Saturday, April 14, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

As an experiment, I decided to hold down the "a" key on my keyboard for the length of time Charley Pride holds this extaordinary note on his version of the Hank Williams tune, "Kaw-Liga." Here goes:


I daresay this version is the best I've ever heard, not least for the weird and woozy pedal steel. This is from a truly awesome record called In Person from 1969, recorded live at a honky tonk in Ft. Worth, Texas, called Panther Hall. Aside from the pristine quality of the recording, it's also a fascinating historical document because Pride addresses the obvious: What's this black dude doing in a white honky tonk during the Civil Rights era? In his introduction to "Lovesick Blues," he acknowledges what people are thinking: "Why you don' sound like you s'pposed to sound," as he puts it in his aw-shucks patter. "It is a little unique, I have to admit." After a careful anecdote that requires a lot of filling in the blanks (about a white gal who apparently discovers he's black at a concert), the issue of Pride's authenticity as a country singer seems to be put to rest. Even so, you still can't help but suspect that Pride is a giant PR scheme by the Nashville record industry to appear progressive and assuage concern that "country" is code for "whites only." But in the final number, Charley Pride does something pretty damned sneaky: He closes with a version of "Cotton Fields" by Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a., Leadbelly, subtly fusing black and white "country" without anyone the wiser. He says "for a couple'a three reasons," the song reminds him of "what I don't ever want to go back to doin' again." Considering the true roots of country music (the banjo is an African instrument, after all), it's the country-est thing he's played all night. And the crowd goes nuts.

"Kaw-Liga" - Charley Pride

"Dialogue" + "Lovesick Blues" - Charley Pride

"Cotton Fields" - Charley Pride

Interesting side note: Pride's black identity certainly wasn't addressed on the album cover.

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