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Rewind with Charlie Daniels: "Music is too precious for me to prostitute it"

Charlie Daniels
Charlie Daniels
Copyright: Erick Anderson

Singer, songwriter, musician, recording artist, Grammy and CMA award winner, author — there is little that Charlie Daniels hasn’t done. With over 50 years of music industry experience, Daniels, now 77, continues to play hundreds of concerts per year, release albums, dedicate himself to volunteer work, and speak his mind about music and his beloved country. On April 1, 2014, he released a new studio album, Off The Grid — Doin’ It Dylan, featuring his versions of ten Bob Dylan songs, released on his Blue Hat Records label. A longtime and outspoken supporter of America’s military, Daniels was recently appointed Chairman of the Board of the Journey Home Project (www.thejourneyhomeproject.org), which assists other nonprofit organizations in securing funds to help causes that benefit veterans.

Charlie Daniels, who plays fiddle, guitar and mandolin, is most often thought of as a country artist, but his resume is diverse. He was a studio guitarist on three Dylan albums: Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, and New Morning, experiences that he credits for building his confidence and career. He produced the Youngbloods’ Elephant Mountain and Ride the Wind (1969-1970), toured Europe with Leonard Cohen, and did session work with Al Kooper and Marty Robbins. By the time the Charlie Daniels Band hit big on their own in the mid-1970s, they were staples on rock radio, with hit after hit.

Regardless of trends or what the industry dictates, Daniels has never veered from following his heart. His management team and some of his band members have been with him for decades. His concerts are appropriate for all ages, and the caliber of musicianship attracts the most diehard gearheads.

The Charlie Daniels Band is currently on tour, with over 100 shows booked this year. Here is a look back at an interview with Charlie Daniels.

Many artists, some many years your junior, book shorter tours and fewer dates. You, on the other hand, are among that handful of artists with decades-long careers who never stop writing, recording, and performing.

I don’t believe in mandatory retirement. I believe in elective retirement, but companies make a big mistake with mandatory retirement at 65 because individuals are capable of bringing something through their years of experience to a company. If you're going to be a loyal employee, you've developed the traits by then. There's a wealth of knowledge and industry left in people who are forced to quit in their mental prime. I love what I do. I love traveling on the bus, doing interviews, playing — I love everything about it. I started my career with a big goal of longevity. I didn't want to get in and out of this business. I can't imagine my life without it. I never followed trends or fads, because when they go, you go with them. We refuse to do a bad show. All our shows are high energy, entertaining, family oriented. You'll never be embarrassed in front of your children. It's a blessing from God that I've been able to do this for so long and still be viable.

The Charlie Daniels Band broke into radio during a time when rock stations played everything from your music to Led Zeppelin to Stevie Wonder. Listeners received a musical education across several genres. Today, you can devote your time to only one artist on a satellite station.

Our bread and butter back then was album-oriented radio, where they played two or three cuts off of an album, if they liked them. Those stations were classified as rock, but they played everything from bluegrass to jazz. It was a great format, and our records got the most promotion there. Everything is so formatted now because everyone wants a “sound” to pursue. It would be great if radio would start loosening up and not be contingent on a Top 40. There is so much good music that gets lost in the cracks, on album cuts, songs that are not in the “format” and that audiences will never even get to hear because of that. I would love to see artists get the exposure that they’re missing because of this limited airplay.

You spent many years recording in Nashville for major labels and received tremendous respect on Music Row. Eventually, you opted to take full control of your career by launching Blue Hat Records. What made it the right time to do so?

My thing with the major labels is plain and simple. I had papers on my manager's desk from major labels for our live album when an incident happened that let me know that I would be interfered with in an artistic way, and I cannot do that. Nobody is better qualified to tell me what to do than me — I've been doing this for years. I take directions very well and work well with producers and record people, but what I put on a record has to be up to me, or to no degree will I be satisfied. I love Nashville and I wouldn't live anywhere else in the world but middle Tennessee, but I can't be part of it because I live in the world of music and a lot of Nashville lives in the world of image: how you should look and how you should sound. I have nothing against the people who do it. There are a lot of roads in the music business and we've all got to take different ways, but that's not me. I am a member of the Charlie Daniels Band, there are six musicians in my outfit, and when we play, we play together. I don't necessarily say, “You've got to sing this or play that.” I might give some direction, but my guys are very creative and they put their own ideas down. Some of the greatest musicians are studio musicians in Nashville, but they play four to six sessions a day and there's a sameness in the sound that I'm sure they'd agree exists. We work things out among ourselves and sound different. So I have no problem with the way they do things in Nashville. It's just not for me.

You were one of the frontrunners in taking full control of your career. Now it’s almost a given that independent artists do this, and likewise, some of your major-label colleagues have followed in your footsteps.

The new flock running Nashville companies are not necessarily music people. They’re Top 10 hits people. That’s not a derogatory comment toward them; they just don’t know any other way. I can’t fit the Nashville mold anymore. I never did, really. What’s out now and what record companies want you to do — I won’t settle for less than my best. I want to cut things my way, not because I think I’m always right, but because I am right about what I do best. I don’t want to be influenced by outside interests or getting on radio. I’m a musician, and the only way I can be one is to do things myself. I’ve sold millions of albums with not that many singles. Music is too precious for me to prostitute it.

From album to album, and even from cut to cut, you create a musical quilt of country, rock, blues, gospel, jazz and swing, all tightly seamed together by your fiddle. It’s always you, but defining the music isn't always easy.

I don’t know what the genre du jour is. I don't put a title on my music. I do it and let the chips fall where they may.

While your name may be upfront, and you conduct almost all of the interviews, you are also meticulous about pointing out that it is the Charlie Daniels Band, not a solo artist plus backup musicians.

I’ve always had a band, even when I was playing clubs. In the early days I had a hard time convincing record companies that it’s not Charlie Daniels, it’s the Charlie Daniels Band. These are the guys that play with me. I had to drive it home at radio and everywhere. I do things from a band perspective. It’s a different concept when your guys are part of your sound. I am a part of a six-piece band. I’m the guy responsible for it, but everyone contributes, and without them I wouldn’t sound the same.

When the Charlie Daniels Band performs, you bring a set list that includes decades of hits. To what do you attribute your longevity?

One of my main objectives when I started out in this industry was making this a living for as long as I could. I had to be able to do something people like, which is entertain. That’s the bottom line. When I walk out onstage, the one thing on my mind is that the people in the audience came to be entertained, and our job is to make them happy. Our songs don’t just happen to be in sequence. I carefully place them there. We put a new set together every year and we move things around to pace it. When you come to our shows, the music and dialogue are paced to get you between the eyes from the start, then ease you down, come back hard until the end, and for that hour and fifteen minutes, or however long we play, depending on the venue, the whole time that people are in their seats, our job is to entertain them for however long they will be in our presence. You have to build a career on entertaining people, because one of these days you’re not going to have your videos on CMT or MTV, you’re not going to look good in tight jeans, and you’re not going to be at the top of the charts. So what have you got left? People have a memory of enjoying your show, and they’ll want to see you again. When people ask me how I sustain a career in the music business, I say, “Learn to entertain.”

You can’t let the excitement go out of your life. Some people shouldn't be in the music business, because they see it as the means to an end. I see it as a way of life. Longevity was always important to me. If you don’t love the music business, you shouldn’t get in it. If you burn out and don’t love it enough to put up with the hardships and sacrifices, you're not devoting yourself, trying new things, fresh approaches. That’s basically how it works for me. I hate to hear kids bitch about the road. They get a hit record, a bus, and “Oh, it’s so horrible!” I have no patience for that. If you don’t like it, go home and get another job. I love the road. I think it’s a great place to make a living.

How do you and your band members continue to challenge each other onstage after so many years?

Everything is new to us every night because our band is not restricted to playing the same thing. There is a lot of leeway for improvisation and solos. I feature my musicians, they write songs, and I am not a guy who has a band behind him and I’m in the front. I have talented musicians and they are part of the entertainment and the variety of our show. It’s a different situation for our band. They’re not told to learn the songs note for note and play the same solo every night. Some bands do that and that’s just fine, but that’s not the kind of band we have. They do the harmony parts, we stick to that, and other than that I don’t care what they play, as long as they make it good and entertaining.

The fact sheet in your press kit is mind-boggling: awards, honors, nominations, books, videos, the discography is pages long and full of gold, platinum, and multi-platinum certifications. The word “icon” comes to mind.

I don’t feel that way because I'm just an old boy that God's been very good to. He has allowed me to make a living doing what I love, with people I love. It has happened over a long, long period of years and I’m still involved. If I ever quit, take the rocking chair and look over it all, maybe. Sometimes I’m amazed by the amount of work I’ve done in a period of time and the amount of miles we’ve traveled. I love the awards I have received, and I’m very appreciative of every accolade that has passed my way. I'm deeply honored.

How big a part did growing up in North Carolina play in developing your musical style?

I don’t mean to sound chauvinistic, but all musical styles created in the U.S. came out of the South. Jazz, blues, rock to a big extent, R&B — every music in its pure form came from the Southeast. I don’t know the reason for that, other than most American music, other than country, came to us through Black Americans. We owe so much of our cultural heritage to Black America because so much came from them. Where I grew up, that was very evident. It’s kind of natural for Southern people to feel a lot of different kinds of music because we are exposed to it.

What is the songwriting process like for you?

I’ve had spells where I don't write as much as the month before, but I have to think this is an ongoing situation, like a water tap that keeps running. Your mind has to stay fertile to ideas. I spend a lot of time playing guitar, coming up with riffs, and I'm always susceptible to ideas. You water and fertilize them until you get a song from them. Some songs take a long time and some come quickly. I live this life. I don’t go home for six months and ski — I can't ski! — but I do take time off and it takes me a couple of weeks to slow down and relax. But I still keep in touch with the office, practice my instruments, and if I watch TV, I have a guitar or a fiddle in my hands. You never let the fire go out without putting more fuel on it. You've got to stay on top of it.

You have never shied away from addressing political and social issues. You clearly state your point in songs like "Still In Saigon" and "In America."

I don't set out to stir up controversy. One thing I will say is that I do speak my mind — it's the only mind I've got to speak — and I wish everyone in America would do that. I wish they would all vote. I do because it's my duty. In this politically correct atmosphere we live in, some of the things I say go against the theories of those people of power in certain parts of the media. They want to take me to task. I don't mind the dialogue; it's the “How dare you have that opinion?” that bothers me. Agreeing to disagree is fine; let's talk, and I bet we can find some common ground. Sometimes I look like I'm some kind of two-fisted guy who drives a truck and throws empty beer cans in the back end. There is a blue-collar side to me, but it's not the predominant side. I'm a gentle sort of person. I love children, my family, and the Lord. I believe in getting along. I hate dissension and useless arguing. If I had my way, there would never be another argument in the world. We would all accept each other's ideologies and live in peace.

You’re well known for your views and patriotism, but on a smaller scale, what can individuals do to make a difference one on one?

Of course, the most important thing is to vote, and if you don’t vote, don’t bitch, because you had nothing to do with the process. That’s looking at part of the political picture. We also need to tell the truth and hear the truth, no matter how bad it is. We need to identify our country’s problems. As far as the way you run your household and your life, how we treat each other, before you say a sentence, think about how it sounds. Think about the person who is unpopular in your office or classroom because of their race, or because maybe they’re a little slower than everyone else, or for whatever reason, and no one is kind to them. You be kind to that person. God made us all. We are not exclusive on this earth. If I ask someone a question, how do I want to be answered? Do I want them to scream at me? No. Speak kindly. Kindness is contagious. Lead by example. You are an example for others. You are the microcosm of what you think people should be and what they should do. Affect them with kindness. Say “good morning.” Ask how someone’s family is doing. Care if someone is sick or has a problem. It all boils down to one thing: truly caring about people and how you treat them. Start out by being as good a person as you can be, let that grow on you, and it will grow on somebody else.