What country music asked of Charley Pride
By Jon Caramanica
At the 54th annual Country Music Association Awards last month, there was Charley Pride, onstage singing his indelible 1971 hit “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” alongside rising country star Jimmie Allen. In the socially distanced audience, Nashville luminaries took in the wondrous spectacle. Eric Church, exuding stoic cool — no mask. Brothers Osborne singing along — no masks. Ashley McBryde swaying to the music — no mask.
Here were two kinds of wish fulfillment, tightly holding hands. First, honoring Pride, who also received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award that night, was a belated effort at demonstrating sufficient respect for 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’m going to put this with all the other awards,” he said backstage after the show, clutching the trophy.)
And then there were those unadorned faces, telegraphing a certain blitheness about the coronavirus, which was, at the time of the show, raging through the country. On the day the awards were filmed, 1,576 COVID-19 deaths were reported in the United States, according to the COVID Tracking Project. At the time, it was the most in one day this country had seen since mid-May, near the end of the pandemic’s initial wave. (That daily death count has been topped 15 times since the CMAs.)
Of all the recent awards shows — the BET Awards, the MTV Video Music Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the Latin Grammys, the American Music Awards — the CMAs were singular in showing almost no people wearing masks, either onstage or in the audience. (It was also one of very few shows with an audience of any kind.)
If you believed what you were watching, you might think that the country music business was a tolerant one, encouraging of Black performers and willing to acknowledge the genre’s debt to Black music. And you might believe that it was possible for a gaggle of superstars (and the behind-the-scenes people who help them navigate the world) to keep the pandemic at bay.
The optics were pretty much seamless, the reality less so. Five of the show’s planned performers pulled out because they tested positive for the coronavirus or were exposed to someone who did. And most cruel was the news that this past Saturday, a month after the awards, Pride died, at 86, from complications of COVID-19.
It is likely impossible to know whether Pride contracted the virus traveling from Texas to Tennessee, or at the CMAs, but many, including country stars Maren Morris and Mickey Guyton, expressed reasonable concern on Twitter that Pride’s appearance on the show might have led to his exposure. (The CMA released a joint statement with Pride’s representatives after his death noting that Pride had tested negative for the coronavirus before, during and after attending the awards.)
It would not have been the first time Pride risked his well-being and safety in the name of country music’s embrace. His 1994 memoir, “Pride: The Charley Pride Story,” details a litany of microaggressions and macroaggressions he experienced in his career. To be a Black performer in country, especially in the throes of the civil rights era, when Pride was getting his footing, was to put yourself on the line.
Ultimately, Pride was rewarded by the country music business. By the end of the 1960s and throughout the 1970s, he was one of the genre’s central performers, a part of the firmament.
But he was also, naturally, the exception that proved the rule — even with his success as an example, the country music industry remained largely inhospitable to Black performers. He was a one of one.
Nashville is ever so slightly more progressive now when it comes to diversity. Still, of all the pressures applied to the save-face-insistent country music industry this year, the racial justice reckonings of the summer certainly have been the most challenging to face up to.
The CMAs are the most revered of the Nashville industry awards shows — in 1971, Pride won entertainer of the year, the show’s highest honor — and its choice to bestow Pride with the lifetime achievement award this year felt, at a minimum, conspicuous.
It was of course a lovely gesture on its own terms. Darius Rucker, one of the show’s hosts and the most successful Black country singer since Pride, has frequently cited Pride’s influence.
And Pride’s duet partner, Allen, is a promising young pop-country talent and one of a handful of Black singers with recent hits. But their performance also had the air of tokenism. Did no white country star also want to pay tribute to a genre legend?
Those responsible for organizing the CMAs were not unaware of the risks posed by the coronavirus. CMA president Sarah Trahern told Variety that the organization administered around 3,000 coronavirus tests to performers and staff members, in addition to temperature checks and questionnaires. Performers were given face shields to wear any time they were not seated at their tables or onstage during the event. In footage posted from backstage during show rehearsals, the show’s executive producer Robert Deaton is shown wearing a mask and a face shield when speaking to Pride and Allen about their performance.
Unsurprisingly, the CMAs went into damage control mode this weekend. The organization’s news release about Pride’s death mentioned his award but made no mention of his performance last month.
Regardless, recent events are a painful asterisk on Pride’s career, and a reminder of the ways Nashville remained deaf to his unique circumstances. That insensitivity continues apace.
Pride was a pathbreaker, but the path largely remained empty in his wake, owing to an industry for which the image of racial comity is more important than the furtherance of it, and for which the appearance of freedom during a pandemic far outweighs any cost that arises from that hubris.