The death of Charley Pride left a giant hole in the heart of country music. He was the genre’s first African-American star, and decades later, still one of a handful of people of color to have any kind of lasting success as a country singer. Despite enduring a stream of racist behavior from country music fans, radio professionals and even his fellow singers when he broke into the business, Pride put together a discography that stands up well against anybody of his era. “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” and “Is Anybody Going to San Antone?” are pure country gold.
Pride also had strong ties in the world of baseball, of course. The Mississippi native was a teenager when Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball and set out to make his own mark in the game. He pitched for the Memphis Red Sox and Birmingham Black Barons in the early 1950s and played briefly in the low minors on a couple of occasions. His talent for singing got him noticed, and he frequently entertained fans before ballgames and his teammates after them. Even when he established himself as a singer, he never strayed too far from his love of the game. He could sometimes be seen in uniform at spring training for various teams and even bought a small stake in the Texas Rangers in 2010. He was on the Board of Directors of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Pride died on December 12 at the age of 86 from complications of COVID 19. It’s an awful loss on a year that has piled heartbreak on top of heartbreak. It’s also an infuriating loss, as Pride was asked to take a dangerous risk and perform at an indoor music awards show in the height of a pandemic, located in a city that’s pretty much given up any hope of containing the virus. And the association that should have been looking out for his best interests was the one that sent him there.
Let’s talk about Nashville, which is one of my favorite cities in the country. You couldn’t pay me enough money to visit there right now, because it’s just not safe. All summer long, Nashville has become one of the capitals of the anti-mask, “muh freedom” movements. All summer long, some of Nashville’s most popular tourist bars have been fighting the city government about mask-wearing and occupancy regulations. On most any weekend in Nashville this past summer, and you would have seen a throng of maskless partiers outside the bars on Lower Broadway – just a frightening display of blissful ignorance and the perfect breeding ground for a super-spreader event.
To absolutely nobody’s surprise, a summer full of drunken hedonism has given way to a fall and winter of nightmarish COVID statistics. This chart from the New York Times (see below) represents the “hot spots” for COVID-19, updated on December 19. The darker red the block, the worse things are going. Take a look at Tennessee, especially when compared to the states around it. There isn’t a safe place in the entire state. If Typhoid Mary was a state, she would be Tennessee.
Let’s look at November 11, 2020, as an example. On November 11, there were 3,586 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Tennessee, according to New York Times data. There were 1,904 hospitalizations from COVID-19 in the state and 88 reported deaths. In all instances, those numbers were part of a rising trend. Illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths have soared ever since, to the point that Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Lee – a huge proponent of the “economy first, human life second” theory – has started to beg for mask-wearing (without setting a mandate, as doing so would involve actual leadership). There hasn’t been a good time to be in Tennessee since the start of summer. November 11, though, was a bad day.
Also on November 11, this happened:
Charley Pride and Jimmie Allen sang a duet at the Country Music Association Awards as part of Pride receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award. That video is Pride’s last public performance. One month and a day later, he was dead.
The entire CMA Awards show was designed to be completely detached from reality. “It’s been a year, y’all. But for three hours next Wednesday on ABC, this is a no drama zone. More than 20 one-of-a-kind performances will help you forget the weight of the world for just a little while,” it announced on its social media feed. That meant no talk about politics, no mention of COVID, and nothing at all to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. It later had to back down from that position when people complained that it was censoring artists, but it’s clear the CMA wanted to create the most out-of-touch awards show in history, and it succeeded in that aspect. Look in the crowd and look on the stage. Try to find even one mask. The Dallas Observer pointed out that the theme of the evening appeared to be “herd immunity.”
Despite its best efforts, the CMA Awards could not negate reality. Several of the scheduled performers, including Florida-Georgia Line, Lady A and Jenee Fleenor, had to cancel because of COVID-19 illnesses or exposure. But for those who could attend, the entire night consisted of non-mask compliance in an indoor venue that featured plenty of singing, which is known to increase the spread of the virus. Incidentally, scientists have determined that public singing can be a safe activity — as long as protective measures are taken. Go back to that video and see if you can identify any protective measures.
Thanks to the fact that contact tracing is something that the U.S. just doesn’t do, we can’t conclusively prove that Pride contracted the novel Coronavirus on his trip to Nashville and back. But the timing is too great to ignore – he flew from Texas to Nashville around November 10, flew home around the 12th, was hospitalized in late November with what his family thought was pneumonia and died on December 12.
The day Pride died, the CMA and Pride’s representatives issued the following statement: “Everyone affiliated with the CMA Awards followed strict testing protocols outlined by the city health department and unions. Charley was tested prior to traveling to Nashville. He was tested upon landing in Nashville, and again on show day, with all tests coming back negative. After returning to Texas following the CMA Awards, Charley again tested negative multiple times. All of us in the Country Music community are heartbroken by Charley’s passing. Out of respect for his family during their grieving period, we will not be commenting on this further.”
Testing by itself is not a preventative measure against COVID-19. Given the false negative rates, some of the rapid tests aren’t even that useful as tests.
Kevin Bailey, Pride’s manager and bass player, defended the CMA and its protocols and criticized those who questioned the timing. “I think it’s unfortunate that people are out there crusading to stir up some mud,” he told the Dallas News. He also noted that the entertainer and his wife were very cautious about staying home and wearing masks. If that is the case, then the performance at the CMA Awards looks even more suspicious, as it was such an outlier of his normal routine.
Charley Pride was a grown man and was more than capable of making his own decisions. Nobody twisted his arm to make the appearance. However, Charley Pride was an old-school country singer, and the Country Music Association is the primary organization in country music. Pride was the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 1971 and the Male Vocalist in 1971 and ’72. Country music’s other association, the Academy of Country Music, didn’t award him with anything until he received a Pioneer Award in 1994. When racists were questioning if Pride even belonged in country music, the CMA awarded him with their top honors. So when that same association asked him to travel to Nashville in 2020 to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award, naturally he did what he had to do to get there.
There’s nothing to be done about it now. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and the worst happened. But I can’t help but feel frustration of the senselessness of it all. We’ve figured out how to do everything from concerts to late-night talk shows through Zoom or Facebook Live. There was no reason for Charley Pride to go to Nashville when the award could have been presented remotely. If it was absolutely necessary for him to sing, he and his band could have used one of the currently shuttered music venues in Texas or a local TV studio. Sure, it would have taken a little luster off the moment, but there wasn’t a soul watching who wouldn’t have understood. In the CMA’s attempt to defy reality and present a “drama-free” awards show, it betrayed one of its legends.