Charlie Daniels: a critical look at the music and the man
The recent news on the passing of Charlie Daniels has left me with mixed emotions.
While I am certainly on-board with the good time nostalgia for this man’s artistic work rightfully reigning supreme in any analysis, the parallel requiems that also seem to be awarding him the twin honors of Breakthrough Genius and Benevolent Humanitarian are much more problematic for me. That’s because both of those honors border on falling into the “free pass not earned” category — in my opinion, anyways.
1970’s southern rock, despite its cliched treatment in recent decades (“Play Free Bird!”), is arguably the premier flavor of American rock & roll’s glorious mashup. Despite some insider acclaim as a decent session hand prior (Dylan hits Nashville), it was into this creative wave and popular explosion that Daniels first made his mark into the wider public consciousness. While not as big and bad as the top tier lions of that era (i.e., Allmans, Skynyrd, Hatchet, Tucker), Daniels and company were always there in the mix; either as support for the big shows or as headliners for smaller theaters and college shows cost-to-coast, complete with an aggressive touring schedule that never ended until COVID hit.
Indeed, the Charlie Daniels Band (aka: CDB) became the ‘taste of’ southern rock experience for smaller market towns and schools that weren’t big enough for those bigshots’ traveling circuses. They threw a good party, they rocked and had the unique (at the time) theatrics of a front man that could play both a pretty mean axe and a slick mountain fiddle. Their ‘Fire on the Mountain’ release sealed their credibility, with its anthems and landscapes of life in the New South resonating with the disparate youthful tribes of that day.
While Daniels can be looked at as having benefited greatly from a right place timing, there’s no doubt that he contributed to the emerging good ole boy / rednecks & hippies mythology that shaped both that period and its accompanying soundtrack. Cuts like “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” and “Long Haired Country Boy” not only painted that romantic picture but also accelerated its spread across the land. It was not unusual to find Confederate flags adorning walls in Yankee dorms back then; thank CDB and its running acts for that – be it for good, bad or neither.
I was embedded into that whole scene, back in the day. I was bit especially hard by the southern rock bug; as were most of my mates. We’d catch CDB on stages big and small, in towns including Buffalo (Harvey Weinstein presents!), Albany, Cleveland, Louisville, Jersey City and probably 5 more I can’t recall. That’s what you did back then; you chased rock & roll shows. My college gang always fantasized of getting to Charlie’s Volunteer Jam in Tennessee; but it never happened. We’d buy the tapes instead.
In the music biz, big hits can be a blessing or a curse. For Charlie Daniels, it was both. We all know the big hit that soon emerged: ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’. The blessing is it made him a rich man and eased his life from that point onward. The curse is that he lost that critical ‘cred’ mentioned above. Not that he likely cared, mind you. Can we blame him? Phhhtttt.
But combine that with the late 70’s / early 80’s waning of southern rock, and Mr. Daniels proved what a good reader of fortunes he was. He did so by following a viable formula: when you lose your cred in the music biz, what’s the answer? That’s easy: you go into country music!
That he did; meaning he became more of a State Fair act than a college campus one. Those long hairs were replaced by the guys in pickups and their office worker wives that tune into this newly packaged genre called Modern Country Hits. No cred needed there; so step right in, Mr. Daniels!
Given the pedigree, CDB was admittedly better than most live acts within that dreadful universe. But the subsequent recorded output better matched the new constituency’s tastes; meaning it pretty much sucked. But the shift was a commercial success, the new audience treated him as a more mainstreamed Willie, the show never stopped, the Opry embraced him and the checks all cleared.
Along the way, something else changed as well – and it was even more depressing if not outright disturbing:
The “let’s all get along” vibe that easily merged college kids, beer buzzing rednecks and dope smoking freaks back in the 70’s version of Charlie Daniels slowly morphed into an Us vs Them call to arms of supercharged political and Culture Wars proportions. His ‘us’ was his true patriot version of hard line, righteous Christian conservative soldiers at war with the ‘them’ of Bernie Sanders style Antifa left-wing socialist baby-killing liberals that are dead set on selling the nation to some worldwide leftist movement. He considered himself a fierce defender of an endangered liberty – and he knew exactly who the enemy was. Just ask him.
Those very 70’s anthems that formerly celebrated the laid back ethos of the Southland in a spirit of welcoming communitarian ideals were now unleashed as battle slogans and marching hymns vs those threatening forces of the liberal persuasion. Daniels’ interviews, tweet and stage banter could have all been written by wordsmiths from InfoWars, Proud Boys or the GOP, often filled with the rage and general logic-defying ignorance that one expects from those very sources. It was often ugly and it was typically unhinged.
Political differences are fine and healthy; as is the discussion. But the concept of the bell Curve should arise: at least keep it in the parameters of standard liberal vs conservative or even left vs right. But that wasn’t Charlie’s stake in the ground. His was an outlier’s far/alt-right set of principles that defy any reasonable definition of being within the bounds of the polite norm.
A few years back, the Charlie Daniels Band was offered to me as a possible headline act for Y3 of my American Music Festival for the Lake up in Lake George’s Charles Wood Park. Word had gotten out to the booking agent community that I was going to go classic / old school that year, and the CDB rep rang me. I expressed my concerns, while also realizing it would be a show that meets the mark of drawing local interest up there in Warren County.
“Why do you care what BS he spews on the stage,” the agent asked?
“I just do; and it’s my name on the thing,” was my reply. I had the feeling I wasn’t the first one to say “pass” for the obvious reasons. I bought Blue Oyster Cult instead. One of those guys has some weird ideas himself; but at least he doesn’t broadcast it like he’s a trusted authority while wrapping it in hate. Big difference.
A team of other producers – promoters ran with CDB the following year in the same festival space; and that’s fine. I am told it was a success and the locals had a good time.
Fast forward a couple of year to the present – and old Mr Charlie Daniels has cashed his final appearance check. My first reaction was to feel bad that he hadn’t died in his tour bus; as he had expressed as his wish in a TV interview once. Soon thereafter came that expected acclaim for his music and his life-as-lived, as we are seeing now. As said, I have mixed feelings. But a Summary version might go like this:
The music was timely; it was enjoyable and it had more influence than just being popular albums and good live shows. But that description in that sentence covers a period of about four years; if that. The other 40+ years was formulatic, mail-it-in drivel for an audience that wasn’t seeking anything more. To be fair, I say that with the knowledge that ‘four years’ is still a contribution that should be valued. But there’s a lot of wasted time there afterwards.
As a human being, it isn’t as simple. But the hate and divisive low-info idiocy that flew from the mind, lips and fingers of Charlie Daniels for the past couple decades can not and should not be ignored. There’s the free pass I lead this article with. His legit charitable causes can’t be excuses to ignore that fact.
If we can put the screws to a mega talent like Ryan Adams over his past dastardly deeds during this Age of Review that we find ourselves in, then Mr Daniels should not be let off the hook so easily just because he’s …. well: dead.
A former musician, concert promoter and festival creator, Robert Millis now leads The 398Group; which offers strategic advisory services to the live music industry (Artists. Venues. Festivals. Govt’s. Economic Developers).
Say HELLO at: 398Group@gmail.com