Country music icon Charlie Daniels makes his third Steamboat Days appearance today. Best known for his No. 1 country hit, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," he played the festival in 1983 and 1989. He has been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry, the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Daniels, who turned 80 in 2016, called The Hawk Eye's contributing writer Bob Saar recently from Lake Charles, Louisiana.
THE: Good morning Mr. Daniels, may I call you Charlie?
CD: Please do. I might not answer if you call me Mister Daniels. I'll think you sound like my daddy or something.
THE: Congratulations on making it past the 80 yard line.
CD: Thank you sir, I am so blessed to God. I'm sittin' about a hundred yards from a bayou. Good people down here.
THE: You'll be playing at Steamboat Days in Burlington Iowa in June. It's on the Mississippi and you might remember when you were here about 30 years ago.
CD: I do. You know why I remember? I had some kind of malady, I was kinda sick that night. One of them show-must-go-on type things, and we did. But hopefully this time I'll feel better. [Laughs].
THE: We asked a bunch of people what they'd ask you if they were here. This one's from our general manager: "What do you do to get fired up? Do you ever get tired of playing, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia?'"
CD: I do not. I have a very valid reason, because I get to play a better night than I did last night, better tomorrow night than I did tonight. I've never done it perfect — yet. I'm still trying for perfection after 30-some years of playing the thing. I don't look at the music as, "Gosh, I've played that a thousand times." I look at it as it's what the crowd wants to hear. If we went and did a show and didn't play that song, people would rightfully be disgusted with us. That's what they come for, that's the kind of song that makes the people come out. I never get tired of playing any of the songs; I love playin' 'em all.
THE: This is from a friend of Steve Earle's: "The only thing I can think to ask Charlie is how he compares his music to the country music that is popular today. I don't hear fiddle playing like his anymore. Is there anyone out there carrying on his type of music, or is this the end of an era?"
CD: I don't really pay a lot of attention to what anybody else is doing, I don't listen to the radio, hardly. I watched an awards show — which I don't do very often — and I don't know half the people on there. So I really don't know what's going on, I don't know who's doing what. But I do think there is a little more respect for a traditional type of country music now than there was. It's not ever going to go back to what it was.
THE: Like Ferlin Husky, for example.
CD: Yeah, that's not going to happen. But at least a nod in that direction. I feel like I stand on a lot of the traditional country artists' shoulders, although I don't play and never have actually played what a lot of people consider to be traditional country music. People didn't hesitate to tell me so when I first started. [Laughs] But the people that inspired me, the Roy Acuffs — one of the first people I listened to — the Ernest Tubbses, the Hank Williamses, the Merle Haggards and the Johnny Cashes and those people that were my inspiration, I think there's a lot to be learned by respecting those guys. I think there's still a demand for some of that kind of music.
THE: As long as we old guys are alive, there will be.
CD: Oh, yeah, definitely.
THE: This is from a songwriter in Oregon: "What's it feel like to know Elvis recorded something you wrote?" He's talking about "It Hurts Me."
CD: It's hard to ... I could not say now, from this point of view, which is 40-some ... 50 years after the fact. At the time, I had absolutely nothing going. I was playing beer joints. I was low man on the totem pole, I was traveling the country playing dives, and to wake up one morning to find out a song a friend of mine and myself wrote was recorded by the biggest artist on the planet at the time? It's just literally ... it's hard to explain. I don't really have the words to tell you how I feel. There was, of course, the joy would naturally be there, but the excitement and the things that happen that encourage you to think, "Well maybe, maybe I do have something. Maybe I am a little above what I'm doing. Maybe I can do something besides play beer joints." I had the same thing happen with me at the Bob Dylan sessions where I played and was asked to stay around and do two more albums with him after that. I was only supposed to play one session on "Nashville Skyline," and when I got ready to leave, he said, "Where're you going?" and [Dylan's producer] Bob Johnston said, "He's leaving, I got another guitar player coming in," and he [Dylan] said nine words that would change my life: "I don't want another guitar player, I want him." It's the same as the Elvis thing, it's those things that encourage you to keep doing what you're doing and maybe do it better. The Presley thing was definitely one of those moments.
THE: Here's one from a young guitarist in Baltimore: "Charlie's reflection on where popular music can go in a time when the keystones to music, like Leonard Cohen, have passed away and the likes of Bob Dylan are just getting older. What does he like, and what would he like to see in the movement of popular music?"
CD: I just want to see sincere music. The golden era of music, as far as I'm concerned, was the days when the AOR stations, the album-oriented radio stations, had latitudes that went way beyond any playlist that anybody's got now. They played everything from Johnny Cash to Weather Report. They played Leonard Cohen, they played Bob Dylan, they played Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton, and it was all very musical, you know? I don't ever want to insult anybody's music, so I have to be careful what I say because it's not my intention at all, but it had substance to it, the words meant something, the music was well thought-out, well-played and sweated over and cared about. It was not the figment of some producer's or record company's imagination, it was the artists themselves that went in and did their music. That was the golden era of music to me. Record companies are in the record business. I'm in the music business. The first time I did a record on Epic Records, I had no idea how many toes I was steppin' on. I had bypassed Artist Development, I had bypassed the Art Department, I had bypassed all these people who have input at a bigger record company — I just went by their door and put an album in their hand. It was alright at that time, we didn't know any better. I have never had a hit record that the record company basically had anything to do with. I'm serious; everything we ever had has been won. We went in, we cut what we wanted to in the way we wanted to and turned it in. I'd like to see that happen again. I want to see some faith. I want to see some people care about the music, not just the beancounters and their bottom numbers. [Laughs] That's an old man's opinion.
THE: To paraphrase you, I play music because it's who I am, it's when my soul comes out to play. I write songs because that's the only way I can tell people things I can't hold up like a photograph and show to them. They're audio photographs. People ask me sometimes, "What's it feel like to be on stage?" I can't explain that.
CD: No, not to make them understand. You could explain it to me and I'd understand. But you could never explain it properly to people who are asking, I would agree with you on that.
THE: That's one of those instances of, "If you have to ask, you won't understand the answer."
THE: This is from an entertainment attorney in San Francisco: "Charlie is great, he's so outspoken on everything. Given how conservative he is, I'd ask him if there are any political issues on which he leans left." For example, Charlie, you were at Jimmy Carter's inauguration in 1977.
CD: I don't know what's considered left anymore. Far left, no: forget it. People say, "Why don't you support the Democratic party anymore? Why'd you leave them?" I didn't leave them; they left me. I'm not Democrat or Republican anymore, I vote for whoever I please. I'm a Christian, I'm a patriot, I love this country, I can't go along with things I think are blatantly non-Christian, I can't go along with things I feel are detrimental to the country. There's some things that, as far as what's left or right, Democrat or Republican or conservative or liberal, they would probably be surprised which direction I would lean.
THE: I'm pretty much the same way: I'm a liberal, draft-dodging hippie from the Sixties.
CD: You're probably like me: You probably refuse to be categorized. Nobody owns you. That's one of the problems with politics right nowadays: People are taken for granted, they don't take enough time to really look into stuff, enough time to find out what's going on in a lot of ways, you know?
THE: They just parrot what they hear.
CD: Exactly. I hear things all the time on my social media thing, it's like somebody just pulled something out of something somebody else said that they don't know anything about. The word racist don't even mean anything anymore. There were people during Barack Obama's presidency that considered any criticism of him to be racist. It's just criticism. That's how far it has gone crazy. I resent anybody calling me a racist. I come from the Deep South, I came up during Jim Crow days. I learned it first hand. I learned how cruel it was, how cruel the segregation and this thing of thinking you were better than somebody else just because your skin was a different color. I learned all that on my own. I know what a racist is. But the word don't mean anything anymore. It's bandied about by people who don't have any idea what they're even talking about.
THE: Whenever this topic comes up, one of the first things that comes to mind is that, back when Kennedy was president, black people couldn't vote. You and I were alive when that was still the case. It's astounding, especially by today's values. So, the country makes progress.
CD: Yeah, we do.
THE: OK. Welcome back to Burlington, Charlie. And really, congratulations on making the 80-yard-line; you're on your way to a touchdown.
CD: [Laughing] Let's hope I don't fumble!
The Charlie Daniels band takes the Steamboat Days stage at 8:45 p.m. tonight