Over time, change in country music has occurred in waves. Some big, some small, but always washing away what had been written in the sand; leaving a blank page for the next generation to write their own stories.
What we are seeing now, though, is less of a change and more of a revelation. In the shadows of the industry, Black people have always been building - as lovers of the genre and innovators of the industry. The smoke is now clearing to unveil the truth in history, with a more accurate narrative being developed.
The lasting impact of Charley Pride runs deeper than all of the country music megastars that gathered last month to honor him. CMT recently celebrated Pride’s life and legacy with a television special.
The celebration of Pride was not only a look back in time to honor his legacy, but also a nod to the future of what country music will look like as we continue to open doors; allowing Black people to participate and also to acknowledge the work they have done along the way. Throughout the special, even behind the scenes, Pride's indelible impact was evident through the inclusion of Black voices, both on stage and off.
Enlisted to conduct interviews for the special was Apple Music Radio host and country singer Riss Palmer. In 2007, Palmer became the first Black female country music artist to hit the charts in 20 years. Over the past year, she has established herself as a force in the industry; not only continuing to write and perform music, but emerging as a vital voice and an engaging storyteller.
“Everybody knocks at the mountain in their own way,” Palmer said in the special. Palmer’s inclusion in this historic tribute planted seeds for other black storytellers and voices to knock at that mountain today.
“Charley Pride impacted almost every space that I occupy as an artist and as a person”, said rising country music star Mickey Guyton, “He made space for people like me”. Guyton moved to Nashville in 2011 and was quickly recognized as a mind-blowing talent, signing to UMG’s Capitol Records Nashville in 2012. In 2020, on a whim, the singer released ‘Black Like Me’, a song that changed the trajectory of her career.
Over the past year, Guyton has proven exactly why she deserves a spot in the country music industry. Following a slew of performances where she has showcased her ability to capture an audience with a sense of poise and control usually expected from artists decades her senior, this show was no different. As Guyton delivered a rendition of Charley’s hit single ‘I’m Just Me’, it was natural to envision a future in which she is the country music giant being honored.
Each time Darius Rucker takes the stage, especially in a context such as this, it is a reminder of what has been stolen from so many Black voices vying for space in country music. Rucker, like Charley, is one of the very few Black artists that has achieved success and longevity in the country music industry. Yet with the talent that both men display, it begs the question - why just them? Both Rucker and Charley have the talent to prove that more Black voices belong in this space.
One of the supporting vocalists that performed during the special was Memphis-born industry veteran Wendy Moten. Moten is a prolific vocalist who is known in many circles simply as “The Voice”. Moten has spent her career lending her talent to many genres while working to craft a space where she felt she belonged: in Nashville with country music.
She’s toured with Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and Vince Gill - she even has a project, I’ve Got You Covered, produced by GIll himself. Given her talent, experience and wisdom, by all accounts, Wendy Moten should be a household name. She is a perfect example of someone who deserves to be walking the path that Charley Pride forged for Black voices in country music, yet the industry has refused to open the door and give her talent its due.
Music journalist and Holler contributor Marcus K. Dowling worked with CMT during the special, providing his industry expertise as a consultant. Marcus is one of the rare Black faces behind the scenes in the country music industry and, having a hand in the creation of this special gave him hope.
“Working on CMT’s Charley Pride special was a level of honor I can’t put into words”, Marcus said. “I saw evidence that country music could evolve. When you see Garth Brooks and Gladys Knight equally in awe of each other’s artistic legacies, Mickey Guyton meeting Rissi Palmer in the flesh for the first time and Reyna Roberts and Robert Randolph collaborate with Luke Combs, the progress upon which reparational and essential change is founded upon becomes undeniable”.
Other Black voices and talents that participated in the special included Jimmie Allen and Gladys Knight. Charley’s own son, Dion, also offered commentary and performance. Anyone that watched who knows a thing or two about grief would find it difficult not to be in awe of Dion’s rendition of ‘Mountain Of Love’, so shortly after the death of his father. Dion was able to bring his pain to the table and turn it into a gift for the world, just as he likely watched his father do, many times over.
When you think about influence and legacy, most of the time it is imagined as a linear approach; passed down from one person to another as a torch of inspiration. What we see here in the case of Charley Pride, illustrated beautifully in the CMT Giants special, is that legacy can be a blanket, stretching out in many different directions.
From Darius Rucker’s performance and Wendy Moten’s supporting vocals to Marcus Dowling’s input - we saw the breadth of ways in which the seeds of Charley’s legacy have blossomed.
But, what we’ve yet to see is meaningful effort from the industry to make sure that Charley’s legacy will not be the last that we honor.
It is only with the watering of these seeds, in all of their forms, that the legacy of Charley Pride will continue to thrive. Without the expansion beyond the center of the stage, many will not make it to that point at all, then that influence dies.
The celebrity created from Charley’s talent was surely a start; a showcase of what Black artists can bring to the table. But without the inclusion of Black talent in all facets of the industry, that inclusion is hollow and performative.
This was an opportunity to preview not only what a more inclusive stage may look like - but a more inclusive industry as a whole.
CMT Giants: Charley Pride is available to watch via Paramount+ in the USA. For highlights from the show, head here.