Country Music

How Willie Nelson & Charley Pride Integrated East Texas

Willie Nelson's Conroe buddy Larry Butler was not only a performer, he also ran a series of clubs in the area over the past 50 years, including Willie Nelson's Night Life on FM 1960 during Willie's IRS problem years.

And while Butler has some fond memories of IRS agents hanging around Willie's Night Life gigs waiting to garnish the singer's pay, he thinks maybe one of the most exciting -- and trying -- times he had in the club business was when he owned a joint on Highway 105 in Cut and Shoot called Pat's Longhorn Ballroom.

Along with Vidor, Cut and Shoot and nearby Conroe were long known as strong East Texas redoubts of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist movement. Cut and Shoot was also notorious for its "Hanging Bridge."

"Willie calls me and says he's got this guy who's been doing some shows with him who's great and that I need to book him," says Butler. "Willie and I both had this love for Hank Williams and, according to Willie, this fellow was as good at doing a Hank Williams song as anyone he'd ever seen.

This fellow was Charley Pride and, Butler says, "finally, Willie got around to telling me that Charley was a black man."

Butler told Nelson he must be crazy to think he could book an African-American into Pat's Longhorn.

"But Willie kept telling me 'this guy is going to be huge, Larry, and you're going to love him.' So Pat [Butler's wife] and I talked it over and decided to try it."

"It wasn't long before word got out that we'd scheduled a black singer at the club, and all hell broke loose," recalls Butler. "I got death threats, people saying they were going to burn the club down, just all kinds of crazy stuff.

"Mind you, country music was 100 percent white in those days, and this was before Charley's label put out any promotional photos or anything like that. So even though he'd already had a little radio success, no one really knew what Charley Pride looked like.

"I was so worried about the deal that I hired the Chief of Police and three deputies to work security that night. We also had seven Liquor Control Board agents come in to help us. So when Charley got there, they took him around to the back and got him safely inside.

"But the crowd was rowdy and hollering, acting up, and I honestly didn't know what was going to happen. I had the Liquor Board agents and the policemen line up in front of the stage between Charley and the crowd."

"My band was backing Charley up that night, and he'd brought along his own steel player. Well, it finally came time for Charley to go onstage and we introduced him. When he walked out, the tension was just incredible.

"But Charley just looked out at them and said something like 'howdy, folks, I know I've got a mighty dark suntan, I got it picking cotton down in Sledge, Mississippi. I hope you don't mind if I sing a few country songs for you.' And then he kicked off into Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" and folks were just blown away.

"I looked over at the policemen and said 'don't worry, he's got 'em now.' But I was sure glad when that night was over.

"After the show, Pat called down to this place in Conroe called the White Hut to tell them to expect 30 or 40 of us down there to eat. Now back in those days only whites sat in the front at restaurants in Conroe. Everybody else ate at little room off the back," says Butler.

"So we walked in with Charley, and the manager immediately comes over and says that she can't seat him with us, that he'd have to eat in the rear. Well, I said 'no, he's not gonna sit in the back.' And I explained to her who he was, that he'd just played our club and that if he couldn't sit with us we'd take our business elsewhere.

"She went in the back and they talked it over, and she finally told us it would be alright if Charley sat between Pat and I. So we all settled in and, as I recall, we all ate chicken fried steak and had a great meal. And there was no problem.

"Funny thing was, the White Hut started letting people sit anywhere they wanted right after that, so that night we sort of broke things down for that whole way of doing things," Butler surmises.

But Butler wasn't done with Charley Pride. He was so impressed with Pride's show that he partnered with Nelson to arrange for Pride to play the now-legendary Panther Hall in Fort Worth.

"We went up there about three or four weeks later [late 1967] and cut Charley Pride In Person. And if you listen closely, you can hear Charley tell a brief story about that night outside Conroe."

The album is often ranked as one of the top country music albums ever recorded.

Not long after, Butler tried to book Pride into the huge and highly popular north Houston honky-tonk DanceTown USA.

"But the owner, he wouldn't let me book him because he said he would bring colored people in and he didn't want that. Well, I argued with him for a while and he finally said 'OK, if you want to take the chance, we're closed on Sundays so I'll let you book him in here on a Sunday night.'

"So I booked Charley and we charged $3 a ticket. I paid Charley $300, and I felt positive that it would be a money-maker. Well, he packed that place, and that pretty much opened the doors of every club in town for Charley. He used to work Houston a lot after that.

"And the funny thing was, only one black guy showed up for that show. It was Stoney Edwards."

Edwards would go on to become of the few successful black artists in country music. Pride is in the Country Music Hall of Fame and is a regular in Branson, Missouri these days.

Larry Butler and band play Tuts in Conroe 8 p.m Saturday, January 29. Willie Nelson & Family play Verizon Wireless Theater Friday, February 4.

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William Michael Smith