Charley Pride at 84 looks as fit as ever, with broad shoulders bolstering a hefty, but not overweight, frame. The former pro baseball pitching prospect still appears to have enough grip and grind to fire one down the middle of the strike zone, and would certainly not embarrass himself if he threw the ceremonial first pitch before a Major League game. Small wonder why the Country Music Hall of Fame member can keep up a busy touring schedule that would test the mettle of most half his age and never even hints at retiring. In fact, he has a new record to tout.
On July 7, Pride releases his first full-length studio album in six years, appropriately titled “Music in My Heart.” The record includes the title track along with his cover of Merle Haggard’s “The Way It Was in ’51” and “You Lied to Me,” written by his longtime buddy Bill Anderson. “I had never recorded a song by Bill,” he states with some amazement. “But I am happy to have one on here.”
Pride shares another reason to be pleased. Plainly speaking, he can still bring it vocally, and that’s not his assessment. He hears it from fans after every show. “People come up to me and say, ‘You haven’t lost nothing. Your voice is just as good as when you were 30 years old.’ I’m not sure about that last part,” he laughs, “but you keep hearing that and you mark it down. I’m sure people come to a show thinking, ‘What is he going to sound like after all these years?’ So, it’s nice when they tell you that they still like what you do.”
Pride maintains equal enthusiasm for his work. Recording is very much in the ball game for him, despite the notion that he hasn’t cut an album since “Choices” in 2011. “That’s not anything we meant to do deliberately,” Pride says of the gap between records. “That’s just how long it took. I like recording. They have so many digital things now in the studio and it’s just wonderful. In my time,” he continues after a pause, “the 24-track studio was the big thing.”
A purist at heart, he admits that he still prefers to “stick to the basics” when recording. “What I would love to do is cut things the way we used to at [RCA] Studio B. That’s where I wanted to cut this album, but it didn’t work out that way. I liked the studio we used, though.” The famed Studio B was home to Pride’s classic singles “All I Have to Offer You (Is Me),” which became his first No. 1 hit, “The Easy Part’s Over,” his signature tune “Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’” and many others. During the height of his career in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Pride scored 29 No. 1 country singles, placing him in the top 10 all time.
For “Music in My Heart,” Pride includes a selection from the “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’” writer, the late Ben Peters, “Natural Feeling for You.” Pride also includes a pair from one of his favorite writers, “Country” Johnny Mathis (as opposed to the “Chances Are” singer): the title tune and “Make Me One More Memory.” Pride recorded some early tunes by Mathis, but amazingly didn’t realize it at the time. “My producer ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement picked every song I did,” Pride recalls. “So, a lot of times, I didn’t know who the writer was. All that mattered to me was do I like the song and is it my style. I was trying to remember if I ever met Country Johnny Mathis and I’m sure I did at some point. I have done a lot of songs by him.”
As for “The Way It Was in ’51,” Pride notes, “I didn’t know Merle wrote that. I knew he recorded it. That was one of the songs they sent to me and I liked it. They sent me about 40 songs,” he adds, “and we kept 13 on there.”
It has been a remarkable career for the Mississippi native, who achieved his success against the challenging and often cruelest obstacle of all, his race. He remains the only African-American to win the CMA Entertainer of the Year honor, taking home the prize in 1971. His life story would beg for a movie treatment and such a project has been rumored for some time. About six years ago, reports surfaced that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was slated to star as Pride, but that has never come to fruition.
“The movie of my life should have been made by now,” Pride concedes. “For what I have accomplished, and in the music that I have achieved it in, and the uniqueness that I am, you would think it would be a good story.” It’s a point that’s tough to argue and perhaps we’ll see that movie one day, whether on the big screen or the smaller confines of television. Until then, Pride will keep motoring along, on the road and in the studio.
Pride celebrated 50 years of entertaining in 2016 and, as such, would have every reason to slow down or hang up his touring hat altogether. But don’t place your bets on the latter. “I don’t want to retire,” he says flatly. “We try to do about 45 dates a year, and we still go to Canada and England and places like that. I am blessed to have this new album out, and I like what has come out of this record. I think it is traditional Charley Pride.” No need to ask for anything more.