At 71 years old, Charlie Daniels still sets a creative pace few can match. Whether touring, authoring a book or churning out another great album, he approaches each project with a sense of creative vision and passion that remains undimmed after 50 years in the industry. His new album, “Deuces,” features Daniels in duets with an impressive roster of friends: Gretchen Wilson, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, Brenda Lee, Brooks & Dunn, Brad Paisley, Dolly Parton, the Del McCoury Band and Darius Rucker of Hootie & the Blowfish, among others.
Best known for signature hits such as the country-rock boogie of “Devil Went Down To Georgia” in 1979, the defiantly patriotic “In America” in 1980 and the veteran’s lament “Still In Saigon” in 1982, Daniels is one of the most versatile and prolific artists in American music.
During the past five decades, he has released 50 albums, 17 of those just since launching his own Blue Hat label ten years ago. Those projects reflect the broad scope of his artistry, as they’ve encompassed a variety of genres, from the blues of 1997’s “Blues Hat” to the bluegrass gospel of 2005’s “Songs of the Longleaf Pines” to the rockin’ country represented on 2007’s two new releases, “Live From Iraq” and duet project “Deuces.”
Daniels has always had a gift for forging a sense of community and bringing together artists from all musical styles. Whether welcoming an eclectic lineup to the stage during one of his famed Volunteer Jam concerts or mentoring some of today’s young country acts during the making of “Deuces,” Daniels has always encouraged others to defy boundaries and just create great music.
When you started 50 years ago, did you think you’d still be doing music this long and loving it just as much?
I had no idea. You do one day at a time. People ask me what would I have done if I had not been a musician. I’m not a “What if?” thinker. It’s been a long road and a good road and a tough road. I’ve learned a lot of lessons in the many years that I’ve been doing this that I wouldn’t have learned anywhere else.
I’ve learned about adversity. I’ve learned that if you let it, it could absolutely bring you down. It’s just something that you’ve got to stay on top of every day and when everyone else gets tired and disgusted, that’s when you have to go for it. If you don’t have it in your heart to do it that way, you should have never taken the first step.
What did your parents think of your decision to be a musician?
My dad wanted me to go to college and get a degree in forestry because he was a timber man. But I didn’t carry that gene or whatever it is to have the same love for it that he had.
I can see my parents being very frustrated when I first started trying to play music because music was thought of very much as a hobby. There were horror stories about people trying to make a living playing music and how their families would suffer. They’d go off and not show up for a while. That’s the reputation that people playing music for a living had. It was looked on as something you did on weekends. My parents had apprehensions about me getting into this business, but once I started, it was all I wanted to do. I had no desire to do anything else.
Your first radio hit was “Uneasy Rider” in 1973. It could easily have been pegged as a novelty hit and that tag could have tainted your career. How did you overcome that?
It’s hard to be taken seriously once you get pushed into that. There are a lot of people that are perfectly capable of doing other kinds of music, but they kind of get pushed into that category because of one song. I just refused to be pushed into that category. I did other records and did what needed to be done to overcome it. It’s like, “Gosh, here we are. We’ve got a hit record!” It’s a blessing, but you’ve got to break out of that mold. By no means was that close to what [the Charlie Daniels Band] was all about when you hear “Uneasy Rider.” You’ve just got to stay with it until the world realizes, “Hey, they are serious. They are capable of doing more than that.”
What was it like recording with Bob Dylan on “Nashville Skyline”?
I am not a great session player. I don’t play other people’s music as well. What goes into being a good session player is doing somebody else’s idea of what a song should be. I’m so much better off doing my stuff and doing what I do other than trying to interpret other people’s music, unless it’s the kind of thing like Dylan did.
Dylan was like, “Hey, let’s go in and make a record. I want you to play like you do and we’ll be the Bob Dylan Band and do a Bob Dylan record.” That gives you a certain amount of freedom that you don’t experience in a lot of places. That’s why I did so well on the Dylan stuff.
When you held the first Volunteer Jam in 1974, did you have any idea it would become such a long-running event and successful brand?
I had no idea. It was supposed to be a one-time thing. It was a live recording session. Sometimes things take [on] a life of their own. There’s no way of explaining or making it happen, it’s just something that happens. The name Volunteer Jam was a natural. All the elements fell together.
The first year was an incredible musical event. It sold out. Lots of people didn’t get to come to it and lots of people heard about it. People wondered: “What’s a Volunteer Jam? What’s this thing everybody’s talking about?” It became very obvious that this was something that we should do again, and we did. It’s just something that took on a life of its own. There was no way that I could have caused it to happen. It’s just one of those things.
That first night was like magic. Here we are talking about it 30 years or so after.
Why did you decide to launch your own label when you started Blue Hat in 1997?
There are a lot of reasons. Of course, we aren’t in demand by the big labels. Rather than go around and give away the creative abilities, I’d rather have a little record company and just do what we do and sell what records we sell. There are very talented people in Nashville, but most of the people are involved in the music business from another point of view than I am. Everybody wants to sell records, but I want to play music too. I want to play what I write and what I am. I don’t want to sound like everybody else.
I had a producer some years ago when we did a record for a compilation album [say], “You don’t sound like everybody else.” I said, “I work very, very hard to keep from sounding like everybody else. I don’t want to sound like everybody else.” So I’d just rather have Blue Hat Records. I do what I do and everybody else does what they do, and we’re all real happy.
What is it about Koch Distribution that makes it such a good partner for Blue Hat?
They treat us good and honestly. We enjoy working with them. They are just a good match for us. They are good people for us to be involved with. We’ve built a relationship over the years and we’re happy with it and they seem to be happy with it, so I see no reason to do anything differently.
What do you see as the future of the music industry?
I really don’t know. As long as there is a middle-aged demographic, I don’t think it will go totally digital… I think we’ll see more and more of the download side. I think we’ll see a lot of technology that deals with it more and more, and less and less technology dealing with the old hardware and stuff. I don’t think it’s going away in the next few years. I’m not as concerned about that, but I think as time goes along, I think probably we will see a big change in that direction.
Some people, including Wyclef Jean, credit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with being one of the pioneering rap songs. Do you think of it that way?
That goes way back to an old form of music called “talking blues” that had been around forever. Instead of singing the lyrics, people talk them. I’ve been hearing it all my life. There was a guy, Robert Lunn, on the Grand Ole Opry that used to do that. He would be using some comedy sort of thing, something he’d sing, and there was a little punch line involved. It’s an old form of music.
In recording your new duets album, “Deuces,” how did you determine who would record each song?
It was a mutual consent. It was a song that we both liked. Darius Rucker is a big Bob Dylan fan and [“Like a Rolling Stone”] was a good tune for us to do, and Vince [Gill] loved the one we did [“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”]. I could not 100% read what somebody likes to do by any means, but I’m pretty good at picking a song that would be compatible for both people and most of the time it worked out.
Dolly [Parton] wanted to do something she wrote, which is a standard policy with her. She’s constantly being asked to do something, but like she says, if she took everything that came down the pike, she’d be going all the time. So what she does is she wants to sing a song that she wrote, which I have no problem with. She’s a great writer. We did “Daddy’s Old Fiddle.” You just kind of go along and find something that works for everybody.
Do you have a favorite on “Deuces”?
I really don’t. I don’t listen to an album very much. We get it done and I move on to something else. I don’t sit around and dwell on an album, but I have so much enjoyed this one, really enjoyed listening to it. It’s a little different thing for us. We haven’t done a lot of things with a lot of other people. It’s been a joy for me to listen to, so I can’t say that I have a clear-cut favorite. I honestly like it all. I really do.
You and Brad Paisley recorded an instrumental, “Jammin’ for Stevie,” as a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughan. What was it like working on that one?
Brad just came over and we said, “Hey, let’s go in and play a little bit.” So we walked into the studio and literally started jamming, and it just kind of evolved around to that little melody we came up with and it went from there. You sit down with people and you are doing what you are doing and you’re playing and kind of feeding off each other. It’s very nice when you really start feeling something.
We jammed for a good little while and kind of went into this thing and I thought, “Better name it for Stevie.” He was a nice guy. He was so, so talented. I think Stevie was recognized more after he died than when he was living. He took the blues to a whole other level. He will always be missed.
You and Marty Stuart recorded a song you wrote with Doug Johnson and Kim Williams titled “God Save Us All From Religion.” What is the message of that song?
I wanted to record it with somebody who understood what it meant. It’s an easily misunderstood song, if you don’t understand what we’re talking about.
Religion could be anything. Our Lord savior Jesus Christ died for us to have salvation, not religion. Religion can be based on anything. Religion can be based on Satanism. Anything can be called religion. There’s only one salvation, and that’s through Jesus Christ.
If this song gets any notice, there’s going to be a lot of people saying, “I thought you were a Christian.” Well, I am. It’s very important to me that nobody says, “Well, you guys are being sacrilegious.” No, we’re not. We’re just telling it like it is. That was the one song that I definitely wanted to do and I’m so glad that Marty said he’d do it with me.
Given your legendary Southern rock persona, did you think people were surprised when you started recording Christian albums?
It wasn’t a real surprise because anybody who had seen our live shows knows I had been doing gospel music in the show for years before I ever made a record. We were on labels before that didn’t let you do gospel albums. When we went with Capitol and they were [owned by EMI], the same company as Sparrow, we got approached about doing one.
Maybe it was a surprise to some people, but I’d been doing it for years. [Country artists] used to do gospel music in their shows all the time. There was a gospel section on the Grand Ole Opry. Gospel music has been a part of country music for a long time. It just kind of got sidetracked for a while.
Earlier this year, you released “Live From Iraq.” What prompted you to do that, and was it challenging?
There were a lot of technical challenges that I’m not even qualified to talk about. As far as why we did it, we were going [to Iraq] and it was simple enough to take some recording equipment with us.
I personally want people to understand that there’s an awful lot going on in that part of the world and that you’re not getting any of it off CNN. Our media is just literally ignoring the things that are happening. We wanted to say something, so we said something.
I support the troops. The kids that are there are so wonderful and are so dedicated, and they know what they are doing. I can’t think of any people that I have any higher regard for than I do for these young men and women in the service. They are the best we’ve got.
Your manager and Blue Hat partner David Corlew has worked with you for 35 years. Paula Szeigis, your director of advertising, promotion and publicity, has been with your organization more than 30 years. Most of your band and staff have been with you a long time. To what do you attribute that?
I attribute it to blessings of God. I’ve been blessed to do what I want to do for a living with the people that I dearly love. You have to find the people who want to do the same thing and go out and do it. You’ve got to find some people who are interested in accomplishing the same thing that you do and go and get it done and go for it. That is the only attitude you can have to get anywhere in any kind of business and certainly the music business.
I’ve been blessed and I thank God for my employees. They’ve been with me through a lot, an awful lot. I’m there for them and they are there for me. It’s kind of hard to find in this day and age.
As an author, you’ve written “Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family and the Flag” and recently compiled and edited essays from other celebrities for this year’s “Growing Up Country: What Makes Country Life Country.” Any other book projects on the horizon?
I’m still working on my biography for years and I’m still living it, so it’s kind of hard to say, “Well, this is it.” One of these days I’ll get it out. The important thing is going along through life, try to serve the Lord to the best of your ability and enjoy every day, because you don’t know how many days you’ve got.
Having done this for 50 years, what are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in the music industry?
Of course, the technology. It’s gone nuts. The musical styles [have] changed a lot, which is good because music can’t stay static. Music that stays static is not going to work. It’s got to change from time to time.
One of the biggest things for me is how much easier it is to travel now than it was when I first started. With the interstates, just being able to get out on the road and go as opposed to having to be on a little old road somewhere. It took forever to get anywhere.
In general, it’s a more mercenary business than the way it was at one time. One reason is it’s gotten so much bigger than the way it was. There’s more of a business attitude, and I think at one time there was a great love for the music itself. I would like to think that still exists. I certainly hope so.
What keeps you out there still doing it?
I love what I do. I’m in my retirement years, I’m just not retired. That’s the thing about it; people say, “Why don’t you retire?” For what? I’m doing what I want to do. You’re supposed to retire to do something you want to do and I’m doing what I want to do. So it would be kind of silly for me to retire.
I love my fellow musicians. I love being a part of this business. I love being able to get up in the morning and think, “I’m going to do something today that I thoroughly enjoy.” I’m thankful to God [for] all of these years that I have been able to make a living at something that I enjoy so very much.
What goals do you have left?
There’s always something to do. There’s always another record to cut. There’s constantly something. You never run out of things to do or things to accomplish. You’re just never going to do that. There’s always another cluster of notes to put together to make a song out of it.