A Plains Christmas
It is so vivid in my mind, it seems like yesterday. But 40 years ago next week I boarded Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base to fly with Jimmy Carter, during his last Christmas as president, to Robins AFB in Georgia, and then with ear plugs in a noisy military helicopter for the short hop to Plains, his hometown.
The regulars on the White House beat had had enough of Christmas with Jimmy, so it fell to the likes of me to plug the gap. Not that it was a slow news time. The Iranians were still holding 52 Americans hostage in Tehran. Inflation was soaring. Carter had just lost a three-way race to Ronald Reagan, with Republican Illinois Congressman John Anderson running as an independent.
Over lunch at the Madison Hotel, Post Deputy Managing Editor Milton Coleman briefed me on what to expect. There was the Best Western in nearby Americus, where I would be staying and where the notorious presidential brother Billy Carter hung out. There was cousin Hugh Carter’s gift shop in Plains where I could stock up on “Jimmy junk,” which I did and which, much to my wife’s chagrin, I still have. These included a plaster Jimmy sitting on a huge peanut, Jimmy peanut mugs, a Jimmy bottle opener.
The press corps this time was so junior that I wound up being the pool reporter, staking out Miss Lillian’s pond house and flying Air Force One both ways. Which was a mistake. Jimmy had many fine qualities, but he was cheap, and the food on the press plane I learned was much better. Still, I wrote three front page stories in five days. My favorite was a portrait of Plains in transition from the president’s hometown to the former president’s hometown. Another related to the economy, and a third was about the hoped for imminent release of the hostages.
Christmas night went unreported. There was an off-the-record gathering at the ABC Quonset hut attended by Jimmy and Rosalyn. As I stood on the outer ring of reporters who crowded in close, he saw me and said, “You’ve never been here before, have you?” We then had a pleasant conversation about the Chesapeake Bay (where he’d fished) and his daughter Amy’s public school, which was a block from my son’s private school in Northwest Washington.
I hadn’t voted for him. I’d voted for John Anderson, but he impressed me that evening as a decent human being who went out of his way to welcome a newcomer to Plains.
I remember a rowdy and undoubtedly boozy night at the Best Western belting out “New York, New York,” and then after boarding the Air Force chopper for the ride back to Robins having to deplane because Jimmy chose to shake hands and work the small crowd watching him depart. As we ran across a field full of burrs to report his down home gesture, the Associated Press reporter running along side me said, “The son of a bitch deserved to lose.”
Three weeks later, Ronald Reagan would be inaugurated, and Iran, at that very moment, released the hostages. I was soon to leave for my next assignment, in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, to await the homecoming of Michael Metrinko, an American diplomat free at last.
Charley Pride, R.I.P.
Ellis Marsalis, John Prine, Bucky Pizzarelli, all died from Covid-19. Now, Charley Pride.
My story appeared on Dec. 13, 1970, fifty years to the day before the charismatic, barrier-breaking country music star died of Covic-19 . It was my first Style section feature at the Washington Post and it ran on a Sunday, splashed across the page, on what was for me a three byline day. There were also two local stories,”$5,000 Fine Set in 1968 Unpaid by Slum Owner,” at the bottom of page one, and “D.C. Takes Action on Pepco Plant Pollution,” buried inside the local news section on page B8.
I had been at the Post for less than a year, a 28-year old reporter on the unheralded pre-Watergate Metro staff. But there were opportunities for enterprise, and that’s how I got to interview Charley Pride over breakfast in the coffee shop of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. He was in town to tape Eddie Arnold’s Christmas show, which was to be broadcast Dec. 23.
In the story, I wrote he was 32, but, according to the birth date in his obituary, he was 36. I don’t know if I just got it wrong, or if he or his agent tried to project a public persona four years younger. By then, however, he’d had almost a lifetime of hard times in a succession of jobs that were not careers. He’d worked as a smelter in a Montana mine, played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, performed in honkytonk saloons in small towns.
He was a barber’s son, an unassuming country boy from Sledge, Mississippi who’d listened to white country singers on the radio as a kid and had a smooth tenor voice that seemed to fit right in.
Country star Red Sovine discovered him at one of those honkytonk bars in Great Falls, Montana and encouraged him to go to Nashville. Looking for Sovine, Pride walked into the office of his manager Jack D. Johnson, for whom he sang two songs. In our interview, Johnson related what had happened then. “I said, ‘Now sing in your natural voice.’ He said, ‘That is my natural voice.'” Pride returned to Montana. Johnson sent him a contract soon afterwards.
A black singer of white country songs in the 1960s was virtually unheard of, and the industry was wary and worried that his silky voice and natural charm could not overcome white bigotry. It took two years for Johnson to sell Pride to a record company.
For a time, they even omitted his picture from all publicity.
It was an odd time for a breakout black country star. George Wallace had won five states with 46 electoral votes–all in former Confederate states–in the 1968 presidential election. The country remained deeply divided, over Vietnam, as well as over race, barely recovering from riots of rage that erupted in multiple cities after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.
Yet, there was Charley Pride, soaring in popularity with poor rural whites and outer borough Archie Bunkers. He became the first black singer to perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. In 2000 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
How to explain it? I began my story with an anecdote: “The East Tennessee woman, wary of selling her home to the antipoverty worker, tells him, ‘I don’t want you to go reselling the house to any colored.’ Then her face breaks into a smile. ‘Except you can sell it to Charlie Pride.'”
“I said when I got into the business I believed I could sell to all kinds of people–pink, green or purple,” he told me. “I leave politics to the politicians and preaching to the preachers. Country music is basically about life, happiness, joy, sorrow.”
I’d like to believe that Charley Pride’s life had much more happiness and joy than sorrow. The sorrow was in his passing at the age of 86, a month after he sang at the 54th Annual Country Music Association Awards, to a largely unmasked audience, and where, perhaps, he contracted the virus that killed him. “Gone, gone, gone,” he sang on his tenth album. Gone, but not forgotten.