Anyone familiar with Charlie Daniels, either through interviews or the regular Soapbox forum on his own website, knows he is not shy about giving his opinions or worrying about being “politically correct,” a term he shuns.
Take the recent controversy in his own beloved state of North Carolina, regarding transgenders wanting to use the public restrooms of their choice.
“Let me tell you,” he says, emphatically. “How long is it going to take enterprising teenage boys to just figure out they can also go into any bathroom they choose? If you are naturally male or have been surgically altered to be a male, go to that bathroom. The same applies to females or ones who have had the operation to become female. You just don’t go into any bathroom you want to. It’s not only not right, it’s downright ridiculous but, in this country, political correctness means acting first and thinking second. Anyway, aren’t there more important issues for people to worry about, like around 22 veterans a day committing suicide? Come on. We should be better than that.”
Daniels, born October 28, 1936 in Wilmington, South Carolina, began his career in the 1960’s as highly sought-after multi instrumentalist. He performed on recording sessions for the likes of Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen and The Marshall Tucker Band.
However, by 1973, his Top Ten hit “Uneasy Rider” brought him new fame as a solo performer. In 1979, Daniels scored his biggest pop success to date, the Grammy-awarded recording, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” which featured his blazingly fast fiddle runs.
Some of his other best-known songs include “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” “Long Haired, Country Boy,” “In America,” and “The Legend of Wooley Swamp.” Already an official member of the Grand Ole Opry and Musicians Hall of Fame, he will also (very belatedly) be inducted into The Country Music Hall of Fame later this year..
Known for his white bullrider hat, his charity work, being a staunch supporter of the military and people’s gun ownership rights, Daniels’ appeal runs just about equally between country and rock music fans. Following his most recent CD, Doin’ It Dylan, he is currently working on a new album of cowboy songs.
Daniels will be performing tonight at Englewood, New Jersey’s Bergen Performing Arts Center.
Elliot Stephen Cohen: What are your earliest memories of growing up in South Carolina, which you sing about in your wonderful song, “Carolina (I Remember You).”
Charlie Daniels: Well, of course I was born in the ’30s, so it was a totally different time, before the coming of the Interstate highways. Most of our roads were two-lane blacktops or just plain dirt roads. We lived in a pretty rural part of the country, and still had a lot of horses and buggies. I remember my daddy teaching me to drive, telling me what to do when you see a horse or wagon on the road. It’s almost like they’re stopped,. So you had to be extremely careful to get around them.
ESC: What was the first music you heard on the radio that really inspired you?
CD: The first music I consciously remember hearing was country but, where I grew up, the radio stations were not formatted for any one kind of music. That meant that they had to play something to please everybody. So they’d start off with Country music in the morning. Then, in the afternoons, because they had a lot of ladies who were housewives in those days, they’d play something different. Around the time school was letting out, they would start playing the popular music of the days, which then was mostly big band stuff. Of course, on Sundays, there was a lot of gospel and, from the Southeast stations, you’d hear a lot of Blues. So I was exposed to an awful lot of different music.
ESC: Were there any particular artists who were special favorites of yours, like Hank Williams, Bob Wills or Roy Acuff?
CD: All of the above. Roy Acuff was kind-of the star of the Grand Old Opry, and he remained that way as long as he lived. He was always a legend. I don’t really know anyone around now to compare him with. I guess he was like the Luke Bryan in his day.
ESC: What made Roy Acuff so special to you?
CD: One of the things that really made him so different to everybody else was that, back then, a lot of the bands were bands that just happened to have a singer. The Smokey Mountain Boys were built around Roy. He was the star. He was not just one of the players who would happen to sing a song once in a while. So he was very prominent in my life, as was Hank Williams when he came along … also Ernest Tubb.
ESC: Who were the first major music stars whom you saw as a child?
CD: I don’t remember seeing any, but the first big stars I saw were Western actors like Roy Rogers who just blew me away when I saw him. People like him and Sunset Carson would come to these small-town theaters and do a show. Most of the big music people were too big to travel into the small areas like the one I lived in. So we did get shows, but it was not, you know, the “A-Team.” I didn’t really see people like Roy Acuff until I went to the Grand Old Opry in 1954.
ESC: What about Bob Wills?
CD: Never saw him. He very rarely came to the Southeast. He would mostly play out in places like Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas … but of course I knew who he was because they played his music on the radio.
ESC: Did you ever cross paths with Bill Monroe?
CD: Not until I started playing the Grand Old Opry.
ESC: What a legend.
CD: Oh, yeah. Absolutely a legend in my mind, ’cause I cut my teeth on Bluegrass music. That’s the first music I ever played. I was really into Bill Monroe, but like with Roy Acuff, the first time I saw him was also at the Opry in 1954.
ESC: Being that you were just one year younger than Elvis Presley, do you remember the first time you became aware of him before he broke big nationally?
CD: I only knew that he we was murdering a song by Bill Monroe, that I loved very much (“Blue Moon of Kentucky”). I was a Bluegrass purist and I just hated the way he did it. The first time I heard him was on the Ernest Tubb Jamboree (radio show) out of Nashville. When I heard his name mentioned, I remember thinking, “What kind of name is that, Elvis Presley?”
ESC: Did you ever see him in person in those early days?
CD: No, I never got to see Elvis in person, but I do remember being on a high school trip in Florida and seeing an advertisement, “Hank Snow, Charlie Louvin, and others.” Then, at the very bottom, in type not that much bigger than typewriter type, it said, “… and Elvis Presley and Jimmy Rogers Snow.” Well, he was on tour for probably all of just a few days, when it got to the point where nobody could follow him. He was just a phenomenon from the very beginning. Nobody had ever seen anything like him and then, right after he did a few of the Dorsey Brothers TV shows, he became the hottest subject in the whole country. He just went viral, as they say now. Once I got into what he was doing, I really liked him.
ESC: Of course, your first real musical success was co-writing “It Hurts Me” for Elvis in 1964, but I understand you never met him.
CD: No, and it’s a shame. I probably could have facilitated that after I got to Nashville but, you know, I never thought about somebody like Elvis Presley dying. I always thought the day would come, as it has with most other people that I’ve really admired and wanted to meet, that one day we would run into each other somewhere. I certainly would have liked to have met him.
ESC: What memories do you have of working with Bob Dylan?
CD: Well, I did three albums with him, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning. Before I got to work with Dylan, I didn’t know what to expect. I mean, I had heard all those things about (his being) “the reclusive genius” also, and very standoffish. But, I found him to be a very likeable, nice person, with a good sense of humor. Just a regular guy. All that other stuff I’d heard just all went by the wayside. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and certainly enjoyed interpreting his music.
ESC: Your hit song, “Uneasy Rider” in 1973 really jumpstarted your career as a major solo performer. Was that based on any real experience or was it all completely fictitious?
CD: Well, it’s all fictitious. I think I originally got the idea when I was producing The Youngbloods album, Ride The Wind. It was a “live” album, and part of it was recorded at a rock festival down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, right after the movie Easy Rider came out. We had all these long-haired bands from San Francisco who were in town … The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane. You know, the bunch. They were all nervous about being in the South because of the movie (Easy Rider). I’m from the South, so to me it was all funny, but seeing how these guys were reacting gave me the idea for the song, (about a hippie who finds himself in the wrong place).
ESC: Your song “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” speaks about your pride as a Southerner. What are your feeling about the Confederate flag, which some people consider a racist symbol?
CD: It is not a racist symbol. I come from the Jim Crow days, and I can remember when everything was segregated, and people of color had to ride in the back of the bus. Everything was supposed to be separate but equal, but it was not equal at all. So, I was raised in those societal surroundings. I didn’t have any sensitivity lessons. I just figured it all out on my own. If I considered the flag as something that symbolized hate, I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. To me, it’s a piece of cloth that symbolizes an area, like a state flag but, at the same time, I can understand why black people would be upset about it.
ESC: Are you supporting any of the presidential candidates?
CD: I’m not supporting anybody. I think Donald Trump has some great ideas, and he’s also got some screwy ideas. You know, the thing that fascinates me about Trump is that he actually has the “audacity” to propose to take some action to do some things, although most of what he proposes would probably never get through Congress. I do agree with his idea of putting up a wall between us and Mexico. We don’t have any idea who is coming into our country and that needs to be stopped. Plus, there is terrible heroin problem from drugs coming across the border.
ESC: If someone told you, 40 years ago, that at nearly 80 you would still be doing over a hundred shows a year, would you have been surprised?
CD: I probably would not have been too surprised. When I started out, one of the biggest things I wanted out of my career was longevity. I love what I do. I thank God that I’ve been able to make a living doing what I enjoy as much as entertaining. My intention has always been that, as long as people wanted to hear me and the good Lord gave me life and health, I’d be out playing music.
ESC: But could you have imagined that you would still have the physical stamina to do as many shows as you do, and as well?
CD: You just learn how to pace yourself. I used to be able to go out and play 18 holes of golf or go somewhere horseback riding or ropin’ and play a show the same night. I can’t do that now, but I can play a show every night. See, it’s all about priorities in your life. What do you want the most? Party all the time or have a long career? So, I try to take care of myself … eat halfway decent, and get plenty of rest.
ESC: Do you think about your own mortality a lot?
CD: It crosses your mind. Sure, but I’m a Christian. I got a better place to go. You know, that’s the beautiful thing about being a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is my savior, that he paid for my sins. I believe in heaven, and I also believe in hell. So, morality is something you can’t do anything about. You gotta deal with it. If you’re not a believer, you have to take your chances on where you’ll wind up. To me that’s not very good odds. It would scare me to death to not be a Christian.
ESC: What would you like your legacy to be, to most be remembered for?
CD: I’ve been asked that question quite a bit. My honest answer is that a man doesn’t deserve to be remembered for anything more or less than what he was. We tend to magnify people in death. I just want to be remembered, hopefully, when I’m gone, for doing what I did well enough and faithfully enough, and treated people rightly enough. I don’t need to be remembered for anything other than that.