One of the strongest country music journalists out there today is Andrea Williams. Her stunning obituary for Charley Pride, recently published for Vulture, has been lingering with me ever since I read it.
Charley Pride Deserved Better Than What Country Music Could Ever Give Him pulls no punches, removing the whitewashing that coats the familiar stories of Pride’s early days as a budding country star:
Pride needed the financial backing of a record label if he ever hoped to put out high-quality records and get them spun on radio It was a mission that took two years and was only secured when Johnson persuaded guitar maestro and RCA Victor exec Chet Atkins to take a chance on the strapping Black man in the slim suits. Then came song choice. “Just Between Me and You,” which would ultimately become Pride’s first Top 10 hit, was nixed as a first single despite being Pride’s top choice. It wouldn’t work, he was told, because no one wanted to hear a Black man sing a love song to a white woman. The choice, instead, was “The Snakes Crawl at Night,” a song about a man who kills his cheating wife by gunshot and is sentenced to death — a song certainly more aligned with the white imagination.
There were the radio stations who received promo packages that didn’t include Pride’s photo, lest they decide not to play him on sight. And when seeking buy-in from club owners and show promoters, Pride had to convince them he wasn’t there with any civil-rights intentions, that there would be no “trouble” following behind him; then when he finally landed the gigs, he quickly disarmed his audience with jokes about his “permanent tan.”
I fancy myself to be quite knowledgeable about country music. I was floored by the George Jones and Willie Nelson stories recounted in this article, even though they’ve been part of the public record since Pride published his autobiography a quarter century ago.
Acceptance from his country-music peers was an entirely separate battle, and when Pride recounts tales of George Jones painting KKK on the side of his car or Willie Nelson nicknaming him “Supernigger” in his 1994 memoir Pride, he dismisses those affronts with relative nonchalance. He instead reframes them, respectively, as a joke, a way to diminish the potency of a wretched slur.
“I didn’t accept the [insults], I just tried to maneuver around them, so as not to get into any confrontation,” Pride told the Dallas Observer in 2016. “I’m not a coward or anything like that, but I think that with the help of my dad and mom, I just learned to find a way around the negative stuff.”
Pride’s resilience in the face of abject racism is usually told in a way to make the primarily white country music audience feel more comfortable. Williams refuses to do this. It is, by far, the strongest piece written in the wake of Pride’s death, tracing his entire career from the beginnings noted above, all the way through his 2020 appearance at the CMA Awards, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award named after the singer who called him that shameful slur all those years ago.
Andrea Williams demonstrates again that diversity matters in country music as a whole, and in country music journalism in particular.