I had a ball, sitting in the studio with two of my idols, Charlie Daniels said of his latest CD, Songs from the Longleaf Pines. Those two idols are legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs and singer Mac Wiseman, and the collection of foot-stomping gospel bluegrass tunes takes Daniels back full circle to his childhood days, pickin and grinnin with his pals on a porch in North Carolina.
The first serious band I ever played in was a bluegrass band, Daniels said in a recent interview from a tour stop in Choctaw, Miss.
The straight-talking, flag-waving, burly Southerner, who will lead his band in concert Friday in the Toledo Harley Davidson parking lot, has blazed through many musical styles in his career but is best known for his rollicking fiddle-duel ballad, The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Born in Wilmington, N.C., on Oct. 28, 1937, Daniels moved to Fort Worth, Texas, during his childhood and was raised on country and bluegrass music. But he said he also loved jazz, R&B, and early rock and roll especially the music of Elvis Presley.
To say that Elvis was one of my heroes would be like calling the Pacific Ocean a mud puddle, Daniels said.
He played in a rock band called the Jaguars from 1959 to 1967, recorded a regional hit called Jaguar, then moved to Nashville to work as a studio musician.
Among his notable session jobs was playing on three of Bob Dylan s albums, Nashville Skyline, New Morning, and Self Portrait, from 1969 to 1970. Those albums marked Dylan s transition from folk to country and country rock.
To me, they were landmarks, and it s not just because I was on the albums that I feel that way about it, Daniels said. I think Dylan was always going through some kind of metamorphosis. He s probably the most unpredictable musician around. But at that particular time, he made a bigger change than he had made in some of the other stretches he went through. There was a uniqueness, a specialness, to those sessions. Dylan stepped out of his character well the character we had known him as and did a 360.
Asked about Dylan s reputation for not rehearsing songs and recording quickly, Daniels said it was very true to some extent but that the folk legend was predictably unpredictable.
Dylan does what Dylan likes doing, he said. Whatever he feels like doing at the moment, he does. I m not sure he even knows what he s going to do at the time. He s a unique character.
In 1970, Daniels recorded his first album as a solo artist, a self-titled release on Capitol Records, and then formed the Charlie Daniels Band to lead the charge for the emerging genre known as Southern rock.
The band s first hit was Uneasy Rider in 1973, followed by The South s Gonna Do It Again and Long Haired Country Boy in 1974.
It was in 1979, however, when The Devil Went Down to Georgia was released on the album Million Mile Reflection, that Daniels hit it big. An enthralling and energetic ballad about a fiddling contest between the narrator and the Devil, the song hit No. 1 on the charts, earned Daniels his first Grammy Award, and lifted the Charlie Daniels Band into the upper echelon of the music world.
I had no idea it would do what it did, Daniels said. Back in the days of old radio, if a station liked a song, they were independently programmed and could go two or three cuts deep on an album. I felt that it would be a great album for AOR radio and that this would be one of the cuts that they would get into. But as far as doing what it was going to do, I d be lying to say I saw it coming.
With Devil in his repertoire, Daniels was able to reach new and larger audiences around the world.
We had been around for awhile at that time and we were not totally unknown, but it turned everything up a notch. It just made things easier, I guess. Made the crowds bigger, the profile larger. It was a hit overseas, even in non-English-speaking countries. So it opened up new markets.
He said he feels a commitment to perform Devil at every concert.
I owe it to the fans. I hate to go to a show where a band comes on and does a medley of their hits and then spends the rest of the night trying to sell their new album, Daniels said. Their album might be fine but I want to hear what they play on the radio and see on TV.
He said that even after 25 years of playing Devil, he never gets tired of the song because the musicians in his group challenge him to new heights and never play the song the same way twice.
I get the chance to play it better tonight than I did last night, and it s never perfect, he said. If I ever play the song perfect 10 nights in a row, maybe I ll get bored. But I ve never played it perfectly even once.
Daniels who put his patriotic views into print in his 2003 book called Ain t No Rag: Freedom, Family, and the Flag, took his band to Afghanistan and Iraq last year to perform for the troops.
While there, he had the opportunity to visit the palace of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and to sit in the despot s chair.
I tried to pose as disrespectfully as I could and still have the photo printed in family newspapers, Daniels said with a chuckle.
Although he s been playing concerts for American troops for decades, last year s visit to the front lines was different, he said.
It was a life-changing trip, just incredible, Daniels said. Obviously I ve played for troops around the world before, but never in a war zone. There s a lot of difference.
He got a glimpse of the real danger when flying into Baghdad in a Chinook helicopter one night, when insurgents opened fire on the chopper.
We were flying pretty low over the city and suddenly shooting off some chaff [used to decoy missiles], he said. We saw some spotlights on the ground and heard shots. But it was all over before we even knew what was going on. The Good Lord was looking after us.
Speaking of the Good Lord, Daniels said he has always been a religious man but did not record his first Christian album, The Door, until 1994 because it was the first time he had an opportunity to do so.
Most of the time, the big labels tend to leave that [Christian music] to the smaller companies that have expertise in how to market the music, he said. But when EMI, the media conglomerate that owned his mainstream label, Capitol Records, bought Christian label Sparrow Records, one of the executives asked Daniels if he wanted to record a Christian album.
I said, Yeah, I m ready. I m motivated. I ve been waiting a long time to do this, Daniels said.
Songs from the Longleaf Pines continues that religious streak. The disc, which in addition to Scruggs and Wiseman features appearances by Ricky Skaggs and the GrooveGrass Boyz, mixes brief spoken gospel messages with bluegrass versions of hymns and classics such as How Great Thou Art, Keep on the Sunny Side, and I ll Fly Away.
Daniels said he named the album after a type of evergreen tree that, like the bluegrass music on the disc, harks back to his childhood days in Wilmington when he used to listen to albums by Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs on a wind-up record player.
The longleaf pine tree is the state tree of North Carolina, the place of my birth, he said. They grow slowly and they re not being replanted much anymore. When I was a kid, there were many, many longleaf pines. So they represent a kind of simpler time in my life.
The Charlie Daniels Band will be in concert Friday at Toledo Harley Davidson, 7960 Central Ave., Doors open at 5:30 p.m., show starts at 6:45. Tickets are $27.50 in advance from Ticketmaster, SeaGate Convention Centre box office, and Toledo Harley Davidson. Information: 419-474-1333.
Contact David Yonke at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6154.