Charley Pride has one of the best and most distinctive voices in the history of country music — or even pop music, for that matter — but the 83-year-old gets right to the point when it comes to talking business.
“I’m in the business of selling lyrics, feelings and emotions. …That’s what’s keeping me so strong,” he says, when discussing Music in My Heart, his first new album in six years.
That doesn’t mean he’s been taking it easy down in his Dallas headquarters. He still goes on the road, performs concerts, sells CDs and continues to be amazed by the adulation of the fans.
“I’m blessed,” the Country Music Hall of Fame member says of that loyal following and their hunger to purchase some of his albums, including the self-produced stuff he did before his six-year absence from the recording studio.
“When I come out, they jump up and applaud,” he says. “They hear one line and they applaud. By the time we get into ‘Is Anybody Going to San Antone,’ they’re screaming.
“Then, about middleways of the show, someone will call out ‘Charley, you’ve still got it!”
While that voice of approval makes the singer happy, the gentleman who some might call the “Jackie Robinson of Country Music,” figures people haven’t even heard him at his best yet.
“When I cut this last album and listen to what I’m doing right now, the thing is I might be getting better. I’m still learning,” says the star who was just the second African-American artist to make it as a Grand Ole Opry star. DeFord Bailey, the harmonica player who performed with Roy Acuff back when he was “The King of Country Music,” was the first.
Pride became a star in the segregated South not because he was black, but despite it. And his tool for survival and equality was the mellow voice.
“I’m pleased that the good Lord blessed me with this voice,” he says.
And it is that voice that captivated Billy Yates, much-honored songwriter and journeyman county performer and producer, who took the helm for the recording of Music in My Heart.
“I wanted Charley to sound as young and vibrant as we possibly could, Charley doin’ what he does,” says the producer who was hand-picked for the project after Pride and his wife Rosine familiarized themselves with his previous production projects.
“I hadn’t done one in six years,” says Pride. “The last three I did, I was my own producer. My wife and I was kinda talking. … And she said, ‘Why don’t you find someone to produce the next one?'”
That’s when Yates’ reputation as a painstaking producer came into play, and the Prides selected him for this project.
“This Billy Yates, it was wonderful working with him. He not only is a good singer and a good songwriter, but he’s a good producer,” says Pride.
It didn’t take Yates long to answer in the affirmative, even though the scheduling was a bit tricky because of the men’s schedules.
Pride would need to come into the Nashville sessions when his schedule worked in unison with that of Yates, who remains plenty busy in Branson, Missouri, where he is one of the stars of a revue called Raiding the Country Vault, a 24-song Vegas-style spectacular.
“We got three big screens behind us and we tell the story of country music,” Yates says. “And we’ve got a million-dollar laser light show. It’s fun to be a part of.”
It made it a little tough to fit in a producer’s tasks, but Yates was not going to pass up the opportunity to produce an album on Charley Pride.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I said ‘obviously I’d love to do it,'” says Yates. After all, how many times does a fellow get to produce an album on one of the biggest stars in the history of country music?
Yates says he and the Prides “decided it was worth the time, making the time to make it happen.”
“He had a lot of songs he’d loved for many years. We did some of those songs. Whatever he was feeling strong about, we’d go into those songs,” says Yates of the partnership.
“We just sent songs back and forth,” says Yates. “He kept wanting my input. I said ‘If it’s something you love, it’s worth considering.'”
Yates really didn’t know Pride before the process began of selecting songs and musicians to put together the album.
“I’d only just met Charley here and there and at the Opry (where Yates has performed 40 times and where Pride has always been a crowd favorite).
“We didn’t know each other on a personal level at all. We’d sit down at Cracker Barrel the first couple of times and talked about the vision for this record.”
He said both men had strong visions of what this album should be, and they worked together to make sure that is exactly what they got.
“Being asked to produce a record on Charley, I wanted it to be as strong as it could possibly be. I wanted to make sure Charley was sounding great,” says Yates.
“The amazing thing to me, the takeaway, is his stamina and drive and ability to come in and give it what he’s got. He went way beyond what most young artists could do. I couldn’t do it.”
Despite the wear and tear of flying in from Texas and recording this new album, Pride’s voice didn’t falter, according to Yates.
“I think for 83, his voice is pretty amazing. He has sang a lot (in his career), worked hard through the years, but his voice quality is amazing. He just sounds that way,” says Yates.
“A lot of older artists lose it. He’s still got it.”
Yates — who wrote “Choices,” the late-career lamentation for George Jones, as well as its virtual companion “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” and a slew of other classic-style country music songs — knew he was working with a master.
And it was a master with not only a great singing voice but a man of cultural significance.
“Being a real fan of all the great, the real country music, our history, our lineage … the opportunity to become friends with Charley Pride was a big deal to me. The opportunity to tell a bit about the story of his life was a real labor of love for me.”
And it was playing right to his love of traditional country music, popular in Branson and in Norway, but oft-overlooked in an age of tight jeans, beer drinking, pickup trucks and shaking butts … the fraternity-boy-worthy “love” songs that seem to populate the tops of the charts.
Yates — and Pride — knew what kind of music they should be putting together.
“I know the certain sound that gives me goose bumps,” Yates says. And, of course, that sound is traditional country music.
“What I wanted to accomplish on this Charley record is to be very traditional, true to what that is, and wanted to be respectful of what Charley’s style is.”
He draws a long breath. “I have such a passion for this real country music. I love the people. It’s sort of a ministry in ways.”
It should be noted that the ministry, while perhaps struggling on Music Row, has hordes of listeners and fans — many quite young — in Europe, where Yates has been playing to full houses for 14 years.
“The thing about doing the thing in Europe is you never get too old for that,” he says, with a laugh. “They don’t care how old, fat and bald you are. They support you and come see you play.”
Even so, there aren’t too many things that can compare with producing Charley Pride. The men have become close friends and already are picking out songs for a Pride duets album to be produced this autumn. Five songs Pride recorded during these sessions weren’t used on the current album. They could become duets or perhaps fodder for another Pride album down the road.
Yates, while proud of his friendship and partnership with Pride, gives most of the credit to the singer.
“This is Charley’s record. It’s not my record,” he says, adding that he hopes it paves the way for him to work his studio expertise with other country classicists.
“This experience made me a better producer. … Hopefully in the future there will be other opportunities because of it, an older artist who wants to make a record and wants to be produced by someone who ‘gets it.'”
The 54-year-old country traditionalist will use this record as a calling card when seeking out those veteran artists, because, quite simply, it’s a fine album that even the producer doesn’t tire of hearing, according to Yates.
“I put that in my truck and I listen to it and I think ‘Oh, man, I’m really proud of it.”