In 1974, when Skynyrd was at their peak, they were name-checked in a song called “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” a rousing celebration of the Southern Rock Class of ’74. Five years later, in a song called “Reflections,” they were eulogized alongside Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, with the refrain declaring, “Heaven should be proud.” Both songs were written by Charlie Daniels, a close friend of the band whose story mirrors Skynyrd’s in some ways. Like the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Charlie Daniels was an original Southern Rocker who went from being a “Long-Haired Country Boy” to a family man and Southern icon.
Daniels’ story begins in 1967, when he arrived in Nashville “with $20 and the clutch out in my car.” His interest in music had begun early, when as a child he belted out hymns in church. As a boy he learned guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, sometimes playing rock-and-roll covers in fiddle contests. He played in several short-lived rock bands but didn’t make it big until he came to Nashville. In Nashville he worked as a studio musician for many musicians, including Bob Dylan. After the release of an unsuccessful solo album, Daniels formed the Charlie Daniels Band and finally had a breakout hit in 1973 with “Uneasy Rider.”
Although the song had bluegrass instrumentation, it was anything but traditional. It told the story of a rough-talking hippie traveling to LA who finds himself stuck in a small-town Mississippi bar. Threatened by “five big dudes . . . and some fellow with green teeth,” he buys time by claiming that Green Teeth is an FBI mole “sent down here to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan,” who rips George Wallace stickers off car bumpers and has a Communist flag in his garage. Then he runs to his car, barrels out of the parking lot, and vows to make his way to LA “via Omaha.”
The ribald humor of “Uneasy Rider” soon gave way to full-on celebration of Southern Ways, as Daniels had hits in 1975 with “Long-Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” “Long-Haired Country Boy” bridged the gap between hippie and hillbilly, with Daniels singing, “I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’ if I can’t get it on my own / if you don’t like the way I’m livin’, just leave this long-haired country boy alone.” It was the “Tune in, turn on, drop out” ethos mixed with the Southern tradition of rebellious individualism.
“The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” was a tribute to the fellow musicians who were beginning to define the Southern Rock style—the Allman Brothers, The Marshall Tucker Band, Elvin Bishop, ZZ Top, and, of course, Lynyrd Skynyrd. The song had a swinging beat, a sharp fiddle intro, and extended rock guitar solos—an excellent example of Charlie’s genre-bending style. The Charlie Daniels Band occupied a musical gray area in the ’70’s and early ’80’s—too country to be rock, too rock to be country, and too many extended jams to fit into the radio-friendly three-and-a-half-minute format. Daniels’ songwriting process was to jam first, record the results, then write lyrics. This gave his songs a “live” feel and kept the jams fresh. Even on the songs with longer solos, such as “No Place to Go” or “Saddle Tramp,” the jams don’t stick to simple chord progressions, but vary up the pace, keeping the listener on their toes throughout the song.
As with Lynyrd Skynyrd, what set The Charlie Daniels Band apart was the vocals, but Ronnie Van Zant and Charlie Daniels couldn’t be more different. Charlie Daniels didn’t have Ronnie’s range or resonance, but what he lacked in technique, he made up for in attitude. His sneering delivery and deep, raspy voice, coupled with his imposing physical presence, gave him a tough-guy vibe. This, in turn, worked perfectly with the story songs that he wrote. Daniels carried on the tradition of the bards and troubadours, telling song-stories of the American South and the Old West. His best-known story song is “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” featuring a fiddle contest between the Devil and a country boy named Johnny. Producer John Boylan was so sure the song would be a hit that he had Daniels record two versions, an “unedited” version that included profanity, and a version for radio airplay with the line changed to “son-of-a-gun.” Charlie has also told tales of Western outlaws (“Billy the Kid,” “Midnight Train”), ghosts (“The Legend of Wooley Swamp”), and military veterans (“Still in Saigon,” “Iraq Blues”), and his deep, authentic-sounding voice makes him a convincing narrator.
As the 1980’s rolled around, Charlie Daniels began to take on the role of a spokesman for working-class Southern America. During the Iran hostage crisis, he penned the defiantly patriotic “In America,” where he declared “we’ll all stick together and you can take that to the bank / That’s the cowboys and the hippies and the Rebels and the Yanks.” The patriotic mood continued with his recording of the Dan Daley song “Still in Saigon.” Charlie says of the song “I’d been talking to a bunch of Vietnam vets at the time and they invariably said, ‘Do it. Speak for us.’ I wanted to see them feel like citizens again.”
Another song celebrating the underdog was “American Farmer,” sticking up for farmers by saying “Better wake up, America . . . cos if this man don’t work, then the people don’t eat.” Daniels ran into controversy in 1990 with his song “Simple Man,” from the album of the same name, featuring lyrics that seem to advocate vigilante justice. The song, however, wasn’t meant to be taken literally. It was inspired by a news story of a man who had murdered his stepdaughter, and was meant to express the frustration of working-class people with violent crime and a system that seemed to let criminals off the hook. On the same album, Daniels took a lighthearted approach to similar frustrations with “What This World Needs Is a Few More Rednecks,” where he champions the values of the “working man” against the pretensions of know-it-all “intellectuals.”
In recent years, Charlie Daniels returned to his church roots, releasing several gospel and Christmas albums, including the excellent Songs from the Longleaf Pines, featuring collaborations from bluegrass musicians including legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs. In 2008 he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, which was one of his lifelong dreams. He has remained active in supporting various charities and has played shows for the U.S. military in Iraq and Kuwait. The latest album by The Charlie Daniels’ Band, last year’s Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan is a collection of Bob Dylan songs re-done with Daniels’ personal touch. And, as he always has, and always will, Charlie Daniels continues to jam.
Hear The Charlie Daniels Band Perform “The Legend of Wooley Swamp”