Charley Pride Honored with Life-Sized Sculpture at Country's 'Mother Church': 'He'd Be Thrilled' (Exclusive)

Widow Rozene Pride and son Dion Pride were present for the unveiling of the bronze likeness of the late Hall of Fame member at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium

Jason Davis/Getty Images Rozene Cohran Pride and Dion Pride with Charley Pride statue
Jason Davis/Getty Images Rozene Cohran Pride and Dion Pride with Charley Pride statue

For decades, Charley Pride made his mark on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and on Wednesday, that mark became permanent when a life-sized sculpture of the country legend was unveiled at the Opry's most hallowed home, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium.

Pride's widow, Rozene, and son Dion were present at the afternoon ceremony, which was attended by about 300 friends and fans, including actor-producer Dennis Quaid, who is working on a Pride biopic.

Rozene Pride offered assurances that her husband, who died in 2020, would have been "very humble" about this latest tribute to his storied career.

Related:Country Legend Charley Pride Dies of COVID-19 Complications at 86

"He was not one of those who bragged," she told PEOPLE before the unveiling. "But inside, he'd be thrilled to death."

Jason Davis/Getty Images Charley Pride
Jason Davis/Getty Images Charley Pride

The bronze likeness joins three more — of Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Monroe, and Loretta Lynn — on the Ryman's Icon Walk. The so-called "Mother Church of Country Music" hosted the Opry full-time from 1943 to 1974, and it still serves occasionally as an Opry stage.

Pride's Opry debut in 1967 was historic: He was the first Black singer on the show. (The only other Black artist to perform on the Opry was harmonica musician DeFord Bailey, who appeared on the show from 1927 to 1941.)

Rozene Pride, who married Pride in 1956, said she well remembers being shocked in 1967 when she learned her husband was the one who would break the Opry's color barrier.

"I was reading a press release where it said he was the first Black country singer [on the Opry]," she said, "and I looked up at him and said, 'Is this true?' And he said yes."

Both she and Pride grew up in the South listening to the radio show, and "it never dawned on me that it was all white. I guess as a child, you don't think about those things."

Recently reclaimed history, featured most prominently in the 2019 Ken Burns documentary series, Country Music, offers undeniable proof that modern country music grew out of rich veins of both Black and white folk music, and the Prides' love for the genre was no aberration.

As Pride rose to fame with such hits as "Just Between You and Me," "Kiss an Angel Good Mornin'" and "Is Anybody Goin' to San Antone," he acknowledged his differentness with aplomb, joking early on to his white audiences about his "permanent tan."

Pride's son Dion pointed out that the singer's racial trailblazing was really just a byproduct of his exceptional talent, adding that he hopes his father is remembered far more for his musical achievements "than the pigmentation aspect of it."

Related:Garth Brooks Puts the Spotlight on His Friend and Hero Charley Pride: 'Just Gifted Beyond Belief'

"He worked very hard at his craft," Dion Pride told PEOPLE, "and he was very proud of the product he put out. He was very proud of it because of his hard work."

Jason Davis/Getty Images Dennis Quaid, Rozene Cohran Pride and Dion Pride
Jason Davis/Getty Images Dennis Quaid, Rozene Cohran Pride and Dion Pride

Pride went on to notch 41 No. 1 songs and earn three Grammys. He also was the first Black artist to win a CMA award, earning entertainer and male vocalist of the year in 1971 and top male vocalist in 1972; the ceremonies were held both years at the Ryman. He made his final Opry appearance in January 2020, also at the Ryman, just two months before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Pride didn't become a member of the Opry until 1993. His wife noted that he was offered membership much earlier in his career, but he turned it down because of the Opry's appearance requirements, which later were loosened. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2000. Less than a month before his death, at age 86 from COVID-related complications, he received the CMA's Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award.

Related:Charley Pride's Son Dion on Mourning His Legendary Father: He 'Never Brought the Stardom' Home

The sculpture, by Mississippi artist Ben Watts, is Pride's exact height — 6-foot-1 — and it depicts him in his younger years. He's holding the same guitar featured on the cover of his 1970 album, Just Plain Charley.

When the curtains were finally drawn and the sculpture revealed on Wednesday, Rozene and Dion Pride both approached it with reverence, and Rozene Pride tenderly took the figure's hand in hers as camera shutters snapped. It was the first time wife and son had seen the finished work.

"It was very emotional to see it," Rozene Pride declared afterward. "Oh, it's so beautiful."

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