"You couldn’t move," Pride says. "Arms, elbow to elbow—you couldn’t squeeze through nothing. But we squinch and squeeze and go all the way down to the front, to where No. 41’s bench was. On that bench, there was exactly two seats there. You know someone would have loved to sit down on those seats, with all them people squeezed together like that. Now, I wonder why those two seats are there like that?" He lets the question hang in the air for a moment. "I go in first. Guess who they sat me down beside? Jerry Falwell. I sit down beside him, and my wife comes, she sits down right beside me. By the time I squatted to sit down, about six cameras lit up—brrr-duh-duh-duh-duh. I mean, they lit up, man—it was just like a Christmas tree.
"Then I go out on the road and start doing my shows. Remember I told you about shooting a cannon through the Democratic convention—ain’t nobody said nothing. Minute I go off to the Republican convention—'Charley, goddammit, I didn’t know you were a damn Republican.' I said, 'Wait a minute, let me tell you what—' 'Nah, don’t tell me s---. I saw you sitting there next to Falwell.' I said, 'Here we go. Exactly what I said was going to happen, right?' They know how to corral you. I went back to Cy and said, 'You did it to me. You got me good.'"
• • •
Though Charley Pride is something of an afterthought on these shores, that’s certainly not true everywhere else. It’s not like he’s been sitting around his house in North Dallas, raging at the dying of his light. He doesn’t have the inclination or, more to the point, the time. He remains an international artist, and that comes with the kind of schedule that keeps a man busy. He’s still a huge presence in Canada, in Australia, and especially in Ireland.
He’s been beloved there since captivating sold-out crowds at a string of shows at Belfast’s ABC Ritz Theatre in 1976, during the height of The Troubles. No other major artist dared do so then, not wanting to get caught in the crossfire of a civil war. But Pride went anyway, over the objections of Rozene and his band. He’s been back almost every year since, including a recent 12-date swing in March. Because of that, his popularity has never waned in Ireland. "They just cuddle me in," Pride says. "Took me in like one of them."
In his home country, however, Pride’s status has been on the decline since he left RCA Records. Leading up to his divorce from the label in 1986, Pride had grown increasingly frustrated with the way Nashville was pushing aside proven older acts (Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell) in favor of a new generation of hat-wearing would-be stars. His friend, record executive and producer Jerry Bradley, told him RCA would never abandon him completely. Pride was, at the time, still selling more than 250,000 copies of each new album. But he still rankled at the way he and his fellow "legends"—he uses the word dismissively, because in Nashville it’s something of a pejorative, a euphemism for "has-been"—were being handled.
So Pride had his attorney draft a letter to RCA’s New York headquarters, asking the label for an early release from his contract. It was meant as a shot across the bow, aimed not at New York but at the Nashville branch—"the ones pulling all these shenanigans." He didn’t want to leave. He just wanted what he had earned: respect.
"What happened?" he says. "Boom. They accepted it." He laughs. "I tried to use a little expertise, or whatever you want to call it. Didn’t work out that way." He wonders how things might have gone, had RCA not taken him up on his offer. Maybe he would have overtaken Elvis and become the top-selling artist in the label’s history. Who knows? A hit or two more and it would have been right there.
But the thought doesn’t linger for long. Spending time dusting off the past doesn’t make much sense when there’s so much present and future to consider. "That’s the way things went," he says. "So, yeah, I was disappointed, but I have since calmed down. I just take what comes. The thing is, I’m sold out everywhere I go. They want to see me now more than they did when I was younger."
• • •
That ring tone—Pride singing "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin"—is nothing, really. It’s also everything. It’s both a symbol of Pride and a symbol of pride, proof that a black man, son of a Mississippi sharecropper, was able to rise to the very top of a white world. More than that, it’s proof that Pride still has to remind everyone of that fact.
Talk to Pride long enough—honestly, it doesn’t require much time at all—and he will enumerate all of his many achievements. It’s boasting, yes, and you’ll just have to forgive him that bit of vanity, because he’s certainly earned at least that much. But his reasoning for doing this, his occasional habit of speaking like his own biographer, goes much deeper than narcissism. It’s practical. For years, it’s been his method of deflecting questions regarding racism, a way of redirecting the conversation until it is about what he has done and what he can do rather than what he looks like.
"A lot of people say, 'Well, you must have had it hard,'" Pride says. "There’s not been one iota of that. Like when Jackie Robinson first went to the major leagues? No black cats, no name calling, none. I say this to reporters, and they look at me, and I say, ’Uh-oh, you’re giving me that I-can’t-believe-it-you-gotta-be-lying look.’ So I start naming off my accomplishments." He does so—hits, awards, sales, honors, everything. "What good is it going to do me to lie? It’s not gonna help my accomplishments any more to try to make up something."
But his verbal Wikipedia entry isn’t merely about race either. Pride has never been afforded the kinds of opportunities to stay relevant, or even be regularly rediscovered, that many of his contemporaries have enjoyed. Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and even less likely candidates such as Porter Wagoner and Charlie Louvin—all added vital recordings to their impressive canons in this decade.
Pride, meanwhile, has mostly languished on lower-tier labels, recording generally ignored albums, since leaving RCA. He released a gospel album in 2006 (Pride and Joy) that, despite strong reviews and appearances by Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton, failed to garner much interest, the same fate that befell his last country disc, 2003’s Comfort of Her Wings. (Not a surprise since both were issued on tiny, Nashville-based independent Music City Records.) He’s had brushes with renewed interest—when he published his autobiography in 1994, when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000—but his story is told less and less often. So he tells it himself. If he keeps saying it, maybe people will remember.
Maybe they will realize: Charley Pride can still do this. His voice is tinged with age now, but it’s only made it into a more powerful instrument, adding a layer that wasn’t there before, an extra dollop of emotion that changes, subtly but definitely, words he’s sung thousands of times over the past four decades. For the same reason Johnny Cash couldn’t have pulled off his heart-wrenching cover of Nine Inch Nails’ "Hurt" when he was a younger man, there’s added meaning when Pride sings "When I Stop Leaving (I’ll Be Gone)" or even "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'."
The problem is, Pride hasn’t been able to showcase fully how he’s evolved as a performer. Though his concert calendar remains full, he hasn’t had many opportunities to add newer songs to his set lists. His career, like that of many country "legends," is trapped in amber, a museum piece people forget because they’ve already visited. Why? In a way, it’s simple. He’s sung some songs that the whole world sings. But he didn’t write any of them.
"Hank Williams, if he hadn’t have wrote songs, chances are he wouldn’t have been nearly remembered the way he is," Haggard says. "God gives you a bundle of talent, and you do everything you can to honor it, and some people are more diversified than others. That wasn’t in the cards for Charley. I knew it was important. When I was 12 years old, I knew that little name down there beside the song title meant something. But you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. There may be a movie come out and one of his songs will be in it, and it will give him a rebirth or something."
In fact, that’s exactly what is happening. Pride might not have to tell his story anymore, or as often, in a year or two, when Terrence Howard stars in a long-gestating Charley Pride biopic, helmed by his Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer. That could be Pride’s Walk the Line, his Ray. "The movie’s gonna really surprise a lot of people," he says.
"Let me tell you, everyone today has stopped me on the street and said, 'When is Charley Pride coming out?'" Brewer told Nashville’s The Tennessean in October 2006, when the project was first announced. "Listen, sir, we don’t even know who is writing the script yet. It makes me grin because the guys in the parking garage were like, ’We can’t wait for you to tell this story.'"
Neither can Pride. Until then, it’s up to him. That’s why he knows his own stats better than anyone and can rattle them off like a fan-club president.
That’s why his ring tone is him singing "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’." Don’t ever forget it.