Remembering Charley Pride and His Landmark 1969 Live Album
Charley Pride's In Person, the first major live album released by a Black country artist, is an unassuming landmark. With a runtime of just under 34 minutes, Pride’s album is shorter than many of the recordings that are cited as among the greatest of all time, including Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison and Buck Owens’ Carnegie Hall Concert. But despite its brevity, the album is an invigorating and essential piece of history, a portrait of a pioneering star on the precipice of unprecedented success.
Pride’s backing band for the 1969 album included a contingent of Nashville session players, among them Chip Young on rhythm guitar, Jerry Carrigan on drums, Roy Madison “Junior” Husky on bass, and David Briggs on piano. The group was led by Lloyd Green, a legendary pedal-steel player and vital presence on nearly all of Pride’s hit recordings. Dallas local Johnny Patterson, who had spent years proving his bonafides as Bob Wills’ lead guitarist, was a last-minute addition to the crew, which played for around 2500 people at Panther Hall in Fort Worth.
The album was recorded in July, 1968, three months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., ignited massive demonstrations across the country. A month later, clashes between protestors and police at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago would prove a turning point in the increasingly fraught battle for civil rights.
There’s no hint of this unrest on the album, of course, but if the atmosphere in the room was not quite as convivial as it seems, that’s mostly because producer Jack Clement had riled the audience by repeatedly stopping the performance to give Pride direction over the sound system. For his part, Pride was incredibly adept at navigating the issue of his presence in the genre, known to neutralize audiences with self-effacing charm and jokes about his “permanent tan.”
“It is a little unique, I admit,” Pride says off-handedly during one interlude, in reference to his singing voice. “But I’ve been singing country music since I was about five-years-old and this is why I sound like I sound.”
He goes on to describe a memorable interaction with a white woman was erupted into near hysterics upon meeting Pride and confirming that the voice on his recordings did, in fact, belong to a Black singer. Later, in a characteristic display of humility, Pride says that the reason “why when I go on stage and try to sing as best as I can” is so that he never has to go back to picking cotton in Mississippi.
Succinct as it is, there’s a sense of spontaneity to the recording, which finds Pride breezing through renditions of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing On My Mind” and Bobby Bare’s “Streets of Baltimore.” Pride displays formidable yodeling skills on “Lovesick Blues” and devastates with “The Image of Me” and “Crystal Chandeliers,” both of which offer country heartache at its most pristine.
The album, which peaked at No. 1 on the country albums chart, delivered a single hit in the form of “Kaw-Liga,” a Hank Williams composition about a “wooden Indian” who falls in love with an “Indian maid” at an antique store. Pride’s version is no better or worse than other covers of the song, which also made an appearance on Loretta Lynn’s unfortunate Your Squaw Is on the Warpath that same year.
Four years earlier, Johnny Cash had taken out a full-page ad in Billboard, rebuking radio stations for refusing to play “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” his empathic ode to the late war hero. Three decades later, indigenous groups’ denouncement of Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw” would serve as a reminder that the genre continued to tread in racist stereotypes of indigenous people.
“Kaw-Liga” aside, Charley Pride In Person is a near-perfect distillation of Pride’s excellence, better even than his consistently great studio albums. He would go on to score an astounding twenty-nine No. 1 hits and became in 1971 the first (and, so far, only) Black artist to win the CMA for Entertainer of the Year, an honor that continues to serve as a yearly celebration of whiteness and maleness in the genre. As other Black artists — including Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton and so many others — continue to break barriers in country music, let’s give Pride’s work the recognition it deserves.