Culture  /  Vignette

Charley Pride: How the US Country Star Became an Unlikely Hero During the Troubles

Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash cancelled gigs in Belfast during the violent 1970s, but Pride played on.

When Charley Pride arrived in Belfast in early November 1976, the Northern Irish capital was at war. There were almost daily reports of shootings of civilians and soldiers on both sides of the sectarian divide. An armistice movement, the Peace People, had materialised that summer after three children were fatally struck by an IRA getaway car.

Someone else intent on restoring normality to Belfast during the bloody 70s was Jim Aiken. This enterprising former schoolteacher-turned-concert promoter wanted to turn Northern Ireland into a second home for American country music – and rightfully so, since the Ulster Scots folk tradition was an essential ancestor of the genre. Aiken had invited over artists such as Buck Owens and Tex Ritter. Next, he had his heart set on Pride, the singer who found success as a Black artist in a roots genre that had come to be dominated by white artists.

Country music was ascendant, and Pride was one of its poster children. Born to sharecroppers in rural Mississippi, he hit the US charts with a string of No 1 albums. He became such an institution that he presented an award to President Jimmy Carter in recognition of Carter’s encouragement of the genre. Having vaulted humble origins, Pride, much like his president (a former peanut farmer from south Georgia), was the American dream incarnate. The rest of the world was taking note.

To persuade this famous singer to make his way to Belfast, promoter Aiken trekked to a concert in the US midwest. Mishearing the name “Jim Aiken”, Pride reportedly understood that a Jamaican wished to speak with him after his set. Curiosity led him to summon the promoter backstage. They agreed to one Dublin gig on Pride’s next UK tour, followed by three nights in Belfast. Aiken would drive him up from Dublin, shepherd him across the border and sequester him at the hotel (to appease Pride’s wary lawyer) until showtime.

The residency at Belfast’s Ritz cinema quickly sold out. But there were doubts that Pride would manage to get there. Though Aiken had booked big names throughout the 60s, an unspoken ban on foreign performers had tightened since the emergence of the Provisional IRA in 1969. No-shows became common. Johnny Cash’s cancellation of an Ulster Hall appearance in 1971, was a prominent example. The horrific roadside execution of players from a Dublin show band by members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (a loyalist paramilitary group, some of whom were part time soldiers) in 1975, as the group drove home from a gig in Banbridge, north of Newry, seemed, at that point, to squash all hope of a nightlife in the North.