Last month, Charley Pride was honored with the prestigious lifetime achievement award at the 2020 Country Music Association Awards. The barrier-breaking artist has had a prolific career in country music, and is the subject of the American Masters documentary Charley Pride: I’m Just Me. In it, Whoopi Goldberg calls him “Americana personified” and Darius Rucker calls him “country music royalty.” I, too, have been a longtime fan of Americana music like Pride's, yet I was unaware of his early career as a baseball player, and the incredible obstacles he faced as a Black musician in the South. Watching the film gave me a deeper appreciation for artists like him, who make up the fabric of American culture.
Here are 10 things I learned watching Charley Pride: I’m Just Me.
1. Pride grew up in rural Mississippi with 11 siblings.
Pride grew up in the small town of Sledge, Mississippi, in a family of sharecroppers, which he said left the family “in a continuous cycle of debt.” He was introduced to country music through his father when he bought a radio and brought it out into the fields to pick cotton.
2. Jackie Robinson’s barrier-breaking inspired him to follow his childhood dream of becoming a baseball player.
“When Jackie Robinson went to the Major Leagues, I was picking cotton beside my dad and I said to myself, ‘Here’s my way out of the cotton field,’” Pride says in the film. He became a pitcher in the Negro American League and played in Memphis, then Idaho, and eventually made his way to Montana. “The baseball field was almost their sanctuary. Their challenges came traveling the highways and byways of our country, not knowing where they could stop and get a meal, or use the bathroom,” Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum, says in the film of the challenges faced by Black athletes at the time.
3. Pride launched his country music career in the unlikely state of Montana.
While playing baseball and working as a smelter in Montana, he started playing music whenever he could at home and between games. His landlady heard him singing between innings, and got him his first gig at a nightclub in Helena. From there he played gigs all over the state and opened for Merle Haggard when he came to Montana, afterwhich he made his way to Nashville.
4. Pride and his wife have an epic love story.
Pride and Rozene Cohran have been married for more than 60 years. They met while he was playing baseball in Memphis. “As a child, I said I’d never marry an athlete or an entertainer. I got both in one! Never say never,” Rozene says in the film. Alice Randall, a professor at Vanderbilt University, praised their strong marriage in the film: “With Rozene and Charley being a team and an economic team, they were following in a powerful Black tradition of seeing marriages as vivid partnerships that are inclusive and mutually respectful.”
4. Segregation and the civil rights movement presented him with unique challenges.
As Pride launched his career in the 1960s, he moved to Nashville, the heart of country music, where he had to navigate the segregated Deep South. “To be a Black kid coming to Nashville when the civil rights movement was in full swing, with the sit-ins and all the protests that were going on all over the country, and to start knocking on doors of country music labels saying ‘I want to sing country music’ — that’s huge,” Black country singer Darius Rucker says in the film.
5. He became known for his soulful heartfelt voice.
Marty Stuart, fellow country singer, says he was blown away by Pride’s “low voice with a lot of dimension. It had a lot of overtones and nuances,” he says in the film. “The thing that Charley had that was undeniable, and he still has, is that voice,” Rucker says.
6. His managers hid Pride's race when he first started, yet he became a hit across genres.
In the early 70s when Pride released his first official single, his managers didn’t send a promotional photo and biography to radio stations, which was customary at the time. So many fans learned that he was Black for the first time when they saw him on stage. He steadily won over fans, achieving success on both the country and pop charts, and winning numerous awards. “American music is made up of gospel, country and the blues,” Pride says in the film. “Those three, I think each one borrowed from the other.”
7. He bonded with Dolly Parton over their shared faith.
Parton and Pride were longtime friends and collaborators and came from similarly poor backgrounds. “We relate in the same way to God,” Parton says in the film about their bond. That shared faith led them to record the song “God’s Coloring Book,” on the suggestion of Pride’s wife.
8. Pride was a man of many talents. In addition to baseball and music, he found success in business.
“I always wanted to be as good a businessman as an entertainer,” Pride says. Inspired by his friend Dolly Parton, whom he admired as a performer and businesswoman, Pride and manager Jack Johnson started a publishing company and cultivated songwriters.
9. He sang for the Obamas at the White House.
In 2009, Pride joined Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss for “Country at the White House,” an educational event promoting arts education. “Playing at the White House for the first African-American president, with the first mega-successful African-American country music singer, who had been a friend of mine since I was a teenager, it was very poetic,” Paisley says in the film.
10. He inspired a new generation of country singers.
In the film, country singer Jimmie Allen says being able to look up to a Black country artist like Pride was “huge” for him and the future of the genre. “I see country music opening up to a lot more diversity and cultural differences,” Allen says. “Thank you for not quitting. Thank you for being courageous, because you’ve inspired me.”
Stream Charley Pride: I'm Just Being Meon GBH Passport.