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What Country Music Asked of Charley Pride

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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 the 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, of complications of Covid-19. It is likely impossible to know whether Pride contracted the virus traveling from Texas to Nashville, or at the CMAs, but many, including the 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. Opening for Willie Nelson in Dallas in 1967, Pride was warned the crowd was potentially hostile. Not to worry, the promoter told him, because they were prepared to rapidly pull him offstage if the situation turned dire.

“My mouth went so dry it felt like it was stuffed with cotton,” Pride wrote. “He’s not talking about name calling. He thinks something really bad might happen in a room with ten thousand people, and he only has two guys to get me out?” (The show went smoothly.)

He had to be careful about his song selection. “There was a time, after all,” Pride wrote, “when it was deemed unsafe to sing ‘Green, Green Grass of Home’ because it was about a condemned prisoner dreaming of his woman with ‘hair of gold.’”

Pride remembered being called slurs by performers who were his colleagues and friends; how George Jones and another man scrawled “KKK” on his car after a bender; and how he had to remind Webb Pierce — who told him it’s “good for you to be in our music” — that “It’s my music, too.”

Pride mostly relates these stories with dispassion, sometimes even with flickers of affection: These occurrences were simply the cost of doing business as a boundary-crashing pioneer. In the book, he is expressly resistant to politics, and seems eager to assure everyone — fellow Nashville stars, show promoters and people he meets along the way — that he’s got no interest in starting trouble, or being near it.

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, crucial 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?

Pride is not the first victim of the coronavirus in country music; the 1990s star Joe Diffie died in March, and John Prine (who wasn’t even acknowledged at the CMAs) died in April.

But just because the coronavirus has hit close to home has not discouraged country music stars from taking public risks with their health and others’. In June, Chase Rice played a concert for several hundred fans, and was roundly criticized after video appeared online of maskless revelers clustered together near the stage. Around the same time, Chris Janson was similarly criticized for performing for hundreds of fans. (In this, country stars are not alone; an Ohio venue was recently fined for hosting a Trey Songz performance, and New York officials have reported routinely shutting down dance parties in the city.)

In October, Morgan Wallen was forced to withdraw from a scheduled appearance on “Saturday Night Live” after video emerged on TikTok of him partying with — and in one case kissing — fans in Alabama. Wallen ended up performing on the show earlier this month, and even participated in a skit poking fun at his indiscretions.

Those things don’t simply happen because of individual choices — they happen because of a system that forgives certain kinds of transgressions, and because of an industry that sees no tension between satisfying the thirst of fans and potentially putting them and their loved ones at risk.

Those responsible for organizing the CMAs were not unaware of the risks posed by the coronavirus. The CMA president, Sarah Trahern, told Variety that the organization administered around 3,000 coronavirus tests to performers and staff, in addition to temperature checks and questionnaires. The performers who attended were given face shields to wear anytime they were not seated at their table 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.

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