What Nation Music Requested of Charley Delight
Charley Pride appeared at the 54th Annual Country Music Association Awards last month, singing his 1971 hit song “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin ‘” with aspiring country star Jimmie Allen. The Nashville stars recorded the wondrous spectacle in a socially distant audience. Eric Church exuding stoic coolness – no mask. Brothers Osborne sing along – no masks. Ashley McBryde sways to the music – no mask.
There were two kinds of wish fulfillment here: Holding on to the hands. First, honoring Pride, which also received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award that evening, was a belated effort to give adequate respect to country music’s first black superstar. Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2017 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. “I’ll combine this with all the other awards,” he said backstage after the show, clutching the trophy.
And then there were those unadorned faces that telegraphed a certain bliss over the coronavirus that was raging across the country at the time of the show. On the day the awards were filmed, 1,576 deaths from Covid-19 were reported in the United States, according to the Covid Tracking Project – at the time, it was the highest in a day this country had seen the first since mid-May Wave of pandemic. (That daily number of deaths has exceeded 15 times since the CMAs.)
Of all of the recent award shows – the BET Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the Latin Grammys, and the American Music Awards – the CMAs also showed almost no people wearing masks on stage or in the audience. (It was also one of the few shows with an audience of any kind.)
If you believe what you are seeing, you might think that the country music business is tolerant, encouraging black performers, and ready to acknowledge the genre’s guilt towards black music. And you might believe that a group of superstars (and the people behind the scenes who help them navigate the world) were able to keep the pandemic at bay.
The look was pretty seamless, the reality less so. Five of the show’s scheduled performers withdrew because they tested positive for the coronavirus or were exposed to someone who did it. And the most gruesome news was that last Saturday, a month after the award ceremony, Pride died at the age of 86 as a result of Covid-19. It’s probably impossible to know if Pride caught the virus traveling from Texas to Nashville or at the CMAs, but many, including country stars Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton, have expressed legitimate concerns on Twitter about Prides Appearance on the show could have caused his exposure. (The CMA released a joint statement with Pride officials after his death, stating that Pride had tested negative for the coronavirus before, during, and after attending the awards.)
It wouldn’t have been the first time Pride risked his well-being and safety in the name of the embrace of country music. His 1994 paper “Pride: The Charley Pride Story” describes a litany of microaggressions and macroaggressions that he has experienced in his career. Being a black performer in the country, especially in the civil rights era when Pride took hold, meant sitting on the line. Pride opened for Willie Nelson in Dallas in 1967, warning the crowd was potentially hostile. Don’t worry, the organizers said, because they were ready to pull him off the stage quickly if the situation worsened.
“My mouth got so dry it felt like it was stuffed with cotton,” wrote Pride. “He doesn’t speak of attribution. He thinks something really bad could happen in a room with ten thousand people, and he only has two people to get me out of? “(The show went smoothly.)
He had to be careful with his song choices. “There was a time, after all,” wrote Pride, “when it was considered unsafe to sing“ Green, Green Grass of Home ”because it was a convicted prisoner who dreamed of his“ golden-haired ”wife . “
Pride recalled being referred to as arcs by cast members who were his co-workers and friends. how George Jones and another man scribbled “KKK” on his car after a turn; and how he had to remind Webb Pierce – who told him it was “good for you to be in our music” – that “it is my music too”.
Proudly telling these stories mostly with passion, sometimes even with a touch of affection: these events were simply the cost of doing business as a pioneer who pushed the envelope. In the book, he is explicitly against politics and seems to be anxious to reassure everyone – other Nashville stars, show promoters, and people he meets on the go – that he has no interest in causing trouble or around to be.
Ultimately, Pride was rewarded by the country music business – in the late 1960s and 1970s, he was one of the central, key performers of the genre, part of the firmament. But he was also the exception to the rule, of course – despite his success as an example, the country music industry remained largely inhospitable to black artists. He was one of one.
Nashville is now a little more progressive when it comes to diversity. Of all the pressures on the country music industry this year, racial justice was certainly the biggest challenge of the summer.
The CMAs are the most revered shows of the Nashville Industry Awards – in 1971 Pride was named Entertainer of the Year, the show’s highest accolade – and the decision to give Pride this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award was at least a noticeable one.
It was, of course, a nice gesture in itself. Darius Rucker, one of the presenters on the show and the most successful Black Country singer since Pride, has often cited the influence of Pride. And Pride’s duet partner Allen is a promising young pop-country talent and one of the few black singers with recent hits. But her performance also had an air of tokenism – didn’t a white country star want to pay tribute to a genre legend too?
Pride isn’t country music’s first coronavirus victim; ’90s star Joe Diffie died in March, and John Prine (who wasn’t even recognized by the CMAs) died in April.
But just because the coronavirus has gotten close to home hasn’t stopped country music stars from taking public risks with their health and that of others. In June, Chase Rice played a concert for several hundred fans and was harshly criticized after videos appeared online of maskless night owls gathering near the stage. Around the same time, Chris Janson was similarly criticized for performing for hundreds of fans. (In this regard, country stars are not alone; a venue in Ohio was recently fined for hosting a Trey Songz performance, and New York officials have reported that dance parties in the city are routinely closed.)
In October, Morgan Wallen was forced to withdraw from a scheduled appearance on “Saturday Night Live” after a video was posted on TikTok in which he partied with fans in Alabama and in one case kissed. Wallen appeared on the show earlier this month and even took part in a sketch that made fun of his indiscretions.
These things don’t just happen because of individual choices – they happen because of a system that awards certain types of transgressions and because of an industry that sees no tension between satisfying the thirst of fans and the potential harm to them and their loved ones.
Those responsible for the organization of the CMAs were not unaware of the risks of the coronavirus. CMA President Sarah Trahern told Variety that in addition to temperature tests and questionnaires, the organization had carried out around 3,000 coronavirus tests on artists and employees. The performers present were given face shields that they could wear when they were not at their table or on stage during the event. In behind-the-scenes footage released during rehearsals, the show’s executive producer, Robert Deaton, is shown wearing a mask and face shield when speaking to Pride and Allen about their performance.
Unsurprisingly, the CMAs went into damage control mode this weekend. The organization’s press release of Pride’s death mentioned his award, but made no mention of his performance last month.
Regardless, recent events are a painful star in Pride’s career and a reminder of how Nashville has remained deaf to its unique circumstances. This insensitivity continues. Pride has paved the way, but the path remained largely empty in its wake due to an industry for which the image of the racial community is more important than promoting it, and for which the emergence of freedom during a pandemic far outweighs the costs arising from it Hubris.