30 years ago today—May 1st 1993—Charley Pride took the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville as he had done many times before, but this time it was special.
In 1993, Charley Pride was entering the twilight of his legendary Hall of Fame career. Even though during his heyday, Pride had sold more records for RCA than anyone else except Elvis, the legendary label had dropped him. Even though Pride had minted 29 #1 songs in his career, country radio had moved on to the commercial powerhouses of the day like Garth Brooks. And Charley Pride was no longer selling out large venues and arenas like he’d done in the heart of his career. As so often happens with older artists, Charley Pride had been put out to pasture.
But the Grand Ole Opry was there for Charley Pride, just like Charley Pride had been there for the Opry when the hits were coming, and he was one of the biggest artists in country music. That is why on May 1st, 1993, the Grand Ole Opry officially made Charley Pride a member. In those days, there weren’t any surprise invitations from the stage like we often see today, or formal coronations. Usually the honor just came form being called into the management office, or a handshake backstage.
Pride became the 2nd ever Black Grand Ole Opry member after Opry legend DeFord Bailey. He went on to perform “Wings Of A Dove,” “Ev’ry Heart Should Have One,” “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” “Kaw-Liga” and “Mountain Of Love” that evening.
A question many people have asked over the years is why it took until 1993 for Charley Pride to become a Grand Ole Opry member? They often ask fearing that they know the real answer. In fact, some have taken it upon themselves to enumerate Charley Pride’s snubbing by The Grand Ole Opry as one of the barriers he incurred during his landmark career. But that is not exactly the case.
Charley Pride made his Grand Ole Opry debut on January 1st, 1967—New Year’s Day. Introduced by the legendary Ernest Tubb, Pride was embraced by the country music institution while he was still rather early in his career. Pride would continue to perform on the program regularly throughout the years, including when he went on an incredible string of landing 13 consecutive #1s (barring religious songs) between 1969 and 1973. It was also during this time that Pride landed the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year Award in 1971, as well as Male Vocalist of the Year in 1971 and 1972.
So why did it take 26 years after Charley Pride’s Grand Ole Opry debut to become an official member? It turns out in wasn’t in lieu of his overwhelming success, it was because of it.
In 1968 when it was clear that Charley Pride was going to be one of the next country music superstars, The Grand Ole Opry did ask him to become a member. But it was Charley Pride who turned it down. Speaking to the Associated Press in 2005, Charley Pride said, “My manager pointed out the criteria wasn’t suitable for what we were trying to do. It was the beginning of my career, and they required me to be there 26 Saturdays of each year. For an artist just starting out, those were the best dates to get your money.”
Charley Pride later elaborated to Country Stars Central:
Well I had been playing the Opry since 1967, but it’s different when you become a member, because you become family with all the big stars that have played there before, it’s a great feeling. I had a standing invitation to join the Opry since 1967, but they had a requirement that you had to play twenty six Saturday’s per year, and those were the best days where you could draw and make your money out on the road. You weren’t making that much when I was starting out. (Laughs) I made about a nickel a single from RCA, and a hundred to two hundred dollars for a gig on the road. So at that time, it was an economical thing for me, and I didn’t argue with it. Country music basically is known for that factor, it’s like a family, all for one and one for all. It‘s not that way now as much, but it was back when I came along.
The delay in Charley Pride’s Gand Ole Opry membership is the same reason huge country stars like George Strait and Merle Haggard were never members, and why Willie Nelson gave up his membership at one point. It’s often especially hard for performers to meet their appearance requirements when they don’t live in Nashville like Strait, Haggard, and Willie Nelson. That’s also why it took until 2023 for the Grand Ole Opry to formally invite the first ever California-born artist in Jon Pardi to become a member.
These days, the performance requirements of the Grand Ole Opry have been relaxed significantly, with the unspoken rule being about 10 performances a year members are asked for, and nobody being kicked out if they don’t comply. It’s also easier for artists to fulfill those obligations now since there are regular Opry performances on weekdays. Weekend performances are also considered as earning extra credit for performers. Even still, some high-profile members like Blake Shelton are pretty notorious for not fulfilling their performance obligations.
The first ever performer on the Grand Ole Opry in 1927 was by DeFord Bailey. Previously called WSM Barn Dance, it aired after NBC’s classical opera show, the Music Appreciation Hour. While introducing Bailey, WSM station manager and announcer George D. Hay said, “For the past hour, we have been listening to music largely from Grand Opera, but from now on, we will present ‘The Grand Ole Opry.’” DeFord Bailey then played “Pan American Blues” on the harmonica.
It turns out Charley Pride wasn’t snubbed by the Grand Ole Opry due to race or for any other reason. If he was going to become a Grand Ole Opry member, he was going to be a man of his word and fulfill his obligations. It’s also because he was just so damn successful at the time, there were greener pastures for him throughout the United States.