Charlie Daniels Interview: "The Last Thing I Would Want Is for Bob Dylan to Think I’m Trying to Interpret His Politics"
Image attributed to Charlie Daniels
Born in 1936 in Wilmington, North Carolina, Charlie Daniels was raised on a musical diet that included Pentecostal gospel, local bluegrass bands and the rhythm and blues and country music emanating respectively from Nashville’s 50,000-watt mega-broadcasters WLAC and WSM. Soon after high school and already skilled on guitar, fiddle and mandolin, Daniels formed a rock and roll band and hit the road.
Daniels met producer Bob Johnston in Texas, and the two formed a long association, even writing “It Hurts Me” which became the B side of a 1964 Elvis Presley hit. Daniels moved to Tennessee to work as a session guitarist and played on the Bob Dylan albums of 1969-70 Nashville Skyline, New Morning and Self Portrait.
"The last thing I would want is for Bob Dylan to think I’m trying to interpret his politics, but he doesn’t seem like an angry young man anymore, so I really don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there hasn’t been some re-thinking there, too. There has been with me and an awful lot of other people."
The multi-talented musician broke through as a record maker himself with 1973’s Honey in the Rock and “Uneasy Rider.” His rebel anthems “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It” propelled his 1975 collection, Fire on the Mountain, to double platinum status. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” became a platinum single in 1979, topped both country and pop charts, won a Grammy and three Country Music Association trophies and propelled Daniels' Million Mile Reflections album to triple platinum status.
By 1981, the Charlie Daniels Band had twice been voted the Academy of Country Music’s Touring Band of the Year, and in 1998, he was named the recipient of the Pioneer Award at the Academy of Country Music’s annual nationally televised ceremonies. Ten years later, Daniels was inducted as a full-fledged member of the Grand Ole Opry.
In 2014, Daniels along with David Corlew and Joe Mercedez Longever, founded The Journey Home Project, a not-for-profit organization that assists in securing funds to help causes that benefit veterans of the United States Armed Forces. He’s also the headliner every year for the Christmas 4 Kids concert at the Ryman Auditorium, which raises money to provide a happy holiday for needy children. Off the Grid-Doin’ It Dylan, Daniels’ tribute to Bob Dylan, was released in April 2014.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Charlie, how are you, and how’s the tour going?
Charlie Daniels: Oh I can’t complain. I’m doing pretty well. The tour is going great!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you performing songs from Off the Grid?
Charlie Daniels: We’re doing two songs off the Dylan album on tour. I always do “Tangled Up in Blue,” and then once in a while, I’ll change over. I’ll either do “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” or “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I love your renditions of these Bob Dylan hits.
Charlie Daniels: Well, thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dylan had quite an influence on your early career.
Charlie Daniels: Yeah. I was fortunate enough to work on three of his albums as a studio musician. Of course, I was a big Bob Dylan fan, and it was just a special thing to me to be able to go be a part of the music that I had so much adulation for, and kind of in the back of my mind, I think I had always wanted to do a tribute to him. This year just seemed like a good time to do it.
We decided to do an acoustical album. The great thing about doing a Dylan album is you never run out of material. It just goes on and on and on. If one song doesn’t work, you just pick another one and just keep moving until you find, in our case, ten songs that we felt good about doing in the CDB style. It was a fun album to do. We had a good time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dylan has been described as an eccentric artist. How would you describe him?
Charlie Daniels: Bob has always been cordial. I had heard, just like everybody else, all of that before I worked with him in the studio. I had heard about the eccentric genius, the standoffishness, introverted sort of guy. That was just so far from the case, so far from what he actually was as a person. Bob was just a genuinely nice guy. He had humility. He was conversational.
I think he felt comfortable around the group of people he was working with, the guys in the studio at Nashville. It seemed to me that he was having a lot of fun doing the music, so I had a totally different experience. Bob Dylan has always been very nice to me, always conversational, considerate and just a good guy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Dylan was a kind of spokesperson for the civil rights movement and the hippie generation with songs like “The Times They Are A-Changin’” recorded in 1964, and his music touched on themes of anti-war, racism and poverty. Are his political views totally opposite from yours?
Charlie Daniels: Well, I don’t know if they are or not, you know. I think they used to be, but I’m not so sure now. Many people’s politics have changed in the last good little while. Bob’s got nineteen grandchildren. It’s a different world than it was then. The pendulum has swung in a lot of different directions. The last thing I would want is for Bob Dylan to think I’m trying to interpret his politics, but he doesn’t seem like an angry young man anymore, so I really don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there hasn’t been some re-thinking there, too. There has been with me and an awful lot of other people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re right. It was the 1960s, and it was an entirely different world back then.
Charlie Daniels: There was a lot of injustice in those days that existed that really needed to have attention brought to it, and Bob did that, although I think many times we didn’t know what he was talking about. I think we put words in his mouth when we started interpreting his songs a lot of times. I think he is the innovator of my generation.
Bob is the guy that did more to change the face of popular music than anybody. He opened doors for people that wanted some freedom in doing their own music. I know he did with me. I had something that I wanted to do that would not fall into the purvey of a record company necessarily saying, “Go do it.” Bob was inspiring. Let’s put it like that. He was inspiring to people. If a song didn’t sound like everything else on the air, he did it anyway. He followed his own star. He did his own thing and inspired a lot of other people to do the same thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think it would’ve been more difficult for you to break into country music today in the digital age?
Charlie Daniels: I think it’s always hard, but no, I would not fit what goes on in music right now. Country music has always been about the song, but in the last few years, it’s not really about the song anymore. It’s about the image and the sound. Country music has more in common with pop music nowadays than it does with what’s ordinarily thought of as country music. I’m not knocking it. That’s just the way it is.
In so far as me breaking into country music nowadays, I don’t think I would have anything to offer that country music would want to market. I’m just not there. I’m in a whole different world musically than what country music is into now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The sound of country music is different than it was in the 50s and 60s.
Charlie Daniels: It’s different, and it’s always changing. We get accused of a lot of, “Y’all ain’t country,” and I say, “Well, I never said I was.” I don’t claim to be anything. I never claimed to be country or anything at all. We just played our music, and whatever genre or category it fell into, that was well and good. I made no claims. People had a hard time with us because they felt like they had to categorize everything, but we couldn’t be categorized. We still can’t be categorized.
You come listen to us, and you’ll hear country, rock, gospel and jazz and all kinds of stuff. I’m not interested in being bound up in any one genre of music. I would not fit the profile nowadays at all. I never did really. I never sold a record because I looked good in very tight jeans. When part of your appeal or a lot of your appeal depends on that, then I fall completely out of the category (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The day after the recent mid-term elections, you tweeted, “Okay Republicans, you wanted it. You worked hard for it. You won it. Now make it count.” What do they need to do?
Charlie Daniels: It’s pretty obvious what needs to be done. It’s pretty obvious what’s hurting the country. It’s pretty obvious that the country is in dire danger from domestic terrorist attacks. Something has to be done about the ISIS people before they’re all over us over here. It’s going to take ground troops to win that war, and nobody’s had the guts to stand up and say so yet, but we all know it.
We need to start getting this national debt down. There are a million things that need doing, and just because you’ve got an “R” or a “D” by your name, it doesn’t change you in my book. It’s not the party. It’s the person. That’s how I vote. If there’s somebody on one side or the other of the political spectrum that I like that’s running, I’ll vote for them. I claim no party loyalty. I’m not loyal to any party because the party’s not loyal to me.
The thing is that these guys have pointed out what’s wrong with America, they’ve talked about it, they’ve complained about it, they’ve criticized the people in office and told us they could do a better job. Now. Go do it. You’ve got the power to do it. Don’t talk about it anymore. Just do it. People are sick and tired of sham wars like the war on women. What the hell was the war on women? There’s no war on women. That’s just a political catchphrase.
They’re sick and tired of somebody telling them that the other party wants children to starve to death, and they don’t want people to have healthcare. This hyperbole is ridiculous, and people are finally starting to catch onto it. They want some action. You can’t fool people but for so long. Look what Harry Reid did to the country. He never let anything come across his desk that didn’t fall in line with his agenda. Is that being American? No. The man deserves to be, in my book, hung, probably at least discredited.
We need people who are going to be Americans. Forget the party. I don’t care about the party, so what I’m saying is, “You talked about it. You said you could do a better job. Now go do it.” We’ve had enough talk. Go to work. That’s what I was saying. Prove it to us, and we’ll vote for you again. Otherwise, we’re going to be right back in the same boat. Quit trying to please those on different sides of the spectrum. Go do what needs to be done and let the criticism fall where it may. If they vote you out of office, so be it. You’re supposed to be serving America not living off of it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many people say that they want a “White House that honors God.” Do you believe in separation of church and state?
Charlie Daniels: That is not part of the Constitution. People are so mistaken about that. That’s a letter that was written by Thomas Jefferson. Of course, there has to be a separation of church and state, but what he was talking about was not protecting the state from the church. He was talking about protecting the church from the state, that you can’t pass laws telling people how they can worship or have an official religion like make it against the law to worship any way except the way they want you to in those Islamic countries. We don’t have that here. That’s what that is about.
In separation of church and state, it happens naturally. It’s not something that has to be … it has been misinterpreted so long. It’s not something that has to be legislated. The church doesn’t want to run the state. The church wants to tell people what is moral. That’s the church’s job to do that, but they’re not going to elect candidates and that sort of thing. They’re not going to put a candidate on the Jesus ticket, so that is an overblown thing.
Yes, I want to see God honored. This country was founded by people who honor God, and yes, I want to see God honored because without that, we’re not going to last. This country was blessed and built because God has been good to it. When we lose God’s favor, when we go so far in the other direction, it’s finished, and we’d be like some third world country.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I wanted to give you belated birthday wishes for turning seventy-eight years old. Any thoughts of retiring?
Charlie Daniels: Good gosh, no. Don’t say that word to me. It makes me shudder. I have no plans to retire. I can’t jump as high as I used to do. I can’t jump down off the stage anymore, but we play energetic music. When I play music, I can’t stand still. I don’t move around as much as I used to, but I still get into it.
I still love it. If I ever lost that love of what I’ve been blessed to do, what I’ve wanted to do for a living, I’d quit playing. I am still enjoying it. I’ve got the best band I ever had, so I have no reason to even think about retiring.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How are your Tennessee Volunteers doing this football season?
Charlie Daniels: They’re making headway. In my opinion, they got rid of Phillip Fulmer way too quick. I think he should’ve had at least two more years. SEC is the toughest conference in the country, and once you start falling down a little bit, it takes a little while to get back in the groove again. The two interim coaches they had and most especially Lane Kiffin, really brought that program down, but Butch Jones brought it back up, and I think he’s on the right path. He needs to let these freshmen get another year under their belts. I feel very good about the University of Tennessee football program, better than I have felt since Fulmer left.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You know, I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
Charlie Daniels: I know all about that (laughs). I am an SEC guy, of course a true orange, but I love the SEC. I think it’s the greatest thing to ever happen to college football. I pull for all my SEC teams, so I pull for Alabama and Georgia, and I will say the word, “Auburn,” to you (laughs). I pull for all of my SEC teams unless they’re playing Tennessee. If Alabama is playing in a championship game, I’m all Alabama. I’ll “Roll Tide” right along with you. I’m Tennessee first and then SEC second.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be working on new music after the tour?
Charlie Daniels: I’ve got a couple of directions I want to go in, just haven’t decided what it will be. It may ne next year if I have time, or it might even be the year after before I go into the studio. We’ll quit touring about the middle of January and take January and part of February off. We go back the last part of February going right back out there doing it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Touring through Christmas?
Charlie Daniels: Never. I’m always at home Christmas week. We shut it down around the 17th of December. I will always be home to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. I will always do that.
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