this documentary, I was very hesitant, but I think it turned out pretty darn good. I don’t normally think of myself as being a legend, and it makes me very appreciative for the support I’ve received from my peers and so many others over the years.”

The first public viewing of the film was held in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tennessee, at the Franklin Theatre on February 8th. A Q&A was held immediately following the screening, hosted by the documentary's director, Barbara Hall. Among those on hand to reflect on the impact Pride had on Nashville and the music industry as a whole were Pride's longtime steel guitar player Lloyd Green; the Curatorial Director for the National Museum of African American Music, Dr. Dina Bennett; and Nashville-based music historian Craig Havighurst.

Ruminating upon Pride's first appearance inside the Nashville offices of those within the country music industry in 1963, a year where the city was marked by sit-ins and multiple accounts of racial violence, Green, then best known as a member of Chet Atkins' session band The A-Team, remarked, "When we first went into the studio [with Pride], we didn't know what to expect. I had heard his voice prior to those sessions, so I knew he was a good singer, and all we needed were some interesting songs. When Charley came into the room... I was amazed at his self-composure, and the fact that he was such a really good singer."

Green continued, "I'm from Mobile, Alabama, and you've got to consider the era of [the 1960s]. Charley was so disarming, being able to have a great sense of humor about the color barrier at that time. I think that's one of the major points in Charley's favor, that he never let people get to him by using the color thing against him. He was thoughtful about those things, but he never had any anger or animosity. We were in the studio once when Faron Young burst in, and just stood there glaring up at Charley with his hands on his hips. No one would say a word, so... he grabbed Charley and kissed him on the lips, saying, ‘I love you, Charley Pride.’ It was an epiphanous moment because once he did that, Nashville accepted Charley. Faron Young could cause a lot of problems back then, and sometimes did, so once he accepted Charley everyone else kind of had to, too."

Bennett added, "Charley was a person who was surrounded by his environment, as far as being from a rural city in Mississippi... as well as having a father who would never let anyone touch the radio, so it was always turned to [country music]. He was impacted by those surroundings, so it makes sense that he would take to singing country music."

So while the documentary makes a long-deserved case for Pride's name to be near the top of any list of all time greats in country music, the specter of race still hangs heavy over his career at the end of the day, no matter how often he himself worked as a subtle bridge toward integration within the minds of many of his listeners. One need only look at the list of talent making appearances within the documentary, where two of the commenters - Darius Rucker and newcomer Jimmie Allen - account for a significant percentage of the airplay that artists of color receive on country radio today. Among the other artists participating in the documentary are Dolly Parton, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson, Tanya Tucker, Whoopi Goldberg and Marty Stuart.

For all of Rucker’s success, as well as Allen and Kane Brown’s burgeoning careers, no person of color has come close to matching Pride’s remarkable string of 29 No. 1s on Billboard’s Country chart. "After Charley became a major country artist, I recorded with a lot of African American singers who wanted to be country artists. Some of them were very good - probably as good as Charley - but I don't know if it was the charisma, or the magic, but no one has been able to break that barrier in country music to the degree that Charley did. It seems like a singular event, and that's sad to me as a musician.”

As Pride commented to Billboard about country music’s efforts to be more inclusionary, “Surely a lot of things are changing, but it’s not changing fast [enough]. We’ve got a long way to go.”