Charlie Daniels

Same Ol' CD
Same Ol' CD

There are more facets to veteran Charlie Daniels’ entertainment enterprises than many of his fans may realize. Not only has the affable guitarist released 29 albums since 1971, he’s also an author, host of a Nashville talent search television show (on TNN), and even a college commencement speaker!

But most people probably know about Charlie Daniels from his straightforward, tell-it-like-it-is approach to his musical craft, which has brought ongoing success (and occasional controversy) to the Charlie Daniels Band for many years. When Daniels called Vintage Guitar‘s Southern Regional Office for an on-the-record conversation, his combo was, as might be expected, out on the road plying their trade. Daniels’ most recent release at the time was his second Christian album, Steel Witness, (Sparrow), and the previous secular album had been titled Same Ol’ Me:

Vintage Guitar: One would imagine that your earlier influences when you were growing up in North Carolina would have been country-oriented.
Charlie Daniels: Yeah, and bluegrass, too, but I also loved the blues. I was a big fan of B.B. King, and Duane Allman as well. I’ve always kind of leaned in the direction of blues and R & B; I guess it was because I played in clubs for so long; that kind of music was always popular for dancing.

Tell me about some of your earlier guitars.
I had a Gibson f-hole model with one pickup; I don’t remember the model number. One time I got a custom-built Gretsch that had my name on the fretboard in mother-of-pearl. It was stolen, and I always thought I might get it back some day, since it was personalized, but I never did. Once I got to Nashville, I got a Telecaster, and of course, I’ve played Les Pauls for many years.

Is it fair to say your “big break” in Nashville would have been playing on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline?
Probably. Bob Johnston was producing him, and I was a big Dylan fan, so I convinced him to let me play one session; another guitarist was supposed to do the rest of ’em. I played my heart out, and when I got ready to leave, Dylan said: “Where’s Charlie going?” He was told that another guitar player coming in, and he said: “I don’t want another guitar player I want him.” Dylan was always considerate of the musicians he worked with; he put my name on his record, so that was a big shot in the arm for my career.

Your first releases were probably pigeonholed in the southern rock genre; I recall that your band did harmony guitar leads, and I think you had two drummers at one time. Was that the vibe you were going for at that time?
Yeah, basically. That kind of music is blues-based, so I loved it. We still play a lot of stuff like that today; we’ve even got three-guitar leads on the new gospel album. But we’ve done a variety of music over the years; we’re cutting a blues album right now, for example. That’s something I’ve never done, and that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Over the years, I’ve always followed my feelings about what I wanted to do with my music.

And you know, my record collection would probably surprise a lot of people because I’ve got all kinds of stuff; I like all kinds of music. Sometimes I get in the mood to listen to classical music, for example, and I write that way too; I write all kinds of stuff. Some sound like bluegrass; some may sound jazzy.

Of all of the Volunteer Jam concerts you’ve staged, are there any special moments you can recall?
Well, we’ve had some great guitar jams with players like Dickie Betts and Toy Caldwell. Those happened at almost every concert.

Was Ted Nugent the most unusual guest you had at a Volunteer Jam?
Actually, Ted was at three of ’em. One of the most unusual guests we’ve ever had was Eugene Fodor, the classical violinist, and one time we had Woody Herman and his Big Band.

One of my favorite cover tunes of all times is Jimmy Mall’s version of “Higher and Higher,” which is on one of the Volunteer Jam albums.
Jimmy Hall is one heck of a talent. He’s out with Hank Jr. these days; we’ve played some dates with them.

About 10 years ago, you sat in during the Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour.
Yeah, that was in Atlanta. When they put out a video about that tour, I was the host on it.

Your association with the Gibson Les Paul has gone on for so long that Richard Young (Kentucky Headhunters) told me that he wanted a Les Paul with a fancy top some years ago, but his local music store was told by the Gibson rep that the company was only going to make such guitars for players like Charlie Daniels. Have you owned any older, ’50s Les Pauls?
I had a ’58 that was stolen from me; one of the roadies was taking it to get some repairs done to it, and somebody stole it out of his car. I thought the guitars that were coming out after CBS bought Fender and Norlin bought Gibson were responsible for the interest in vintage guitars, because you couldn’t buy a good new guitar. But the last few years, Gibson and Fender have definitely come back around; both companies are making good stuff now.

And there are some other companies that make good guitars; I’ve got a couple of Tyler guitars, that are made in California, that are great. The people that stayed in Kalamazoo with Heritage make good instruments.

But when Gibson and Fender weren’t making good guitars, that’s what got the whole vintage thing going, and then collectors started looking for ’em, as well as players. I’ve got a lot of guitars, but I don’t collect; I intend to play every guitar that I get. I’ve got them in a vault, at the same place where I’ve got my recording studio, and we’ve got all kinds of amps that we’ve used through the years there, as well. When we record, it’s amazing how much difference a certain guitar can make to a certain part of a song. We go into the vault and grab a guitar, and if that don’t work, we’ll grab another one, until we find one that does work (chuckles).

For most of your career, there’s been the perception that you’re pretty much uncompromising when it comes to things like integrity. Songs like “In America,” “Simple Man,” and the title track from Same Ol’ Me are examples. Some of those songs have generated some controversy, but you were stating how you felt, right?
Yeah; “Simple Man” was one thing that some of the more liberal members of the press got onto me about

(interrupting): That was the song that advocated the death penalty for drug dealers.
Yep; hang ’em high (laughs)! You can read things in the liberal press that make it look like the whole country is into such things, but they’re not. People are sick and tired of crime in this country. So I don’t write my songs for some prissy-ass liberal big-town newspaper person; I’m a blue collar-type person, and I write the way I feel, which usually happens to coincide with the feelings of the people I play for.

Steel Witness is your second album of Christian material. Are the songs still in a rock or country-rock mode?
There’s a lot of different kinds of music on that album. One song is sort of electric bluegrass thing that I did with the Cox Family.

There are some artists who achieved a lot of success in secular music at one time but they’re now in the contemporary Christian genre; Dion would be a long-term example. Why have you felt inspired to do both types of albums? It seems like a lot of people do either one or the other.
Well, I don’t see a problem with it. I’m a Christian, and I always intended to do a Christian album; I’ve felt that way for a long time. Years ago, mainstream labels would release a Christian album by one of their artists, but they’ve gotten away from that. I was on mainstream labels for a long time, so the opportunity to do a Christian album the way they used to be done never presented itself. I got a chance to do my first Christian album when I was on Capital; the same company that owned Capital also owned Sparrow.

Is an example of a mainstream label releasing an artist’s gospel album something like Elvis’ His Hand in Mine?
Exactly; everybody used to do albums like that, especially anybody who did country back then. Tennessee Ernie Ford was another one. It was almost a given that if somebody went far in country music, they would eventually do a gospel album, and a lot of times, gospel music was part of their shows.

Tell me about the Homefolks and Highways video that was released in 1990.
That was a documentary that a video company called Cabin Fever wanted to do. They dispatched a camera crew to follow us around; there’s concert footage on there, and footage of my home area down in North Carolina. Cabin Fever also did that Lynyrd Skynyrd video we talked about earlier, and they also did Toy Caldwell’s solo album; I played on a song called “Trouble in Dixie.”

Then there’s a book you wrote, The Devil Went Down To Georgia, which was published in 1985.
That was just a book of short stories. A friend of mine once told me: “You write ‘story songs,’ so why don’t you write stories?” One day while I was on the road, I sat down in my motel room and wrote one, and that started it off; I wrote several more and got them published.

When you hosted that talent show on TNN, did you feel like Ted Mack with a 10-gallon hat?
(laughs) Not really; I just tried to do it my own way. I was a little apprehensive when I was first asked about doing it, but once I got into it, I really enjoyed it.

In the Atlanta Olympics, one of the gymnasts used “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in her floor exercise routine. That was an unusual way to make royalties!
(chuckles) Yeah, she used it three times, and I finally got to see her perform the third time.

How did you feel about delivering the commencement address at UNC-Wilmington in 1995?
It was great! But there was a bit of controversy before I did that; some of the kids were saying in the school’s newspaper that I didn’t have any academic stature or credentials. But I really got into being able to speak to those young people, and it was a lot of fun.

Future plans?
We’re recording a blues album right now; 10 original songs. It’s one of my favorite kinds of music. We’ve got quite a bit of work to do on it, but I’ve always wanted to do an album like this, just like I’ve always wanted to do Christian albums.

We’re touring pretty hard, and we’ll keep on touring; we may be going back out with Hank Jr. again.

One last inquiry: who’s got the biggest hat, Johnny Paycheck, Garth Brooks, or you?

I would’ve said Paycheck if someone asked me.
Paycheck’s just looks that way ’cause his head’s so little (laughs)!

Still at it after decades of success, Charlie Daniels’ attitude and music are a refreshing yet dependable alternative to a lot of current musical trends. But Daniels (who hit the Big 6-0 in 1996) isn’t resting on his laurels at all. Not only is he still actively touring and recording, he’s pursuing musical options that he’s always admired. Charlie Daniels’ legacy is admirable, and it’s still being forged.

(Since Vintage Guitar interviewed Charlie Daniels, his blues album has been released; it’s called Blues Hat, and is on Daniels’ own Blue Hat label. A CD box set called The Roots Remain has also been released.)

Photo: Jim McGuire

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.