Marty Stuart Remembers Charley Pride: ‘The Grandest of All My Country Music Heroes’

Charley Pride’s death on Saturday from complications of Covid-19 resulted in an outpouring from artists including Dolly Parton, Maren Morris, Darius Rucker, and Marty Stuart. Stuart also honored Pride regularly while he was living, inviting the country legend on his RFD-TV show more than any other artist. After Pride’s death, Stuart and his wife, singer Connie Smith, posted a tribute saying, “I was so proud to call Mr. Pride my friend. He was, and will forever be one of the grandest of all my country music heroes.” Here, Stuart tells us about his relationship with the late singer. 

I’ll tell you the first time I heard his voice. He’s from Sledge, Mississippi. I’m from Philadelphia, Mississippi. So when I was a little boy, he was one of those heroes — like one of our guys that made it. I was standing in the living room of the family home in front of our console stereo. And there was a country-music disc jockey named Marty Collins. He played a Charley Pride song called “All I Have to Offer You Is Me.” He announced it as Charley Pride’s new release. When the record was over, Marty Collins came back on the air, and you could tell he had been crying. And he said, “I believe I need to hear that one more time.” And he played it again. And I stood there kind of frozen in front of the stereo, kind of mesmerized by the sound of his voice and that recording and the song. He just had it all. 

And that’s when he went inside of my life and stayed there. As time has gone on, he has remained one of the absolute grandest of all my old country-music heroes, and he went on to become a friend. Connie and I were going down to Mississippi last week, we were listening to one of his records. And I said, “You know what? This is my official know-it-all opinion: If you were introducing somebody to the classic sound of country music that has never heard the Nashville Sound before, the first five Charley Pride records, Skeeter Davis’ recording of “The End of the World,” Connie Smith’s recording of “Run Away Little Tears” “Burning a Hole in My Mind” sets the standard for everything else. And that is as good as it ever got, that little batch of records right there.  

I met Charley probably in the early Nineties. I always called him Sledge, being from Sledge, Mississippi. And the Mississippi thing got us started. When I did my television show, we did 156 episodes. I think I invited him more than anybody else. As far as I was concerned, he could have come every week, cause [my band] the Superlatives, we worked harder for him than I think anybody else in getting the arrangements to those songs absolutely spot-on to the way they were recorded. And so when he walked out there, he could rest in the sounds that made him great and made us fall in love with him. And as time went on, he just kind of became a regular fixture, coming and going around here.

Oh, man, he was fun. He loved astrology. This is one of his parlor gags, when he would meet somebody: “When were you born?” First, he would try to guess it, but if he didn’t you tell him. And ten years later, when he would meet you again, he’d say “You were born April 16th,” or whatever, you know? So he was that. He was just truly a folk hero, an American original.

The fact that he was the first African-American to reach the superstar spotlight, that’ll get talked about a lot and it should. But the bottom line is that he was just as great as anybody that ever stood up there to sing a country-music song. He was an absolute authentic, great country singer, whose voice came from the heart. That’s who he was.  And that’s what he leaves behind. 

“[Cowboy Jack Clement] knew there was no way he was going to sell a black cat singing country music to blue-collar white folk”

Jack Clement needs to be talked about as well. Jack Clement was his original producer. Cowboy was the guy that hit the button on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Great Balls of Fire” at Sun. And he did all the Johnny Cash records. I’ve always said that Cowboy was ready when Charley Pride came through the door because he was used to that low voice of Johnny Cash’s. He was used to sparse arrangements. But Cowboy was such a poet. If you could listen to Jack’s demos, and if you knew Cowboy, you listened to those first Charley Pride records; Charley Pride is basically playing the role of Cowboy Jack Clement. And Cowboy, when he first had those [Pride] recordings, he knew that in that particular political climate, there was no way he was going to sell a black cat singing country music to blue-collar white folk in a good-old-boy society. So Cowboy, again, had a parlor trick, ’cause Cowboy was a bit of a renegade. Cowboy would bring in these people and play them the recordings in person, and of course their jaws were on the floor, and then he would show them a picture, and they couldn’t believe it. That’s how he got through the good-old-boy system. It was the greatness of the songs, the performance, the sounds. And I think Charley being the person that he was, he knew how to disarm people when that was an issue back in those days. I think I heard him tell one time that there was a guy in this town named Faron Young. Faron was a very opinionated, colorful character. And somebody told Charley early on, “This is gonna be rough. You get past Faron Young, you can get past any of them.” So Charley said, “Well, let’s go take care of it.” And he went and met Faron, and the two of them hit it off. And I think Faron approved by kissing him on the cheek or something in public, so that was a big thing. You know, Charley disarmed him.

The magic of those records was the songs, of course. And two other people that really need to be talked about is the steel guitar player, Lloyd Green. And the other guy who was kind of a hidden weapon was the great piano player Hargus “Pig” Robbins. That nucleus of those guys right there, that’s what made those recordings so special and great. I asked Cowboy one time, “The first time you heard Charley’s voice come back to those big speakers, what did you think?” He said, “I was surprised. It had more depth, and had more nuances down there than I had first imagined.” He said, “I thought it was gonna be kind of like Johnny Cash’s big sound, in the middle of the speakers.” He said that there were dimensions to Charley’s voice than he had never heard before. I thought that was a really cool observation.

He played a Fender Coronado guitar in his heyday when he was first starting. And that guitar was offered to me from a collector about this time last year. I did all my research and found out that it was absolutely Charley’s — so I bought the guitar for a goofy amount of money that Charley couldn’t believe. And we hung out together at the Ryman Auditorium in January of this year. I took the guitar down there, he played it again. He was scratching his head about how much I paid for it. I said, “I know, but I would’ve given twice as much.” That was January of this year, the last time we had any real time together. And it was pretty cool.

When he passed away, my wife Connie cried yesterday, and I did too. She said, “He was so important.’ And I went, “You’re right.” And I think Charley is one of those people who was just kind of quiet under the radar the last few years of his life, but man, you have to remember when he would go to Dublin, or England. The audience sang every word to every single song, and it was an incredible thing to behold, the love that he was given. I hope people take this opportunity to go and listen to the records and discover how truly essential and how absolutely astounding and profound his body work is. The first seven- or eight-year stretch is a mighty piece of business. I just want people to go to his music and discover not just the fact that he was the first African-Americans to make it to the superstar spotlight, but what a profound country music artist he was.