Charlie Daniels saw his share of change in his nearly six decades in the music industry–from trying his hand at rockabilly in the 1950s and writing a song for Elvis Presley to later bridging the culturally fine line between Southern rock and outlaw country in the 1970s.
Along the way, Daniels ruffled his share of musical and political feathers. In the early 1970s, he parodied “rednecks” in songs like “Uneasy Rider,” but literally changed his tune 20 years later with “(What This World Needs is) a Few More Rednecks.” He was once an avid supporter of President Carter, but later moved rightward.
Daniels died July 6, 2020 at the age of 83.
Fiddling around as a studio player
Born in North Carolina in 1936, Daniels began playing music as soon has he was big enough to hold his fiddle and guitar. While a young Nashville session player, he wrote “It Hurts Me,” which was recorded by Presley.
As a session player, Daniels worked with the likes of Bob Dylan [including on his classic Nashville Skyline country album], Leonard Cohen and ex-Beatle Ringo Starr on his first solo album, the country-flavored Beaucoups of Blues. Daniels even worked as a producer, most notably for Jesse Colin Young’s Youngbloods.
Daniels did not step out on his own as an artist until 1971, and he was idiosyncratic from the beginning. Such disparate songs as the self-styled “Long Haired Country Boy” and the novelty folk of “Uneasy Rider” cast Daniels as a sort of country counterculture figure trying to make sense of the changing times.
Later, songs like “Still in Saigon,” “The South’s Gonna Do it Again” and “In America” cemented Daniels’s reputation as a passionate, if hard-nosed, advocate for right-leaning populism, while embracing long hair and the outlaw attitude of leftist pal Willie Nelson. He earned criticism for “Simple Man,” which seemed to advocate vigilantism and backtracked on Daniels’s earlier pro-pot positioning.
The rednecks used to pick on people because they had long hair. Now, the rednecks have long hair.
Crossing over with his biggest hit
In 1979, the Charlie Daniels Band earned its biggest success with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a crossover hit that proved iconic, even for those who wanted nothing to do with country music. All thanks to the Urban Cowboy soundtrack.
“I done told you once, you son of a bitch. I’m the best there’s ever been!”
A radio-friendly version called the devil a “son of a gun.”
Daniels’s 2014 CD, Off the Grid, paid tribute to Dylan with distinctive takes on such classics as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “I Shall Be Released” and even “Gotta Serve Somebody,” from the latter songwriter’s controversial Christian period.
The following few questions were asked of the Grammy winner and Grand Ole Opry inductee in 2015.
How have your views on politics and culture changed since the days of “Uneasy Rider” and “Long Haired Country Boy”?
To some degree, it has. I think that’s just part of the aging process. I supported Jimmy Carter because I felt he was a good man. I still feel he’s a good man. We didn’t have honesty and integrity in our government before that and I felt Jimmy Carter was the man to do it. I’ve never really been a party supporter, but a person supporter. The Democratic Party’s gone up and left me. I think the country has changed as much as I have. The rednecks used to pick on people because they had long hair. Now, the rednecks have long hair. Rednecks got a bad name, but this is a badge of honor actually.
You were once a session player for Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. How did that experience shape your later career?
I’ve always been impressed by the way Dylan and Cohen put words together. It was such an unusual way of using the English language. The first time I heard Dylan sing “Lay Lady Lay” and that chord progression, I thought it was one of the darnedest things I’d ever heard. I could never write lyrics like Dylan or Cohen, but if I could in my own way rise to being as careful and meaningful with the lyric, it would be a good thing.
The rigors of session work also seemed to be a training ground for running a band that developed such a reputation for musical dexterity.
We approach it from a band standpoint. My guys are incredible players. They’re all better than I am. I struggle every night to keep up with them. We give leeway. If you do a solo, you play it the way you want to. We’ll catch up with you at the bridge.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” has had such a broad cultural presence, from video games to a heavy metal version. Has its staying power surprised you?
I thought it would get a lot of mileage, but as far as it crossing over into Top 40, I had no idea. It’s a timeless story and everybody likes to see the devil get beat. Little kids like it. Older people like it. It was our first big international touring song–Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany. It’s just amazing that song transcended even languages.