Before Charlie Daniels was a household name - before the world-wide phenomenon of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" and "Long Haired Country Boy " and selling more than 20 million albums - the North Carolina native was a struggling session player in Nashville, Tenn. He was a hired gun that played guitar and bass on recording sessions. Then he got a call to play on a Bob Dylan record. And it wasn't long after that call that Daniels hit the charts with his own music and his own band.
Today, the Charlie Daniels Band is a fixture in country music, Southern rock and many other genres of music. And Daniels himself stands tall in his signature "bull rider" hat and Western belt buckle. Along the way, the singer-songwriter-musician has also become famous for things beyond the music: his unabashed love of America, his unwavering devotion to the men and women of the U.S. military, his tireless efforts on behalf of a variety of charities and, oh yeah, for his highly opinionated and highly insightful soapbox columns on his website.
HNGN caught up with Daniels for an exclusive interview as his tour bus barreled through the Missouri countryside on the way to a St. Louis-area casino gig. Hazel, his wife of 51 years, was with him.
Being close to the city of Ferguson - where the young black man Michael Brown was shot dead by the white police officer Darren Wilson - put that topic in the forefront of the entertainer's mind. Before the HNGN interview came to an end, Daniels candidly discussed working with Bob Dylan, his concerns about the upcoming grand jury decision in Ferguson and what's ahead for him and the band in 2015.
"I came to Nashville in April of '67. I was playing there in a beer joint/nightclub in 1969 when I got the chance to play on a Bob Dylan session. I called the bar told them that I wouldn't be there that night. I said, "I've got something that I've got to do."
As it turned out, that something that Daniels had to do was play on Dylan's groundbreaking "Nashville Skyline" album.
"I was only supposed to do one of the Dylan sessions. They had booked 15 recording sessions at Columbia to do the album. Another guitar player was supposed to come in and do all 15 sessions. But he was already booked on the first session date and couldn't make it. I was asked to come in and fill in for him.
"So, I went in and played and, needless to say, I gave it everything I had--and a little bit more on top of that. When the session was over and I got ready to leave, Dylan didn't won't me leave the sessions. He wanted me to stay on for the other sessions. That was one of the most gratifying things that ever happened to me in the music business. And it was such a huge shot in the arm for me at the time."
Was Dylan as difficult in the studio as many reports and rumors painted him as being?
"I had heard everything everybody else had heard about Bob Dylan being a reclusive genius. And about his standoffishness and about how he wouldn't talk to people. What a bunch of junk!
"He was a totally different person that what I had been led to believe by what I had read and heard. He was extremely nice. He was extremely talkative. He had sense of humor. He was fun.
"He created an atmosphere of relaxation in the studio. He made it so you weren't afraid to say to him, 'Hey, how 'bout us tryin' this.' You felt like you could communicate with the guy, rather than standing back waiting for him to call all the shots. You actually felt like you could say, 'Let's try this, let's try that.' And all the sessions went really well. It was an amazing experience. And the album turned out to be something really fantastic."
After 1969's "Nashville Skyline, " Dylan brought Daniels in to play on two more albums, "Self Portrait" and "New Morning, " both in 1970.
"I am a big Bob Dylan fan and kind of always wanted to pay tribute to him, " notes Daniels. "You know, if you think about it, he was the first of the innovators. He was before the Beatles, before the Rolling Stones and before all the artists that we usually think of as being the ones who changed the face of popular music. Of course, there was Elvis, who was kind of more in the pop-type vein, but then Bob Dylan really turned it around."
So, now that 40-plus years have passed from his playing on Dylan's albums, what triggered Daniels to do an album that is a tribute to the legendary performer?
"It was kind of odd as to what actually precipitated 'Doin' It Dylan.' My band and I had been asked to do some music for the cable series 'Hell on Wheels.' The series takes place back in the 1800s, so we were stuck with doing the music with whatever instruments were around back then, which restricted us to acoustical instruments.
"So, we did our song for the series and when we listened to it, it was a different sound for the Charlie Daniels Band. We had never done that-all six of us playing acoustical instruments. It was an exciting sort of a sound. It was different than anything we had done. We said we ought to do an album like this and then everything just clicked. What better place to go for material than Bob Dylan? What lends itself to an acoustic album more than an album worth of Bob Dylan songs? Where is there a bottomless pit of material?"
Even with all that material, Daniel's admits that there were some songs that just wouldn't make the transition to an acoustic version. Not an acoustic version that suited Daniels and his bandmates.
"I wanted to do 'Lay, Lady, Lay,' 'cause I played on the original and it's always been one of my very favorite Dylan tunes," explains Daniels. "But I could not find a good acoustic way to get away from the original recording. The criteria we had for this album was that we wanted to do the songs differently than they have ever been done before. We didn't want to do 'Mr. Tambourine Man' like it had been done before. We didn't want to do Bob's songs anything like he had done it before.
"On 'Lay, Lady, Lay' I couldn't get away from the original sound, so we just left it and we moved on to something else. That happened a couple of times with songs that we didn't feel we could put our mark on it to make it different. The wonderful thing about Dylan's songs is that they are a bottomless well of incredible material. So, you pick another song and keep on truckin.'"
The Tense Ferguson Situation
"I've been doing my soapbox column since about 2000. A guy that helped us set up our website said to me, 'You're opinionated. Why don't you do an opinion piece for the site and call it your soapbox, like getting up on your soapbox.' So I started doing one every once in a while. Then it got to be once a week and now I do it twice a week.
"I wrote one this morning. I write 'em kind of spur of the moment. I write about what is on my mind.
"The soapbox is something I really didn't know I could do, until I started doing it. I didn't really know that I could take care of the continuity and the regularity of doing something that many times a year, that many times a week. Now, since I started doing it, I found that I really enjoy it. It's a pressure thing, because you've committed yourself to do it. But I usually don't have a problem with that. I can always find something to write about, something to vent about.
"Today I am in Missouri, not far from the city of Ferguson. That made me want to write a soapbox piece about what is going on there, because I am very much awed of what is going on in Ferguson and how it is being perceived.
"I mean, we're talking about the law of the land. We're talking about the way we all have to live by laws. And if the grand jury decision comes out and they find that the police officer had probable cause for using deadly force, I'm concerned about what will happen. I don't know enough about the case to do a judgment on it, except the thing that appalls me is that it doesn't seem to make a difference what the truth is. If it doesn't come out like certain people want it to, they're going to cause a lot of problems. That's not the rule of law. That's not what the law is about.
"Civil disobedience is one thing, anarchy is something totally different. And my take and my feeling about it is that what happens in this particular case in Ferguson could very well set a precedence for what is going to happen across the country while we've got the same president that we have now, because I don't think he's going to do anything about it. I certainly I don't think Holder is in the mood to do anything about it.
"What happened in L.A. during the Rodney King riots was anarchy, it was not civil disobedience. When you start going into stores and robbing people. Taking their stuff and tearing up their equipment, that's past civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is what Martin Luther King did and he set the example for that. And it was all non-violent. He insisted on it being non-violent. He insisted on it being honorable and he insisted on it being civil disobedience and not anarchy.
"To me what is going on in Ferguson is very important and when this thing comes down, if it does go awry, I think the way that it's handled by law enforcement is, unfortunately, going to have a lot to do with what happens on the streets of America in the next little while. Overreacting could be horrible, because it will play right into the hands of the naysayers. The ones who say, 'I told you the police were mean and cruel.' Under-reaction could send the signal that, 'Hey, we can get away with this, let's go do it.' So, it's a very touchy situation in my book.'"
To read the soapbox column Daniels wrote just before this HNGN interview, click here.
"We're already booking dates for next year. In fact, we've already booked some in 2016. Playing shows, doing concerts, is what we're about. That's where we start and everything else we do is in support of us doing shows. The recording and other things we do are extracurricular to the touring.
"I do intend to do some recording next year. I have so many ideas in my mind that I'd would like to get done before I finally, one of these days, get out of this thing. The good thing is that my band is so versatile and so capable of doing so many different styles of music. We could do a basic country project or we could go old time country or almost jazzy. We can cover a lot of genres, so we'll just have to see what project is the most ready to tackle next."