Charlie Daniels – The Interview
“Few individuals,” says the UNC Press’ Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, “have symbolized the South in popular culture as directly and indelibly as Charlie Daniels.”
The first quote on most Charlie Daniels biographies, it’s the most apt description for this country music legend. To say he’s a country music legend doesn’t quite do it justice, however. His music crosses every genre, including southern rock, bluegrass, blues and gospel, yet each one is rendered uniquely Charlie Daniels–made honestly by a man whose belief in traditional American values is second only to his belief in God.
Daniels began as a session musician for the likes of Bob Dylan and Ringo Starr, and has performed with artists as eclectic and cross-generational as Leonard Cohen, Marty Robbins, Kathy Mattea and Montgomery Gentry. He’s written songs for everyone from Elvis to Tammy Wynette, and many of his own recordings have become country music standards. Rebel South anthems “Long Haired Country Boy,” “The South’s Gonna Do It,” “In America” and “Uneasy Rider” all have left an indelible mark on the country landscape.
Of course, it is his trademark song about a couple of fiddlin’ madmen that has etched his name alongside the greats of his generation. The single topped both country and pop charts, winning a Grammy award and three CMA trophies on its way to becoming an international phenomenon.
KEN MORTON, JR.: Let me get the most important question out right out of the way. How is the golf game?
CHARLIE DANIELS: Terrible! I played yesterday at Troon. We’re in Mississippi, we stopped there down in the Gulfport area. One of the guys and I went out and played. Here’s the thing about it. I learned a long time ago that I don’t have any athletic acumen. I’ve never been an athlete, never have been. So I’m not going to be a great golfer. What I’ve decided, though, is I’m constantly going to try to improve my game and only do this strictly for fun–strictly for entertainment. I don’t get upset about it. I don’t throw clubs. Most time I don’t even keep score. I just go out and if I hit a bad shot, I throw another ball down and just hit it again. I told this to somebody one time when we were playing: About eight o’clock tonight is when I go to work. I will get very serious. Right now, I’m just out here for fun. Whatever happens, happens.
KMJ: You’ve reached a point in your career where it seems like the accolades are coming in regularly and your most recent one is your induction into the Musicians Hall Of Fame. What does this award mean to you?
CD: It means an awful lot. I went down a couple years ago and toured the Musicians Hall Of Fame and they asked me for something to put in there. I gave them one of my guitars that I used on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. I didn’t give it to them, I loaned it to them. I never thought.
What a nice thing, I mean, to pay tribute to musicians who a lot of times have made the music and done it where they haven’t been recognized as such. ‘Course, I have been, and I’ll be going in with a guy that’s played bass with me and with guys like Jim Hendrix named Willie Cox. He was always kinda in the background playing bass, and to be going in with those guys is wonderful. It’s really wonderful to be recognized. As far as myself is concerned, I am so deeply honored to be honored by my peers when there are so many people around the country who deserve this more than I do. And I could go out and find a bunch of them. But since they have decided to honor me in this way, I am very very deeply honored. I will humbly accept this award and be placed in a place that I have an extreme and great appreciation for. And I don’t know if you’ve toured it before or not, but if you ever get to Nashville and have a chance, you oughta go by and see it.
KMJ: I’m hoping to tour it sometime the second week of July.
CD: I hope you will. And I hope you’ll come by my museum down at Second and Broadway.
KMJ: I certainly will. Along those lines, do you have any hopes of being elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame?
CD: Ken, you know, I have not campaigned for that. I don’t think that I will campaign for that because I think if it is something that happens it should be left…
It should be a very honest entry. This particular award should be left to the individual members, which it is. It should be a very honest, very heartfelt vote. Once you’re there, it’s not like any other award you take home and put on a mantle or other place. This one is a place where when you are elected in, you’re there forever–a long long time anyway. At least as long as that beautiful building lasts. This is the top of the heap in terms of accolades as country music is concerned. If I was deserved to go in, if people felt I had a chance to go in, I would be so honored. I can certainly understand if they don’t, however. I was so happy when Vince Gill went in. That they would recognize someone who has contributed so much, but was still doing it. Still living and breathing singing and writing songs. I was happy that they would recognize that. And I know Vince and that had to just floor him.
He’s such a fine person and he’s contributed so much. I was just so glad to see him go in. There are a lot of people who would get in before I would. And justifiably so, I think. There’s still some old-timers that still haven’t made it in yet. And certainly they deserve to go in. So if my peers see a reason, and feel that I deserve to go in, then they’ll put me there. If they don’t, there’s certainly no hard feelings on my part.
KMJ: What about your Opry induction last year? What has that meant to you?
CD: I’ve been listening to the Opry all my life. I hold the Opry in a very high reverence. You know I only have a real reverence for God. You understand what I’m saying? It’s not a reverence, but a tremendous and sincere admiration for it.
I’ve played the Opry so many times that when this happened, I had so many people say, “I thought you were already on the Opry.” And one of those reasons, I guess, is because we had played it so much. For so long, we had a standing invitation to play the Opry any time we were in town. And we took advantage of it quite a bit. But to be asked to be a part of it, and to know that your name is going in the book, alongside Stubbs and Hank Williams and all of these tremendous people that were members of the Opry over the years, that’s the plum in the pudding. The membership is still kinda dawning on me. In fact, I went out there the other day and surprised Montgomery Gentry, making them members of the Opry. After it was over, we were standing back stage and Little Jimmy Dickens was standing there and he said, “Welcome to the Opry.” And I said, “Doggone it, I can say that too, now.” I can tell others, “Welcome to the Opry.” It takes just a little while for it to dawn on you. But for you to be able to say that in the same breath as Little Jimmy Dickens is just a wonderful feeling.
KMJ: We’ll change gears here a little bit. Your passion for the United States is very well documented. There’s no other artist who has been nearly as dedicated to performing for our troops overseas than you perhaps since Bob Hope. Tell me about a typical trip and what it means to you, your band and the guys in the trenches.
CD: Let me invert that just a little and tell you what it means to us first and I’ll get into the details of the trip. It is an honor to go amongst these young folks who have dedicated–voluntarily dedicated–years of the peak of their lives to serving in the military. They’re the best we’ve got. There is no finer representation of American youth or American loyalty than those young men and women–and I want to put an emphasis on women because the ratio seems, I don’t have any statistics on that, but the ratio seems to go up all the time. There are so many ladies who are serving over there. But they’re so healthy, so bright-eyed, so motivated. They have such a great sense of mission and such a great sense of responsibility. If we only had that discipline here. Some of the kids here on the streets today, that get into trouble day in and day out, with drugs and with gangs, with all of these things, if they had the discipline and the reason and focus and motivations that these kids in the military had, it would be a totally different world.
Now a trip? Just to suffice it to say, that it’s an honor just to be among em’. To say you enjoy it, would have to be qualified. Because you don’t enjoy young people putting their lives in jeopardy each day. But other than that, yes I enjoy the act of playing and entertaining these young people. A typical day would be, to some degree–because of the dang weather–the first night we were there, we were outdoors in a soccer stadium. In our first set, a sand storm came up. I mean right to start with, and I thought, goodness. I had never seen a sand storm ’til I saw this. I couldn’t hardly see the people sitting in the front row of the stands. We had a sound crew that sent the word out to please stop because we were going to ruin all the equipment. I said, “I can’t do that. Even if it costs us money, I can’t do that. I can’t walk out of here and leave this kids sitting here like this.” So we played another 45 minutes. And then we went and did our meet and great over inside a theater. We went inside and did our meet and greet. The rest of our other shows we did were indoors for reasons of rain. Sand storms would come up and it might rain a little bit and the mud, well, the water and sand just muds everything up. But we got everything done. Somebody told me we would play and sign autographs for about 700 kids every night. Basically, we had all our pictures autographed ahead of time because we knew we’d never possibly never sign it all. So anything they brought, we’d autograph it. We’d take pictures, find out where they’re from and talk about it for a few seconds or so. Then we’d go back to our quarters, get a few hours sleep and wake up and travel to go play somewhere else. Weather allowing it, we’d have to miss a trip or two. We’d get on a chopper and go out to a forward operating base. It might just be me and maybe one more guitar player or whatever we could bring. You know, going with something smaller and entertaining the people there and then fly back to the main base and do a show that night. It’s a grueling, grueling trip. You stay busy so very much. And you’re moving so much. But the thing about it is, you know you’re doing something good. You hope you’re making a difference. That’s what makes a difference with us.
KMJ: Those sound like the most honorable of performances.
CD: They are. You just stand up on stage, you see these kids out there, in their uniforms, sitting there from all over the United States. Just from everywhere. They’re there because they want to be there. Nobody forces them to go there. They have volunteered. They’ve come over to serve our country. I mean, it’s just a special feeling to stand up there in front a bunch of kids in a desolate part of the world. And I’ve had the honor of being among ‘em in quite a few parts of the world in the last several years. Going places in Afghanistan, and places we don’t even think of having troops. It’s hard to even describe. And it is an extreme honor.
KMJ: This year has marked 50 years of you being on stage, starting way back in 1958 with a group called The Rockets. That in itself is just an amazing feat. Over that time, I’m sure you’ve seen country music change and evolve. What’s your opinion of today’s country music in some historical context?
CD: I feel, as it always has been, that some of it’s good and some of it’s not. It’s true. It’s always been that way. You can go back and listen to music all through the years, and not just country music, but even pop music. And I’m sure I’m not versed enough in classical music, but it too back in the day. Way back when in classical music they were saying “this one’s good, that one’s good and this one’s not.” But that’s the nature of music.
I like some of the music [today]. I think some of the artists are going to be around for awhile. The basic thing that any artist needs to learn, in some way, is that you have to entertain people. You have to entertain people that plunked down good money to come see you because when the hit records stop coming–and they will (or at least they do for about everybody)–people have to have some memory of you. Other than, “He sat on stage, he sang his hits and he walked off.” You know, if that’s all they remember of you, they’re probably not going to pay to see you again because that’s all you’ve got to offer. If you are an entertainer, you’re constantly in flux. You’re constantly changing. You’re constantly changing your show to where people came to see you last year know that if they come to see you this year, they’re going to hear your hits, they’re going to hear some of the songs they heard last year, but you’ve also got something new and exciting for them. You’ve got something new that will entertain them. And that’s what is the point. Singing and playing is not enough. Learn to entertain. If you’re going to stay in this business in some way–people have different ways of doing it–learn to entertain.
KMJ: Any acts stand out for you on the radio today?
CD: You know something, probably something that will surprise you, I don’t really listen to the radio that much. I listen to talk radio. If I want to listen to music, I want to listen to it on my iPod. I don’t even know who’s who or what’s what or anything else for that matter. And that’s not any critique on the music of today or anything. I’m just so busy doing things that I do. I write two columns for my website every week. We’ll play 90 to 100 dates this year. We’ll go out of the country two times. I just stay so busy and so excited on things that I’m doing. I just finished a bluegrass Christmas classic that I flew around the country to do with a bunch of artists. I just stay busy. Just stay busy doing what I do and enjoying what I enjoy. I just don’t find much time to listen to the radio. I don’t know what’s going on, don’t know who’s who.
KMJ: That leads me to my next question about your new bluegrass Christmas CD. Tell me about that project.
CD: We did it with, let me grab my copy right here. Aaron Tippin. Evelyn sang a song. Jewel and CDB. The Grascals, Dan Tyminski, Kathy Mattea. And of course lots of the CDB doing our thing. And maybe another artist or so, I don’t know for sure.
KMJ: That’s a great line-up of artists.
CD: Oh it is. It’s really a great record.
KMJ: I think we have time for two more questions. Tell me about a typical day on your Twin Pines Ranch when you’re not touring.
CD: I’ve been out here a long time. Over the years, I’ve surrounded myself with things that I like to do. I have my horses. I have a riding arena. I have a pond with a little dock in it that I can go fish off of. I’ve got a shooting range. I have a place I go to, a little putting green and a little pad I can go hit balls off of into the pasture and go shag em’ and go hit em’ again. I grew up and love doing outdoor things when I’m at home. I may grab some pistols and some rifles down to the range and go shoot for awhile. I may sit out and hit some golf balls. I may go fish. I may ride a horse–anything and whatever I feel like doing when I get up in the morning. If I’m completely off that day, that’s what I do. I get up and go whichever way I feel like doing. I feel very blessed I got this. I just go do it.
KMJ: The last question is one we ask a lot on The 9513. What is country music to Charlie Daniels?
CD: Country music, to me, is the heart of the flyover country. That’s swinging a little bit of a narrow loop because there are country music fans all over the place. I think these songs, for the most part, are about simple people, people that work for a living. To a big extent, it’s the blue collar crowd. It’s good honest God-fearing people who work hard and enjoy their off time. They’re raising families and paying bills and paying taxes and get out to vote when it’s time to vote. Of course, there’s a lot of heartbreak songs and a lot of country music that’s any part of life. It’s a train whistle blowing at midnight like when you listen to Hank Williams and you get that old lonesome feeling there. It’s a honky-tonk with people line-dancing. Or it’s somebody somewhere sitting mad about some dog that they can’t spend any time with. It’s about looking at the world through the window of an eighteen wheeler. It’s about doing things. It’s about workin’. It’s about workin’ people. Just people. Ordinary people. You don’t think about country music playing to the people on Capitol Hill up in Washington. Or penthouses in New York–although they may. I’m not saying they’re not fans, but it don’t normally talk about their times in life. We talk about the life of the common folks. So, basically, that’s what country music is to me.
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