How did Willie Nelson help Charley Pride get his start in country music? How does Texas play a role in Pride’s start? Find out, below.
Willie Nelson’s Beginnings
Nelson was born in the small town of Abbott, Texas, which is home to roughly 400 citizens. However, he performed all around the state and helped form the Austin music scene. He performed at countless Honky Tonks and made a name for himself and arguably became the most sought-after performer. He would often sell out venues any time he played in the great state.
Larry Butler was a big supporter of Nelson and ran more than a handful of clubs around Texas for over fifty years. He owned a venue on Highway 105 called Pat’s Longhorn Ballroom.
A majority of Texas towns were racist in the 1950s and 60s and it was rare to see Black people perform on stages. East Texas had an onslaught of Ku Klux Klan and even a “Hanging Bridge.”
So how does Pride come into the picture? Nelson called Butler about Pride, who did a handful of shows with him. Nelson asked his friend to book him. “Willie and I both had this love for Hank Williams and, according to Willie, this fellow was as good at doing a Hank Williams song as anyone he’d ever seen,” Butler recalled to Houston Press. “Finally, Willie got around to telling me that Charley was a black man.”
Charley Pride and Texas
Butler admitted that Nelson’s request was crazy at the time. “But Willie kept telling me ‘this guy is going to be huge, Larry, and you’re going to love him,’ he continued. “So Pat [Butler’s wife] and I talked it over and decided to try it.” At this point, Pride’s label did not release any promotional materials at the time. He had some minor radio success but nobody knew what he looked like.
Word quickly got out that they scheduled a Black singer at his club and “all hell broke loose.” Butler revealed, “I got death threats, people saying they were going to burn the club down, just all kinds of crazy stuff.” Butler noted that country music was one hundred percent white at that time and there was no somewhat successful Black country musician.
Butler hired the town’s Chief of Police and deputies to be their security alongside seven Liquor Control Board agents.
“But the crowd was rowdy and hollering, acting up, and I honestly didn’t know what was going to happen,” he admitted. “I had the Liquor Board agents and the policemen line up in front of the stage between Charley and the crowd.”
Butler’s band was the backing band for Pride that night alongside Pride’s steel player. “But Charley just looked out at them and said something like ‘howdy, folks, I know I’ve got a mighty dark suntan, I got it picking cotton down in Sledge, Mississippi,'” Butler reminisced. “‘I hope you don’t mind if I sing a few country songs for you.’ And then he kicked off into Hank Williams‘ ‘Lovesick Blues’ and folks were just blown away.” Thankfully, no incidents happened and he quickly won the crowd over.
After the show, the venue’s staff along with the band and performers went out to eat at the White Hut. Back in those days, Black people were not allowed to eat at the front of the restaurant. Sure enough, the waitress said that Pride couldn’t sit up front with them but she spoke with management and they allowed it.
“Funny thing was, the White Hut started letting people sit anywhere they wanted right after that, so that night we sort of broke things down for that whole way of doing things,” Butler shared.
Furthermore, Pride and Butler’s relationship didn’t end there. They worked with Nelson to get him booked at other venues like the historic Panther Hall in Fort Worth.
The Epic Charley Pride Kiss of Approval
During Pride’s early stages, Nelson and Pride both performed at The Big D Jamboree in Dallas. During the concert, Nelson kissed Pride on the mouth to show his solidarity.
“It’s Willie’s way of saying, ‘if I’m kissing him on the lips you’ve gotta be okay with listening to him’,” fellow country musician Neal McCoy told PBS.
In 2018, they were on Nelson’s tour bus when Pride decided to kiss Nelson during an interview. “I got you back. I’ve been wanting to do that for so many years,” Pride told his friend.
Finally, Pride went on to receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement award at the 2020 CMA Awards.