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Wandering Son

Carlton Pride (center): Reconciled to his past, still dreaming about his future with Zion Reggae Music.

If you want to break into the music business, sometimes it helps if your daddy is a star. Ask Ziggy Marley or Rufus Wainwright or Jakob Dylan. But sometimes it doesn't. Just ask Carlton Pride. His father is three-time Grammy-winner Charley Pride, one of country music's biggest names in the '60s and '70s, and the only African-American in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Sure, Charley Pride's success made it possible for Carlton to grow up in an affluent section of North Dallas, but none of that mattered much to Carlton, who as a kid could see himself only through a narrow ethnic lens: as the son of the whitest black man in America.

"Moving to Dallas, it was real bad for me because Dad played country music, and he was a black man. The black kids called me an Uncle Tom and an Oreo. The white kids called me 'nigger,' " recalls Pride. "Growing up, I blamed my dad because I didn't have a lot of peers."

Obviously not interested in following in his father's footsteps -- and thus perpetuating the cultural conflicts inherent in such a career -- Carlton found an outlet in sports at Jesuit High School in Dallas. He played football, basketball and ran track. (Of course, even then Carlton was following his father's lead, since Charley played semipro baseball before turning to music.) After he finished high school, Carlton took refuge on the other side of the microphone. He began a career in radio, TV and film sound production in Dallas. He then launched a second career as a cocaine addict.

"I had a ten-year hole in my life," admits Pride. "But you have to go through things. My father and I can talk about it now. I first had to go through direct treatment to get the monkey off my back. Then all those skeletons had to come out of the closet. We talk about it quite a bit now, because we have a way different relationship."

He found inspiration to kick his drug habit and finally to start performing from two unlikely sources: his own dreams and the music of Bob Marley, the latter of which he describes as "like going to church and getting your soul stirred."

"For about eight years, I'd get this dream that I was in dreadlocks playing reggae before a crowd. I'd get this dream so much it was bothering me," says Pride.

At first he fought his dreams and the messages they seemed to carry. But gradually he came to trust the visions bouncing around his unconscious. "We live in a society where as soon as a person wakes up in the morning, they have to go through a dog-eat-dog thing. Our society is not set up to nurture dreams or what's inside a person," he says. "I never had anybody interpret my dreams, because they aren't symbolic. They are very concrete. They tell me what's going to happen."

His dreams led him to a strange place, at a strange time in his life: At the age of 37, Carlton Pride, who had never been a professional musician, left Dallas for San Marcos to start a reggae band. By the rivers of San Marcos, he began organizing Zion Reggae Music. He put up flyers at Southwest Texas State University, announcing "reggae singer looking for musicians." Players from the school and around town began to show up, curious about the fledgling reggae band.

"I couldn't tell you how I got these guys, because it was divinely guided," says Pride. "It's [proof] this vision was real."

Zion Reggae Music played its first gig at the Christian center on the SWTSU campus. Six months later the band was billed third at the Bob Marley Festival in Dallas. At first the other members of ZRM had no idea of Pride's lineage. That information emerged when Charley Pride came to see the band at the Marley festival. The father-and-child reunion was also a revelation to Dad: It was one of the first times his son had delivered on a promise.

Perhaps it's because Carlton Pride finally has his own path to follow, one that wanders far from the country road that Charley Pride traveled. Certainly, the young Pride feels a sense of mission, one fueled (again) by dreams.

"I can close my eyes and something else takes over," says the bandleader. "Bob Marley has come directly to me in my channeling and has helped me write songs. It's like a chain, and I'm the missing link. I can usually complete a song in 15 minutes."

Although Pride says he's not a Rasta, he believes reggae is the closest thing to religion for him.

"If people let their mind and soul listen to reggae, the music will move you," he says. "Reggae doesn't make you want to do anything violent. It helps people help themselves. A person can grab on to their individualness.

"My calling is to stand in front of people and let them know that they are part of the collective consciousness. We are all part of that consciousness. We have different gifts, and we need to nurture those gifts. We're losing our earth because of the things we do. Our children won't be able to see certain animals when they grow up, because we continue to rob our lands everywhere."

Five years after its formation, Zion Reggae Music now plays numerous festivals and has a busy club circuit. The last time ZRM played Houston, the group delivered an impressive evening of hard-core roots reggae during a set that also included soca, blues and salsa tunes. When it came time to commit this power reggae sound to CD, the band journeyed to Jamaica, the birthplace of the music. Pride says it was a bittersweet experience.

"They say you can't play reggae music without going to the roots," says Pride. "It's like going to the Grand Ole Opry if you play country. I got to sing in the same studio that Bob Marley sang in. But my feeling was it was a big hustle. I got the impression that the Jamaican producers only wanted our money and us out of the studio as fast as possible. I used to do radio jingle sessions, and that's what it felt like."

The band is negotiating with American labels to put out a new CD. Meanwhile, Carlton Pride has become his own man in the music world. He has also reconciled being the son of Charley Pride.

"I'm blessed I came into life as my dad's son," he says. "It got me a foot in the door. But I'm not using that foot to sing explicit love songs. The meaning of our mission is to uplift your soul. You can find out a lot about a person by finding out what kind of music they listen to. Many people direct their lives according to that music. Too many people listen to what's on the radio. Zion is an oasis from that."


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