Heritage Runs Deep
by Brian Mansfield
Charley Pride gets tired of speaking for black artists in country music. And real tired of race-based questions.
"I would hope that there would come a point where we'd have to cease asking those kinds of questions of people like myself," said Pride, 59, at a Nashville party celebrating From Where I Stand: The Black Experience in Country Music.
The scope of the three-disc compilation will surprise the many people who think Pride is the only significant black artist country music has produced. The 60-track, three-disc set, released last month, suggests a larger influence - both of black artists on this music and of the genre itself on the larger musical world.
Pride, who recorded 60 Top 40 country hits between 1966 and 1990, has the largest presence on the collection, but he comes in halfway through the period covered by the set. Its first disc encompasses Southern rural string bands like the Mississippi Sheiks, the great folk singer Leadbelly and DeFord Bailey, a popular harmonica player on the Grand Ole Opry from 1926 to 1941. It includes lesser-known country hitmakers like Cleve Francis, Big Al Downing and Stoney Edwards, plus R&B acts like Al Green, the Supremes and Aaron Neville and Dobie Gray, who've all recorded country material. Gray, who made Nashville his home in 1978, sings the title cut. From Where I Stand was also the first single and the title of his Capitol-EMI-America debut album, recorded in Nashville in 1986.
Nashville's Country Music Foundation (CMF), which produced From Where I Stand for Warner Bros., began work in earnest on the project in 1994, spurred by Francis' major-label recordings and a report indicating that more than 20% of the country radio audience was black.
"There was so much to choose from", says CMF associate director Kyle Young, who oversaw the project. "My biggest fear is, for some reason, those performers might get lost- 100 years from now - from the continuum."
Especially troubling for Young is the absence of any Ray Charles recordings from either of his groundbreaking Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music albums. "We tried everything we could" to license I Can't Stop Loving You and Busted, two country songs that were pop hits for Charles during 1962 and 1963, Young says.
But the CMF had to settle for just Charles' rendition of I'm Movin' On, recorded for Atlantic during the late 1950s. A liner note directs buyers of From Where I Stand to one of Charles' collections.
Pride would like to think this collection would put to rest any issues about the commercial viability of black country performers. But, he acknowledges, "it's going to take more than that, because of so many aspects of our society that are ingrained with separatism practices - music, the workplaces, everywhere."