Charley Pride. Photo: Joseph Llanes. Courtesy of 2911 Media.
Several summers ago, I took my high school best friend, who was going through a divorce at the time, to see Charley Pride in concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. I say “concert,” but in reality, it was one of those Grand Ole Opry–style revues in which a few artists play two or three songs a piece and then call it a night.
The bill was long, sundry, and strange. It included the songwriter Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman, “MacArthur Park”), the country music hall-of-famer Connie Smith, a three-year-old mandolin player, an indie rock band from New Zealand, Glen Campbell’s kids, and Eric Church, who was joined on stage by Chris Stapleton and Little Big Town for a cover of the Band’s “The Weight.”
Church was the main draw. One of Nashville’s leading men, he’d recently released an album that embraced hard-rock riffs and spoken-word poetry in addition to nostalgic reminiscences of the Talladega Superspeedway. On one eight-minute track, he rails against the very Ryman stage on which he was set to perform. “No matter how satisfied her scream sounds,” he says, “she always wants someone new.”
I wondered whether Church, in his sunglasses and leather jacket, would go there during his set, whether he’d make nice or cause a scene. I told my friend, who’d never been to the Ryman, about how Johnny Cash had smashed out the footlights with a microphone stand in 1965. I wondered whether we might be in for a repeat.
I was talking about music to keep from talking about things I didn’t know how to talk about. My friend’s wife had left him. There was another man involved. It had all come as a surprise. Despite growing up in Nashville, my friend had never been a big fan of country music. At the very least, I thought the show, for as long as it lasted, might take his mind off his troubles. I thought it might even give him a song or two to help him deal with his pain. What else is country music good for if not consoling the brokenhearted? What is it about if not the inevitability of ending up alone?
More than Church, the singer I was looking forward to seeing, the name that had made me want to buy tickets in the first place, was Charley Pride, who died at age eighty-six this past weekend of complications from COVID-19.
I resorted to superlatives to try to pique my buddy’s interest. Pride’s voice, I told him, was one of the signature instruments in country music. Its confident resignation, equal parts brass and bass fiddle, was the fruit of a uniquely American climb. Pride’s parents had been sharecroppers in Mississippi. He’d served in the Army. In the Negro leagues, he’d pitched for the Memphis Red Sox and the Birmingham Black Barons, becoming a two-time all-star, before cutting a country demo that caught the ear of Chet Atkins, the guitar wonder–turned–RCA record executive.
In a genre that had deep roots in Black music but had never been particularly receptive to Black musicians, Pride went on to sell more records for RCA than any artist except for Elvis. He sent more than fifty singles into the Billboard Country Chart’s Top 10—thirty of them to No. 1. He was the second Black member of the Grand Ole Opry and, in 2000, became the first Black artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“You ever hear ‘Kiss an Angel Good Morning’?” I asked my friend. “How about ‘Crystal Chandeliers’?” If any two songs could win a skeptic to country music, surely it was those two Pride standards, the first a spellbound ditty about the duties of romance, the second a cutting but good-hearted indictment of its shortfalls. Few singers could swing between warring sentiments with such aplomb. No other country artist after Patsy Cline had so elegantly surveyed the fraught landscape of love.
It was 10 P.M. The Ryman was just about full. A country-music award show had just ended at the hockey arena down the hill. Stragglers from there and the Broadway honky-tonks were drifting in drunk and tired but grateful, at that late hour, to have somewhere decent to go. We were seated on the main floor, in a pew to the left of the stage. Like a shaman, Marty Stuart, who had organized the concert and presided over it as emcee, began the show by summoning the spirits of country music’s past. “This is the Mother Church,” he said, “and if you feel something funny on your shoulders, it’s just one of the ghosts of the greats.”
Stuart and his band, the Fabulous Superlatives, did a Marty Robbins cover, and then a duo from Maryland called the Brothers Osborne did a Merle Haggard cover, and the mood was such that it was surreal, a touch spooky even, when Pride, who’d toured with Robbins and been inducted into the hall of fame by Haggard, made his entrance. It was as if all of Stuart’s talk about ghosts and greats had worked a materializing magic that in turn exposed his shtick as hooey. The greats don’t have ghosts, Pride’s presence seemed to announce, because the greats never die.
Pride wore black pants and a black short-sleeved button-down with white tennis shoes. He looked like a retired general, in control even when at ease. He’d always set his own code. Somewhere I’d seen a photo of him standing in front of a picture of Hank Williams. Hank wore a cowboy hat. Pride donned a leisure suit and gold chains. He was the rare country artist who was more liable to wear bell-bottoms than blue jeans.
I slapped my friend on the back. “This is going to be good,” I said. I waited for the familiar guitar lick that tees up the first verse of “Kiss an Angel Good Morning”—
Whenever I chance to meet
some old friends on the street
They wonder how does a man
get to be this way
—or for Pride to belt out the a cappella “oh” at the maudlin start of “Crystal Chandeliers.” But when the music started, I didn’t recognize the song. Pride walked right up to the edge of the stage, which was crowded with musicians and instruments and wires. He lifted the microphone to his mouth with both hands. But no sooner had he started singing than he seemed to lose the thread.
He walked to the other end of the stage, the music still playing behind him, and when the chorus arrived, he lifted the mic to his mouth once more. But the words wouldn’t come. The band made adjustments. Pride paced back and forth, less sure on his feet now, searching for the lyrics, occasionally letting out broken snatches of song under his breath.
A round of applause ensued. Several people on the main floor stood up and started cheering, thinking, perhaps, that what he needed was a little encouragement, that if he knew the crowd was on his side, he would be able to refocus, or maybe feel appreciated enough to move on.
But it was clear that he wasn’t going to quit, not yet, clear that the song had become a challenge from which he refused to back down. He tried the chorus again, but when it came time to move into the next verse, he just shook his head and let out something like a sigh. The band kept playing, a little quieter now, their poses more wooden, trying and failing to hide their concern.
Questions crowded my mind. It dawned on me that the intense feeling and emotional vulnerability that characterized Pride’s music emanated from its opposite. His vocal performances were commanding, nearly perfect, and this allowed the cracks in the relationships he sang about to cut through. It took a lot of sense to sing about senseless romance. It took a lot of confidence to sell weakness the way he did.
This time, though, Pride the performer was superseding Pride’s songbook. It was as if, in the course of a few minutes, he had exposed country music, with its allegiance to down-and-outers and loss and shame, for a ruse.
Finally, after what felt like an hour crushed into five minutes, Pride gave up on the song. The drums pattered out; the guitars faded. While the music had been going, there had been the possibility of a rally. Now that the stage was quiet, there was no place for him to hide.
Suddenly I felt terrible about subjecting my friend to what, I assumed, must have seemed like a sad display of incompetence by a washed-up has-been. So I stood up and made to leave. When my friend didn’t follow, I motioned in his direction, only to be met by the most unexpected sight.
There he sat, staring up at Charley Pride in a kind of rapture. He was neither horrified nor annoyed. Unlike me, he wasn’t ready to make an escape. No, he looked worried, moved, and utterly consumed. There was nothing that could have broken his concentration.
I wondered what Pride looked like from his vantage. We had been sitting on the same pew, but he was watching, I realized, a different performance. It was as if his hurt and confusion and whatever else he’d experienced and survived had given him, for all that it had taken, a fresh access of empathy, as if in Pride’s onstage struggles he’d glimpsed traces of his own.
There was a song being sung between them that I couldn’t quite trace. “A spirit ditty,” as Keats wrote, “of no tone.” It was something about what happens when the sure things fly out from under us, about where we land after what we’ve taken for granted takes us for a ride. “Everybody’s breaking somebody’s heart,” it might have gone, “but I never thought you’d be the one to break mine.”
Pride was stubborn. You had to be to do what he’d done in his life and music. He wasn’t going to leave the stage without putting up a fight. I settled back into the pew just as the band started playing again. The people around us clapped. “We love you, Charley,” someone shouted from the balcony. My buddy looked over at me and smiled. He nodded toward the stage. Together we waited for what would come, for the singing, for the silence, for the stammer in between, for whatever pride sounds like on the other side of shame.
Drew Bratcher was born in Nashville. He received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. He lives in Chicagoland.
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