a literary review
Charley Pride wanted to be a baseball player. Thankfully, that didn’t work out. Instead, he ended up being one of the world’s greatest country singers. Those two parts of his life were forever entwined, though.
His singing career really began while he was a player in the Negro Leagues. His team would double his salary on the field if he’d sing for 15 minutes before each game.
In 2010, I was on tour in the western US. An early set time coupled with the time difference meant we got back to our hotel in time to watch the Texas Rangers’ World Series game. Charley was part-owner of the team and a longtime fan. I was thrilled to find that Pride was set to perform the national anthem. The drummer and guitarist in the band I was touring with were seasoned musicians, but mostly blues and rock guys. Neither of them knew who Pride was, and they did not share my excitement.
Now the national anthem is not an easy song. For whatever reason, it just didn’t work for Charley that night, and my bandmates mocked me and one of my favorite singers a bit. That turned into a long night of me playing them live performances of Charley Pride on YouTube.
Maybe because we were Detroiters, we didn’t talk about the fact that Charley was Black. It just didn’t come up. My bandmates did, however, learn a lot, and became better-rounded musicians for it. As I sit here now in Nashville, writing this on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Charley’s Blackness does bear mentioning. It is a part of his story. It is a part of the Black Lives Matter story. It is a significant part of American history. The fact that Charley is one of only three Black artists ever inducted into the Grand Ole Opry is just a piece of his legend. There are plenty of places to learn about this history. I have read a lot of it, but could never claim to understand how it felt for him: the struggles he went through, the insults, the trials and the hardships. I mention them because to not do so would leave out an important part of who he was.
I’ve worked as a musician in Nashville since the mid-2000s and lived here full-time for several years. And yet I have only gone to the Grand Ole Opry one time. A few years back, I was offered tickets to see one of eight Opry anniversary shows. As I scanned the nightly lineups of performers, the choice was simple and clear: I would go the night Charley Pride was set to sing.
We had great seats, and the whole show was a joy, some artists surprising me with talents I didn’t know they had. I was there for one reason, though, and one reason alone. I have a significant vinyl collection that is replete with records by Pride. I have often joked that I may have more of his records than his own mother ever did. And I wanted to see Charley Pride sing in person.
He was fantastic, of course, vocals perfect, holding command of the stage and smiling ear to ear. That smile on his face, despite the sadness of the songs, is something I will always take joy in. With a voice like that, how could anyone hold their smile inside? It had to be shared. With the whole world.
Charley Pride did share his talents. As a onetime player and longtime lover of the game myself, I feel bad that an injury took the “mustard” off his pitching arm. And yet I am also glad it happened. Sure, he made a couple all-star teams as a player, but if he had been really successful in achieving his baseball dreams, we would have missed out on what he was to become: one of the world’s greatest country stars. That would have been sadder than any song he ever sang.
JD Mackinder is a Detroit native and Nashville resident. Road dog would best define JD, as he has over 28 years of international touring experience with acts such as Matt Woods and the Natural Disasters, Deadstring Brothers, Whitey Morgan and the 78s and many more. Currently, Mackinder is working on new material with his band, Nick Dittmeier and the Sawdusters as they patiently await a post-pandemic world in which to tour.
Photo Credit: Alexis Faye