Not So Down Home After All

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(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. 

5 responses

  1. My mother grew up in the Midwest during the Depression, one of 7 kids. Her parents
    came from Croatia and weren’t exactly welcomed here. She used to say “Everybody
    talks about the good old days. What was so damn GOOD about ’em?!!!!”

  2. Italicized political and social commentary at the bottom of the post duly noted and on the nose.

    As for the practicalities of the song Charlie sang 49 years ago, been there. I was born in Los Angeles, but at age 9, shortly after my dad died, we moved to Bishop, California, 270 miles north of L.A. in the Eastern High Sierra. Population 3,500.

    We had family there—I’d been going there several times a year since birth, so it was kinda like home, but it was also massive culture shock, even at age 9. I came to appreciate and even love it.

    After 36 years out of California, I came back five and a half years ago, and now live in Sacramento. I’ve had time to visit both Bishop and Ukiah, a town of 15,000 north of San Francisco where I worked in 1976-77 and first met the woman who is now my wife.

    There are ancestral ties and nine years worth of my own life in Bishop. I can honestly say I never had a bad day in the 22 months I spent in Ukiah.

    But those visits (repeated in the case of Ukiah because my wife still has family there) told me I absolutely could not in either place anymore. In fact, I could picture myself living in present-day Los Angeles a whole lot sooner—and I’ve been gone from there 54 years.

    The good news is that Sacramento (and suburban Folsom, where we live) is the Goldilocks solution—just right.

    I wonder if Neil Diamond was listening to Charlie Pride before he wrote “I Am…I Said”?

    1. For a long time, I wanted to go back to my hometown and be on the radio. Had I done it in the 80s, it might have been OK. By the 90s, it seemed to me like the place was going to seed and I didn’t want to go home anymore, and I still don’t. However, I realize now that the place wasn’t going to seed. The changes I saw seemed negative only compared to the way I had idealized the place from afar, visiting a half-dozen times a year, if that. For the people living there, the way the town changed represented necessary evolution into the future. I suspect it’s doing about as well as a town of 10,000 can, in a world that grows ever more hostile to small things everywhere.

      1. JB: I had the same dream—mine even went as far as owning the station where I started.

        But things have changed. And my hometown and my wife’s are great examples of how differently things can go.

        Bishop’s population never changes much because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power own the land (read “The Rape of the Owens Valley” and watch “Chinatown”) for the water rights. Development is very carefully controlled. It’s been 3,500 people, give or take, for 60 years.

        But, when I was a kid, the local economy could support a main street full of mom and pop businesses, four banks and six car dealers.

        Today, there are more than 20 empty storefronts, one physical bank and two car dealers. If you need something other than a Ford, Honda or Toyota, your next stop is 170 miles away in Carson City, Nevada.

        The KMart that decimated the mom and pop stores is itself on the brink of extinction—despite the town not having a Walmart or Costco. And this is in a town that is 40 miles south of one of the West’s most popular skiing destinations—Mammoth Mountain. And 60 miles from the east gate to Yosemite.

        Ukiah, on the other hand, has grown from 10,000 to 15,000 people since I left there 42 years ago. That’s pretty slow growth, but it’s growth. And while there are some empty storefronts along State Street, that’s largely because the new development has shifted east, to be closer to the U.S. 101 Freeway. And, because Ukiah is in (or at least on the fringes) of wine country, there’s money. Not Napa Valley money, but money. In-N-Out and Costco have both opened in Ukiah in the last two years.

        Funny enough—the radio station in Bishop is still live and local, despite what appears to be the drying up of local business. My old station in Ukiah is running automated oldies.

  3. I had the pleasure of meeting Charley Pride about 5 years ago when I taught and sometimes gigged with one of his grandchildren (also a guitar player). As you would expect, Mr. Pride was the most gracious, unassuming star you could ever hope to meet. The stories I heard about the famous people that would drop by “Gram-Gram’s” house in Dallas would melt your brain.

    As far as “Wonder Could I Live There Anymore” goes, I always say “If the good old days were so good, why did things change?” After a lifetime of living in small towns, I recently moved to the nation’s 7th most populous city and I’m loving the cultural opportunities offered in a large city (my waistline can testify to the number of fine restaurants in the area, as well). At this point, I can’t imagine moving back to small town life. To be honest, as I age, quick accessibility to quality healthcare has become a priority as has proximity to family and an airport. And you kids get off my lawn.

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