Jim Sullivan recounts his final conversation with the late Southern Rock icon on what would have been his 85th birthday
Three years ago, Charlie Daniels and I had a pretty good chinwag about music and, yes, politics.
Charlie batted right; I batted left. Sometimes these conversations can get ugly; this one didn’t. But let’s start with the music, because – as much as he posted on social media and on his website – he kept clear of politics on stage. And if hadn’t been a musical presence since the mid- ‘60s right up to the end, we wouldn’t be writing this here.
“Music is there to entertain,” the Country Music Hall of Famer told me, on the phone from Charles Town, WV. “I am not a political commentator. I do [that] sometimes, but it’s not my mission in life. My mission in life is to entertain people. It’s not persuading people to vote for somebody or persuading them to go against somebody. I’m not going to force my feelings on a stage when they bought tickets to see me play. I don’t think it’s fair. If I’m doing an interview and they want me to discuss [politics], I’m glad to. If I’m writing a column, I’ll put my feelings in there, up on my website. If people want to read it, they can or not if they don’t want to.”
Daniels, the singer-fiddler who gave us “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Long Haired Country Boy,” “Legend of Wooley Swamp,” “In America,” “Uneasy Rider” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” would have turned 85 on Oct. 28. He died July 6, 2020 from a hemorrhagic stroke.
AUDIO: Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider”
Rock and Roll Globe: I first heard you on the radio in 1973, when you scored a hit with “Uneasy Rider,” a talk-sung novelty song that played off the Easy Rider movie. I thought you were this funny, wise-ass, long-haired liberal. Were you then?
Daniels: I guess I was to some extent. Where I got the idea for that song, we were at a rock festival in Baton Rouge. We were at the motel with the Grateful Dead, Chicago and the Youngbloods – all these long-haired weird-looking people right in the middle of Louisiana. A lot of them had seen that movie and they were all kinda wondering what are we doing here, what’s gonna happen. Like is somebody gonna run up with scissors and cut their hair? And I’m from the South and have lived there the biggest part of my life and I just thought it was funny. I got to thinking along those lines of a guy getting himself in trouble and kind of extricating himself. The only way he had about doing it was with his brain. I still get requests for that song, even from people who weren’t born when it came out. We play it once in a while.
How did you feel about that being your calling card?
I thought it was great, the first anybody really heard about us. It was a hit single across the country, but it was not a career builder, not the kind of song that would make people say “I want to hear the rest of that album.” It took us a couple more albums to get that out. We did that with an album called Fire on the Mountain, which we did in 1974.
Your signature song is probably “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a fiddle duel between a cat named Johnny and the devil. In your song, Johnny wins. Isn’t there a video game metal cover where the devil wins sometimes?
Yeah, it was Guitar Hero 3. They wanted to license it and I was glad to license it. I’m a professional musician, I make my living with my music. But the characters they had, they actually had the devil playing with this guy. That’s not what the song’s about. It’s just a fun song, a new take on an old Faustian tale, The Devil and Daniel Webster. There is no deep darkness to it and the devil never, ever wins, but in “Guitar Hero” they made it where the devil could win. I never let the devil win.
VIDEO: Charlie Daniels Band “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”
How many albums have you made?
Hell, I don’t know. Somewhere around 40 or 50.
Are you working on a new record?
Always. I’ve got too many songs in my mind.
I wanna take you back pre-fame. You played sessions for, among others Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. You were on three Dylan albums, including Nashville Skyline. What about Bob?
Bob Dylan was wonderful. I had heard everything, as everybody had. People have two personas, the one that’s built by the media, especially the music media, and especially for someone who was as reclusive as Bob was. Since they couldn’t get him to talk, they just made up their own thing. It was such a nice surprise to walk into a studio and here’s this guy who had a sense of humor and Nashville Skyline was a joy to all of us. It was so much fun. It had this atmosphere in the studio.
The best way I know of telling you about Bob Dylan: We recorded a song called “Three Angels.” We were standing there listening to it played back and having a conversation and he said “I wrote this about three Christmas decorations that were left on a church after Christmas.” I guess that was in a house in Greenwich Village across from where he happened to be. When the album came out, this guy from Rolling Stone, one of those know-it-all magazines, came out and started analyzing each one of his songs and he went through this long, long deal about the insight about the second side and all this stuff about Bob Dylan seeing the world through the eyes of … and “I thought ‘You poor idiot, it’s about three Christmas decorations!’ You think you got Bob Dylan pinned down? Naw.
VIDEO: Bob Dylan “Three Angels”
When I was in high school and the Southern rock wave was flooding us all, you and your band were part of it and you had this song called “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” an anthem in your part of the world, and ours up north by osmosis.
It’s about music and about honoring some of our bands. People tended to lump us together as Southern rock which I’ve never seen as a genre because all the bands are different, but we got lumped in with Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie so I was just writing a song saying, “Hey, look at us. We’re down here in the South and we got things going on and here’s who’s doing it. I’m paying homage to these folks.”
So, any thoughts about you hoping for another Civil War would be a misinterpretation. Obviously, nothing explicit about that in the song, but in the subtext of the title …
Good gosh, no. People tend to take music and make more out of it. [When the Ku Klux Klan used the song for radio commercials for a 1975 rally in Louisiana, Daniels said, “I’m damn proud of the South, but I sure as hell am not proud of the Ku Klux Klan. … I wrote the song about the land I love and my brothers. It was not written to promote hate groups.”] I do songs like “Simple Man,” which is pretty harsh on the criminal. It’s because that’s the way I feel about it. [In the song, severe punishment is meted out.] I travel coast to coast and border to border and there’s some atrocious things going on in the country, that we can’t possibly all know about. It’s not just what we see on the evening news, it’s everywhere, even the little small towns. Most of it’s drug-fueled, to be honest about it, to one degree or another. And everybody tends to say “The poor old criminal …” Well, hell, he raped a three-year-old girl. He stood over some store clerk at a 7-11 at night and shot him between the eyes for $50 or $75 from the cash register while he was drug addicted. Well, that’s just too damn bad. There’s a father not going home to three children. I feel pretty tough on criminals.
Country star Eric Church talked in Rolling Stone about being a gun owner and a Second Amendment supporter, but not pro-NRA. And he said as the headliner at that Las Vegas country festival where the 2017 mass murder happened, he was sort of the bait.
I think that Eric has got the right to say anything he wants to. Myself, I am a lifetime member of the NRA. I do not hide that. I think the NRA is judged pretty harshly for some things that are not their fault. We played their convention this year. I think they do a lot better than people give them credit for. The NRA is for keeping guns out of the hands of bad people. There’s no two ways about it, they are. The thing about it is, it’s not just the NRA, it’s all of us out here who value our second amendment rights. It’s not the idea that we would be glad to give in to passing a sensible law. The problem is you give the government an inch and they take a mile. In the first place, they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They don’t know one end of a gun from another. Some of these guys think what they call assault rifles are some ominous sort of thing. Hell, they’re just rifles that hold a bigger magazine. You start letting ‘em ban something, they’ll ban .22s before it’s over with.
It’s distrust of the government that keeps people from going along with the least little thing the government wants to do. First of all, they don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re talking about and when the propose they overkill. The second thing is you cannot trust them. You cannot give them power over any part of your life you do not want defiled.
VIDEO: Charlie Daniels on Cavuto
You’ve been pretty vocal, swinging from the right politically. Do you fear that may overshadow the music?
No. It does not get a chance to because that’s my personal life. I don’t mix the two.
OK, but with what you say in interviews and on your web page, you carve out strong positions. Does this boost your audience or work against you?
It goes both ways. I’m not going to sway you one way or the other. Some people hate what I write; some people love what I write. I’m just saying the way I feel about something. After 81 years of living on the earth what I feel is just, what I feel the problems are, what I feel about the state of the union and the state of the world
We’ve got a guy sitting up there with his finger on the nuclear button and all that implies.
All right, a quick one on that guy: Grading from 1 to 10, 10 being the best, 1 the worst, what do you give Trump?
It would depend on which subject you were talking about. If it’s the economy. I’d give him a 10. As far as his loudmouth twittering and that sort of thing, I’d give him a 1. I like him. If he was left to his own devices, there’s no telling how far the economy in this country would go. I’m glad he’s somebody that stands up to other people. But he keeps giving them fodder for them to tear him down when he does some kind of tweet at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Some people think you’re the Ted Nugent of country music or southern rock. Do you?
There is no other Ted Nugent. (laughs). There’s only one Nugent.
How do you view yourself in relation to him? Do you think he’s off the rails?
Naw. Ted Nugent is a very level-headed person. Ted Nugent don’t do drugs. I love Ted. I consider Ted to be a friend of mine. He is truly the motor city wild man in public. He likes a lot of the same things I do. He likes guns and hunting and outside sort of stuff. We got a lot in common. Not stage-wise.
What’s better for you now than it once was?
I think my outlook on life, my appreciation for life, my appreciation for my Lord and absolute conviction that there is a God, that there is a heaven, there is a hell, there is a devil, there is eternal life, there is eternal damnation. The world is in a heck of a mess and I don’t see any way to get out of it unless we turn back to the principles of our creator. We’ve gotten so far away from that.