(Pictured: Charley Pride on The Johnny Cash Show, circa 1969.)
The PBS series American Masters, which has been profiling prominent American artists (along with the occasional athlete and journalist) since 1986, is generally awesome, and not enough people talk about how awesome it is. Last month, the show spotlighted Sammy Davis Jr., and Charley Pride during the same week. Davis, whose array of talents is matched by very few in the history of American showbiz, came off as a man always desperate for approval, not just of the audience but of his peers, and willing to make questionable choices in hopes of receiving it. That he stoically endured countless hours of racist abuse onstage from Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin indicates to me that he felt it was part of the price he had to pay for their friendship, and by extension, for his popularity with white America. His literal embrace of Richard Nixon feels as if it came from the same needy place.
As for Pride, somebody said on Twitter the other day that the only person who doesn’t think Charley Pride is one of the coolest cats on Earth appears to be Charley Pride himself. His music is the essence of country, and his journey—from Mississippi sharecropper to Montana-based professional baseball player to stardom in a genre where he literally stood alone—is the kind of biography nobody will ever have again. His American Masters profile was one of the best hours of television I’ve watched in ages, and you can watch it right here.
Back in 2011, I wrote about one of Pride’s iconic hit records, and how it told a truth that a lot of today’s country-music fans don’t want to acknowledge about themselves. What follows is a piece of that post.
There’s a whole subgenre of country music devoted to songs about the simple pleasures of small town or rural life, songs that idealize the places where the high-school team nickname is painted on the water tower, where everybody believes in Jesus, etc. It’s easy to view the popularity of this sort of thing as a reaction to the world we live in. Compared to our harried urban existence, with its tenuous prosperity and impermanent personal relationships, and the way it randomly deals out fortune and tragedy, a world bounded by solid, simple, unchanging values is extremely attractive. It’s no wonder people caught in the former might want to gravitate to the latter. Because music has such power in our lives, songs about those values grab hard and hold on tight.
But, if given the chance, would people really give up modern urbanized life for a country idyll? Would they give up satellite TV and the Internet for sitting on the front porch at sunset? Would they give up the multiplex for the fishing hole, the megamart for the small-town general store, the sports bar with HD flat-screens for the Dew Drop Inn? Some might, but others may find that in their souls, they’re not so down-home after all.
There’s a song about this. Charley Pride, who’s as down-home as they come, recorded “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore,” which sounds like a nostalgic encomium to a simple life on the farm—beautiful rural vistas, Uncle Ben milking the cows, Mama in the kitchen. But it’s revealed that Uncle Ben is working the farm because Daddy is working a second job in town “to pay our bill at the grocery store.” And in the final verse, Pride says that when he thinks about his childhood and his old hometown, he doesn’t miss them like before. “It’s nice to think about it,” goes the refrain, “Maybe even visit, but I wonder could I live there anymore?”
“Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” isn’t a postmodern song recorded recently—it was a #1 country single for Pride in the summer of 1970. And it’s a cautionary tale for anybody who finds themselves tempted by what looks like the simple life.
The days we romanticize as simpler and easier were neither. A lot of the trouble we get into, both in our personal lives and as a nation trying to govern itself, comes from our failure to remember.