At some point during Wednesday’s telecast of the 54th annual Country Music Association Awards, 8–11 p.m. ET on ABC, the association will do something it has never done in its previous 53 years.
It will present arguably its most prestigious prize, the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, to a black man.
You don’t have to be a country music scholar to figure that would be Charley Pride, because to be blunt about it, who would be the other candidates?
Name all the black artists who have made any dent in country music over the course of Charley Pride’s lifetime, which spans 86 and a half years, and you need only one hand and a thumb. You’ve got Pride, Darius Rucker, Jimmie Allen, Mickey Guyton, Kane Brown and Blanco Brown, the last four of whom have arrived in the last four years.
Now we need to stress up front that Wednesday’s award isn’t going to Pride because the CMA wants to score some diversity. Pride is getting it because he’s a terrific country music artist.
While it’s been more than 30 years since he was actively scoring hits — like many artists, at a certain point he found radio tastes drifting somewhere else and shifted his focus to live performance — he racked up more than 50 chart singles in his career, 30 of which went to №1.
His distinctive baritone voice has always delivered a clean, basic song, and he’s picked a lot of good ones. Listen to “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?” and try, just try, not to find it sticks in your head: “Sleepin’ under a table in a roadside park / A man could wake up dead / But it sure seems warmer than it did / Sleepin’ in our king-sized bed.”
He can do love songs like “Kiss An Angel Good Morning.” Bad-guy songs like “Snakes Crawl At Night.” Love-gone-bad songs like “Crystal Chandeliers.”
Nobody black, white, brown, yellow or green couldn’t love “A Mississippi Cotton-Pickin’ Delta Town,” a surprisingly nostalgic portrait of the kind of place where his sharecropping parents raised him and his 10 siblings: “Down in the delta where I was born / All we raised was cotton, potatoes and corn / I’ve picked cotton ’til my fingers hurt / Draggin’ a sack through the delta dirt.”
No, Charley Pride earned this award, one that stands out in our award-crazy culture because the CMA doesn’t give it every year, just when they think someone deserves it. Nelson won the first one in 2012 and since then it’s gone to Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
All that said, Pride’s award does inevitably stir up the cross-currents that swirl through the whole idea of a black artist in what has come to be known as almost exclusively white music.
Ken Burns’s Country Music, which ran on PBS last fall, was notable among other things for repeatedly pointing out it wasn’t always like that. In fact, America’s black and white roots music are blood kin, inextricably intertwined.
A century ago the embryonic music industry started selling blues to black folks as “race” music and country to white folks as “hillbilly” music. But to the folks who sang and played it, regardless of their personal attitudes on race, almost always it was all just music.
Black musicians like Louis Armstrong and Oscar Woods played on the records of country music’s first major star, Jimmie Rodgers. When A.P. Carter went out collecting songs to, ahem, adapt for the Carter family, he had his black friend Lesley Riddle with him.
On a broader and even more telling note, you just have to listen to the songs that were being recorded in the first 50 years of the music biz. The banjo and the fiddle, bedrocks of black popular music, became bedrocks of country music.
The Mississippi Sheiks, a black string band, cut a song called “Yodelin’ Fiddlin’ Blues” that was pure country. The Allen Brothers, a white hillbilly duet, cut a song that sounded so black their record company released it in the blues series.
Listen to white Jimmie Tarlton and black Lonnie Johnson sing “Careless Love” and try to say they weren’t drinking from the same fountain. Johnny Cash, Bob Wills and Hank Williams listened to black music. Ray Charles and Tina Turner listened to country music.
The point is that music has never been nearly as segregated as the industry’s marketing divisions would have you believe.
The R&B and hip-hop markets have always accepted some white artists. Elvis Presley had a half-dozen №1 R&B hits. You’ve got Eminem and the Beastie Boys.
Country, less so. When Ray Charles cut his landmark Modern Sounds in Country-Western Music album in 1962, yielding among other pop hits a stunning remake of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” country radio ignored it.
Pride has addressed the race issue with tact, often saying he “maneuvered around” the awkward parts.
When he had his first hit single, “Just Between You and Me” in 1966, his record company never let it slip to radio stations that Pride was black. So that fun fact came as a surprise to his first live audiences, who Pride recalls as not being entirely happy about it. He won them over, he said, by joking about his “permanent tan.”
With all due respect, one imagines it wasn’t quite that easy. For one thing, after Pride had his last №1 hit in 1983, 25 years passed before a black artist, Rucker, had the next one.
Rucker, who also says he just ignores racial stuff, does recall playing an outdoor gig at a Southern school and seeing that one student had hung a large Confederate flag outside his window. Guyton has said she’s seen the Confederate flag and heard the n-word from her audiences.
It gets more complicated when you read in Pride’s 1994 autobiography that his friend Willie Nelson called him “supern — — -.” “It was his term of affection for me,” Pride told the Dallas Observer.
That was a couple of decades ago, which arguably were different times. So was the term disquieting or did it suggest a degree of comfort toward which we’re theoretically striving?
Pride buys the second option. Like the first black country star, DeFord Bailey from the early Grand Ol’ Opry, he clearly has felt that minimizing the race part keeps attention on the music.
For Charley Pride, in the larger picture, that has seemed to work. If we don’t know the full price he paid, we know he earned the award he’ll be accepting Wednesday. However much work remains for America on issues of color, Charley Pride’s career proves again that there are points where we can meet. His lifetime achievement goes beyond his musical success.