Country Music

How Willie Nelson & Charley Pride Integrated East Texas

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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.

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William Michael Smith