Each week for the next year, Wide Open Country is highlighting a country album that played a pivotal role in the genre. These records come from every corner and decade of the genre: from classic country, to the outlaw movement, to modern mainstream hitmakers and everything in between. But the one thing they have in common? They deserve a deeper listen, from front to back.
Week Four: Charley Pride, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs
What can you say about a man who both shattered race boundaries at the height of racial tensions and delivered timeless country music? Quite a bit. Charley Pride didn't simply ascend to the height of country music stardom. He did it in the face of racist record execs and after already being called a "washed up" athlete. He became an inspiration for anybody who didn't fit the stereotypical "mold" of country music, both for artists and fans.
But let's focus specifically on Charley Pride's amazing work on his 1971 album, Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs.
Why Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs Is Important: Pride spent years working through minor league and semi-pro baseball circuits. At one point, Pride and a teammate went to another team in exchange for a team bus. He spent two years in the military before eventually playing baseball in Montana. While there, the team manager had him perform for 15 minutes before every game to attract fans. Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs is the culmination of a lifetime's worth of hardships packed into 10 years of trying to "make it."
This record established Pride as a true force in country music four years after his breakthrough single "Just Between You And Me" earned him a Grammy nomination. On Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs, Pride exhibited a reverence for classic country unlike any of his contemporaries. The album also featured "Kiss An Angel Good Mornin'," which became his biggest hit ever and pop crossover smash. The project won Pride a Grammy award as well as the Entertainer Of The Year and Vocalist Of The Year from the Country Music Association. As you can imagine, those were both firsts for a black man in a predominantly white genre.
What To Listen For: Even in 1971, pop had already made its way firmly into the country genre. From John Denver to Elvis Presley, plenty of artists outside of the country world established a serious presence within it. But Charley Pride came in hot with an unapologetically traditional country song and achieved the opposite -- pop success.
Drums are scarce on the record. Much of the bass is of the standup variety, not electric. His subtle drawl rolls sweetly off his lower register. And you even get a hint of 1950s era Buddy Holly in his vowels and delivery. Pay close attention to his "ay" and "oo" sounds. That's straight Buddy Holly right there. At the same time, using piano heavily in the production set pride apart from much of the country herd.
Songs like "I'm Beginning To Believe My Own Lies" rank among the best country lyrics. (If not the most underrated). Speaking plainly, many ignorant country music fans still couldn't believe a black sharecropper better represented the traditional sound they grew up on than other radio acts.
Final Take: Charley Pride is one of the most successful country artists ever. And yet he rarely comes up in the top five names when we discuss legends of the genre. If we can't change that overall, perhaps you can change that personally. A lot of people nowadays don't even realize the wealth of material Pride recorded. Charley Pride Sings Heart Songs is vintage Pride and a great place to start.