This article was originally published in March of 2021
Last week would have marked the 87th birthday of Charley Pride, the famed African-American country music legend who notably got his start in Montana. Pride passed away just a few months ago, but in my opinion his life is a success story that exemplifies the Montana way of life.
If you ask Hollywood, the “Montana way of life” tends to mean stylized ranch life mixed with a rural sort of closed-mindedness, a fierce skepticism of outsiders and aversion to growth or progress.
But the Montana story of Charley Pride demonstrates a very different ethos.
As a young man in Mississippi, Pride dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. Pride found his way to Montana as he pursued this dream, joining the Missoula Timberjacks and later the East Helena Smelterites.
While in Helena, Pride’s aspirations shifted from professional baseball to music. He found a job at the local smelter, where he undertook backbreaking work loading coal into a 2,400 degree furnace to support his family, then played music in the evenings at local Helena bars. He earned enough to buy a home in Helena, something Pride called one of the proudest moments of his life.
Pride’s reputation as a musician grew and he soon found Montana a welcoming place for one of country music’s first African-American artists. Pride said once Montana audiences heard him singing, they didn’t care whether his skin color was black, green or purple.
As his star quickly rose nationally, Pride moved away after a decade in Montana, but always remembered the state fondly as a place of openness, friendliness and opportunity. In Montana, Pride found not just fans of his musical talents, but also co-workers at the smelter who valued his incredible work ethic and a community that reciprocated his own friendly demeanor.
In 2014, he told the Missoulian that despite sticking out like “neon” in a mostly white, conservative state in the middle of the civil rights era, the Montana community quickly accepted his family as one of their own.
The welcoming environment Montana provided for Charley Pride may have its roots in the state’s boomtown days. At the turn of the century, areas like Helena and Butte were some of the richest cities on Earth and hotspots for immigrants from all over the world who brought diverse religions, traditions and cultures as they pursued opportunity here.
Early Montana culture was far from stuck-in-the-mud. Rather, it was a sort of radical openness — where all people were welcome to put roots down in this wild and wonderful state, free to take risks by staking a claim or starting a business and free to work hard chasing opportunity. A place where people were free to chase their passion, like Charley Pride did.
That’s why I cringe when I read news stories about regulations blocking new businesses from coming to town and Montana residents who say additions to the community won’t add to the “small town feel.”
It’s important to remember that laws reflect what we value. When endless red tape and permitting prevents entrepreneurs from following their passions, or stifles new housing developments unless they comport with certain requirements, Montana conveys a repelling closed-mindedness.
The harder we make it for people to create businesses, get a job or find a home, the further we get from the Montana way of “radical openness” that helped produce great success stories like Charley Pride.
I think Pride put it best: “If you don’t let me be free, you ain’t going to be free.”
This article was originally published in Lee Newspapers