by Marcus K. Dowling
Charley Pride has died. He was the first singing Black country superstar. Because of the power of his legacy, he will not be the last.
Pride was singularly prouder, Blacker, and more easily identifiable with country music than likely every Black person who will ever sing or work in the industry of country music, for the rest of time, combined. He boldly faced impossible odds and amazingly — in a genre often stereotyped as lily-white and racist to its core — established a sustainable industry within country music for Black people through his acclaim. As Pride once told country star Webb Pierce, “Country music is [Black people’s] music, too.”
He’s also the only son of a Mississippi sharecropper to have 39 number one Billboard singles and have attempted to strike out Willie Mays while being a Negro League pitcher. These accomplishments elevate Charley Pride’s importance beyond music. Undoubtedly, he’s one of America’s most impressive citizens, ever.
In 2020, the type of discrimination Mr. Pride’s mere existence as a country star for five decades defied still exists in the United States. Thus, the irony of Mr. Pride’s death being linked to a virus that has indiscriminately killed hundreds of thousands of American citizens is gutting.
Charley Pride’s career coincided with eras where Black people in America survived unemployment, segregation, drug abuse, and incarceration. All the while, Pride — a famous Black man in an industry where he was often a sole, therefore highly-visible, Black icon — never appeared, in public, as stressed, angry, or manic about civil rights in the United States. This, while also being a husband to a Black woman and father of three Black children while touring the globe. It’s frankly incredible that repressed grief and steadfast loyalty to country music, above all else, was transformed by him, into beautiful songs that defined joy for all who listened.
Overall, saying that country music is only a better place for Charley Pride’s songs is a short-sighted statement. Yes, for as much as we love his cover of Hank Williams’ 1953 hot “Kaw-Liga” and 1971’s “I’m Just Me,” we should be more thankful for Mr. Pride’s resolute demeanor and undeniable endurance.
As for the industry Pride leaves behind, it’s fitting that the last moment the world shared with him, he was on stage receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Country Music Association’s Awards program. We saw him sing his signature song — 1971 crossover smash “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” — as a duet with rising African-American male hitmaker Jimmie Allen. Charley Pride never had a moment to pass the torch, officially, but the future’s in good hands. Allen has two top-ten hits, out of three singles released in his four-year career, and Darius Rucker — amid a certain Hall of Fame career — co-hosted the event with Reba McEntire.
Moreover, from Grammy-nominated Mickey Guyton to Rissi Palmer’s evolution from hit-maker to music educator and racial equity advocate via her Apple Music Color Me Country radio program, high-level Black progress is occurring. Charley Pride was an anomaly-turned-cornerstone. By comparison, there are currently more young Black singer-songwriters presently working in Nashville than at any point in country music history.
Kane Brown and Breland, plus Brittany Spencer and Reyna Roberts, don’t work alone, though. There are a plethora of names emerging with the ability to achieve Pride’s level of star power. It’s entirely likely that country music’s future — because, yes, it’s Black people’s music, too — will have a Black heart, plus Black mind, body, and soul at its forefront.
Sadly, Charley Pride’s songs didn’t solve racism. Nor did Mr. Pride’s perseverance outlast discrimination or COVID-19. However, now and forever, every time a Black person sings or thinks about country music, they will inevitably consider the lessons taught now, through Pride’s triumphant legacy. Ultimately, in his memory, on the shoulders of his success, Black people who love country music as much as he did will exist, endure, and excel.