The first time I saw Charley Pride was on Hee Haw when I was in the first or second grade. I remember thinking, “This is awesome. This guy looks like me and there’s no one else on that show that looks like me.”
I remember one day I’m leafing through all these records my mom had and I came across this Charley Pride record. I remembered seeing him on Hee Haw and I asked my mom why no one ever played this. She said, “I don’t know. We bought it because he’s a Black guy in country music.” I thought that was crazy. That must have been such a part of why I always felt I could do whatever I wanted to do with music because as a young kid, you see Charley and think, “We’re not supposed to be playing country music,” and this guy’s not only playing it, he’s having a lot of success.
He has great songs, but the delivery was so real. You can’t believe Charley didn’t write “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” because he sings it with such feeling. Even when we did “Why Things Happen” on Jimmie Allen’s new EP together, I remember listening and going, “Man, no one sounds like Charley Pride.” We never did get to be in the room together when we recorded it. That’s one of the thoughts that came to mind when I heard he died. I always thought we’d get to sing that song onstage together, the three of us.
Our very first meeting, we talked for hours. He was hosting the Opry and I was on it. I was praising him, saying how amazing it was to look at his catalog. It was the ’60s and ‘70s and he was having these hits and was entertainer of the year — this Black man doing what I know he was told he wasn’t supposed to do by everybody. He said, “Darius, one of the crazy things to me is that I’ve never been on the cover of Ebony or Jet,” and I said, “Me neither,” and he and I just laughed. That has always stuck with me. To not celebrate Charley Pride as an African-American proving that we can do anything, that was sad.
Charley’s age or my age growing up African-American, you didn’t make it until you were on the cover of Ebony or Jet, and for both of us to never make the cover, that was one of the things we thought we’d do it together one day.
Even when I started playing in Hootie & the Blowfish, I can’t imagine how it was for Charley: It wasn’t just white folks saying, “You can’t play this music,” it was black folks saying, “Why are you playing that music?” That’s another thing that makes it so amazing what he did.
Before I got to really sit down and talk to him about it, I always said to myself when I came into country music: No matter what happens I can handle it, because it’s not even going to be close to what Charley went through [including George Jones drunkenly writing “KKK” on his car].
Later in life he and George were great friends, but you hear those stories and you go, “Wow, it wasn’t just a person who didn’t want to be a fan, it was the people that you have to go be on a show with went out of their way to be a**holes.”
It’s like God put him there for that reason because they know he had the temperament to do what needed to be done. Just like Jackie Robinson in baseball. A power greater than us knew that someone needed to do it and he was the guy to do it because he could handle it. It’s shocking that there’s no Charley Pride movie. That’s the ultimate American story.
I couldn’t have done what I do, I don’t think, if there hadn’t been Charley before me. I think one of the reasons I got a chance is because a lot of people in radio did look and go, “Wow, it’s been 25 years,” and so I had a good song and they gave it a chance. Charley opened the door. I try to push it in a bit more and help these kids out.
There’s no doubt that I feel an obligation to help anybody I can. I feel like the way Charley was with me. I just want to help and if I can help those guys anywhere, any time I’m in. Other artists of color or any artist. Jimmie, Kane [Brown], Mickey [Guyton] … I feel a little special bond with them because we’re doing something that we’ve all been told that we’re not supposed to do.
I’m so glad he got the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the CMAs this year. Charley knew what he did and the impact he had on music, but I think it was another one of those accolades that you want to see when you’re alive. It was great to see him get that and see him be in the spotlight again and get to be a superstar.
At the CMAs, we were talking about how I wanted to come to Texas and hang out — not do music or nothing, just sit around and drink some tea or coffee. He called me when he got home and I was doing something and didn’t answer and I called him back and he didn’t answer. You look back and you go, “Wow, it’s just so sad.”
He is one of those guys that when you make a Mount Rushmore of country music, Charley Pride should be on it. For what he did and the way he did it and the fact that he did it when he did it. The word icon is used so much, but icon is the only word I would use to describe him.
–As told to Melinda Newman
Darius Rucker, a CMA Award and three-time Grammy Award winner, co-hosted the CMA Awards this year, making him only the second Black artist to do so since Pride co-hosted in 1975.