A Few Minutes With… Charlie Daniels

Interview and story by Don Wilcock

My last morning in Vietnam was beautiful in every way. The sun shone brightly on Cameron Bay as I stood in line with my fellow Army Reserve soldiers from Schenectady’s 1018th Service and Supply Company. We kicked our overstuffed duffle bags along in line to be rummaged through by customs before being loaded onto the freedom bird.

The sound of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay” drifted from the hooch, and I let myself daydream for the first time about what the rest of my life might be like. Dylan, who warned us the times they were a changin’ less than a decade earlier, was now grinning before a Nashville Skyline and singing about erotic feelings in a voice that was less Woody Guthrie and more the exotic lover.

“Yeah, that’s the wonderful thing about music,” says Charlie Daniels, who plays the Times Union Center on Saturday night (May 31). “It gives such incredible memories to everybody, where we were, and what we were doing the first time or the hundredth time we heard a particular song. That song had such a melancholy to it. To me it was such a real departure for Dylan. I’d never heard him sing that way.”

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“I’d never sing a song in that particular chord progression. It’s been used since then, but that’s the first time I’d ever heard the chords put together in that way. I was just so taken with that song and still am.”

Daniels desperately wanted to put “Lay, Lady, Lay” on his just released album, Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan, but he was determined that each song not be a straight cover. “It’s one of my very favorite Dylan tunes, but we just could not – we tried several different ways. We tried changing the beat. We tried changing the feel, but it would always go back to, ‘Are we doing the song justice? No, we’re not. We’re not doing it justice. If we do this, it’s gonna be contrived. And we are not contriving on this album. So let’s just move along and do something else.’”

Daniels played guitar on three Dylan albums between 1969 and ’70 – New Morning, Self Portrait and Nashville Skyline, including “Lay, Lady, Lay.” “It was (fun recording those albums), especially the Nashville Skyline album because there were I think 15 sessions booked to do this album. I don’t know how many we used. It was close to 15. It just went. Bob would sing a song, and everybody would listen to it. That’s the Nashville way of doing things, you know. You stand around and listen and maybe make a little chord chart, and you’re off and running. And everybody’s putting their particular touch to what he’s doing, and if he’s happy with it, leave it alone. And he doesn’t really like to dawdle over a song a whole lot. He likes to get it done. So it went really fast. It was a tremendous amount of fun.”

Charlie talks about the first time he met Dylan: “I had read all these things about the recluse, stand-off-ish genius, uncommunicative and a few words, and that sort of thing. And it was just completely totally opposite. It was a guy smiling, having a good time, having a sense of humor, and so into the music. He just thoroughly enjoyed himself. Nashville Skyline was just a hoot to do.”

Off the Grid is a perfect example of one iconic artist paying homage to another of similar or greater stature, both far into their mutual careers. The songs on Off the Grid are by and large from early in Dylan’s career: “Times They Are A Changin’,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Just Like A Woman” and “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Like Johnny Cash’s final albums, Daniels here displays no artifice, and his weathered treatment of the songs begs the listener to re-interpret their meanings and hear them in the light of a half century of history, both musical and societal. Charlie is not a Dylan clone. He’s a 77-year-old self-proclaimed redneck Christian who has always done things his own way and broken down societal barriers throughout his career.

“I just went with the band (on this album). We took the songs, and we started treatin’ ’em like they were Charlie Daniels songs. The only things we used were the melody and the words, and we put our own thing to it, and if we’d find a song we couldn’t put our mark on, that sounded like something our band was comfortable playing, that we were not trying to crawl into a box, and do something with another purpose, we would slip over that song and move on.

“I wanted to do ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ really bad. I played on the original, and it’s always been one of my favorite Dylan tunes, but I could never get away meaningfully from that arrangement the way it was done in Nashville that had a little Latin sort of drum beat, and crying steel guitar on it and the way that Bob sang it. I just couldn’t make it mean anything and get away from that particular arrangement. So we just moved on. We just stepped over it and went on.

“There were other songs I thought about doing, but we did not get away from either the way Dylan had done it or somebody else had done it. The thing about it is, once you start on the Dylan catalog, it’s a bottomless well. It’s not like, ‘Hey, guys. We only have a few songs.’ We got a couple hundred here to choose from, whatever we want to do. So it was a lot of fun doing that album, the guys and myself.

“Our way of recording, we got a recording studio that nobody records in but us, and everything just stays set up for us. We’ve worked in it so much. We’re very comfortable in communicating with each other while we’re recording. It’s easy to do because we’re so used to recording here. It’s just a great way to make music, and so we went in and bounced ideas off each other. We’d try somebody’s idea. If it didn’t work, we’d (move on) to somebody else’s. It didn’t take very long. It was just one of those fun things. You just go in. You’ve having fun. First thing you know you’ve got an album’s worth of material.”

The son of a lumberjack, Daniels picked cotton and tobacco as a kid and listened to the Grand Ole Opry growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina. He first recorded with producer Bob Johnson, who introduced him to Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

“I toured with Leonard in a band called The Army. It introduced me to something I’d never been exposed to before, a very fragile kind of music where less truly is more, that every note has to count. Then you can be very sparse and very, very, very unobtrusive, which is something I had never done. I’d just been balls to the walls, bang-slam, as far as live playing was concerned. Bob definitely had something to do with that. He introduced me to some places I’d never been before.”

Best known for his 1979 number one country single “The Devil Went Down in Georgia,” Daniels has always avoided the fast-lane lifestyle of other country and pop icons. An avowed Christian, he’s had the same manager, David Corlew, for 41 years and has played benefits for veterans for decades.

Daniels is one of three acts playing the Times Union Center in Albany at 7pm on Saturday (May 31). The others are the Marshall Tucker Band and Bret Michaels. The concert caps a free, day-long Pearl Street Jam Block Party that begins at 12noon and includes food, merchandise and a custom motorcycle show. E.B. Jeb, the No. 2 Band and Skeeter Creek play free on Pearl Street in front of the TU Center in the afternoon. Partial proceeds from the concert go toward Soldier On, the Center for Homeless Veterans of Albany County. It is the first salvo in an effort to turn the Ann Lee Nursing Home near the Albany Airport into a refuge for vets. Daniels has been doing benefits for vets for decades – long before it became a popular cause.

He was five years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. “I remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. The town I was raised in, Wilmington, North Carolina, was a seaport town and a very strategic one at that because, well, I don’t know what they shipped out of there, but they shipped a lotta stuff out of the port to go over for the war effort, and there were German U boats just off our coast that sank the tankers and the ships that went out. I never saw it, but they said that sometimes the battles were so close you could literally see the fires from the burning ships from our shoreline.”

This journalist will never forget that sunny day in Cameron Bay when “Lay, Lady, Lay” became the soundtrack for the rest of my life. I thought I’d spent my last day in hell on earth as a pawn in a war that was wrong. Now, 45 years later to see the layers of the Veterans Administration onion peeled back to reveal the horrors of self-serving bureaucrats leaving war heroes to die unattended in their wheel chairs brings back real nightmares. Daniels shares in my anger. And he’s doing something about it.

“This thing that’s going on at the VA right now, President Obama should drop everything else he’s doing and just say, ‘I am going to kick somebody’s ass. I’m going to kick one every day until this thing is completely straightened out,’” says Daniels. “We send people off to put their lives in jeopardy like yourself and generations of people who go and put their lives on the line for us, and they come back and we don’t take care of ’em? That is unacceptable. One of the prime concerns and duties of the United States government is to take care of the people who are involved for us.

“I am livid about this thing. I am absolutely livid about it. I’ve been writing about it, and Tweeting about it, and I just – it’s just wrong. This is so wrong. This has got to be dealt with, and I don’t see anybody dealing with it. I don’t see anybody that knows anything about it, and, like I put on my Twitter accounts, our President gets his information about what his administration is doing from the media. He needs to hire some new help. So we’ll see what happens, but you know what? You said you’re a Christian. You got God looking after you. He doesn’t ever forsake us. He takes care of us. So, that’s who we rely on.”

WHAT: Benefit Concert for Homeless Veterans
WHO: The Charlie Daniels Band, Bret Michaels and the Marshall Tucker Band
WHERE: The Times Union Center, 51 South Pearl Street, Albany
WHEN: 7pm Saturday (May 31)
HOW MUCH: $35, $45 & $55

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