Garth Brooks Puts the Spotlight on His Friend and Hero Charley Pride: 'Just Gifted Beyond Belief'
Garth Brooks sheepishly admits that even he had his own singing-into-the-hairbrush moments as a kid. But he's not embarrassed at all to say who made him succumb to that classic rite of pretend stardom.
The country titan clearly remembers standing in front of the mirror and "wanting to be Charley Pride."
Never a stranger to a spotlight, Brooks instead volunteered to hold one on Monday, firmly focusing it on Pride and presenting Pride's son Dion with a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Industry Association of America. Pride died of COVID-19 complications last December, a month after accepting a similar award from the Country Music Association.
"I love anything that he did," Brooks, 59, told his audience at the Nashville event, "because he was one of those guys that didn't ever give you 99 percent. It was a hundred percent or nothing ... And I think that was something that you kind of learned as a kid, even before you got in the business: 'Son, if you're going to do this, don't leave any of you out. Let's bring everything you got.' That's what ... he specialized in."
Brooks, of course, doesn't claim to be a historical expert on the country legend, who broke racial barriers as he racked up 29 No. 1 hits and 70 million album sales, beginning in the 1960s. But in a half-hour discussion with Vanderbilt writer-in-residence Alice Randall, who teaches on music and African American topics, Brooks did make a clear case that he's among Pride's greatest and most thoughtful admirers.
Brooks also had the chops — and vast musical memory bank — to regale the audience, gathered in Nashville's brand-new National Museum of African American Music, with luscious snippets of such Pride hits as "Mountain of Love," "Roll on Mississippi" and "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'."
With "Roll on Mississippi," Brooks offered a quick course on the expanse of Pride's vocal range, showing how he had to go up a key to hit Pride's low notes, but that left him reaching for the high notes.
"The guy's a freak of nature," Brooks exulted. "He was just gifted beyond belief and was so humble about his gifts. I've seen people that are gifted one-tenth as much as him that had a head bigger than God himself. But this guy was just humble, fun and talented ... You try and sing his stuff. Good luck, Hoss."
Brooks noted that "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'," along with "Somone Loves You Honey," were favorites for his mother, who herself had a country recording career in the 1950s.
"Those two would make my mom cry all the time," Brooks said. "It's funny — when you listen to his vocal and you hear me as an artist sing ... he's all in it. I'm amazed how much he's in it."
But besides being an idol and inspiration, Pride also became Brooks' friend. The two bonded over their love for baseball, as well as music. Pride had a notable career in the Negro American League and in minor baseball leagues before a career-ending injury; he went on to become a co-owner of the Texas Rangers. Brooks, who attended college on an athletic scholarship, famously signed on to spring training with several Major League Baseball teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
While with the San Diego Padres, Brooks recalled, he got together with Pride during practice. "He was with the Rangers," Brooks said. "We met on the mound while the young guys were waking up and we sat there and just talked. And this guy was still taking cuts at 70 years old. I mean, he's still out there swinging. I won't be able to get out of bed at 70, you know. And this guy is unbelievable."
Pride was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000, and Brooks followed him in 12 years later. After that, Brooks remembered, they invariably sat together at Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
"I don't know why, but they always paired me, so I got to sit next to Charley-frickin'-Pride in a house where he belonged and I didn't," Brooks said. "I'm the new guy, right? This guy is an icon."
And, apparently, a playful one. Brooks especially enjoyed recalling a lull during one ceremony when Pride leaned over and sang the first bars of the Brooks hit "That Summer," and then "he'd just smile."
"I'm like Charley Pride's singing something that I had something to do with!" Brooks said. "It's pretty cool."
Most significantly, Brooks was also responsible for what turned out to be among Pride's final recordings, "Where the Cross Don't Burn," a duet that appears on Brooks' latest album, Fun.
Brooks told how he thought he'd missed the chance to collaborate with his hero when an Internet rumor swirled in July 2020 that Pride had died. For 10 years, Brooks had held onto a story song — about an unlikely friendship between a little white boy and an old Black man in Mississippi — with Pride's participation in mind.
"A day later, I find out the rumor's not true," Brooks said, "and so I immediately got on the phone." Last September, Brooks traveled to Pride's Arlington, Texas, home, where he got to witness Pride, at age 86, lay down his track in his home studio.
"It was cool because when he stepped up to the mic, there he was," Brooks said, "and it's like it brings back all those things as a kid."
Accompanying himself on guitar, Brooks performed "Where the Cross Don't Burn" and stirringly sang Pride's part: "Money doesn't matter nor the color of your skin / You can stumble even fall and still get up again / 'Cause it ain't about the deeds, good or bad, that we have done / All we have to do is love / to be disciples of the Son."
Wiping away tears at song's end, Brooks noted how the lyrics shift, by the final verse, from "a white boy and a Black old man" to "a young boy and a kind old man."
"It's my favorite thing," he said. "It's the evolution, or the progression, of love, where love gets you past the differences and focuses on what you have in common."
And that love, Brooks added, was the essence of Pride's life. "The new kind of word right now is 'unifier' that people are using," Brooks said. "This guy was a unifier before unifiers weren't even thought of."
Considering Pride as country's first Black superstar, Brooks said he found truth in two contradictory statements: "It didn't matter that Charley Pride was Black" and "It mattered so much that Charley Pride was Black."
"In places where it shouldn't matter, it didn't," Brooks explained. "And when it should've mattered, this man was the most proud of that. And that's among many things that made me love him — and made me want to be more like Charley Pride."