By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Believe it or not, there was once a time when Charlie Daniels actually seemed kind of hip. After all, he played on Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline album, and produced the sublime record Elephant Mountain by the Youngbloods. Then, in 1973, he scored a hit song with "Uneasy Rider," a tale of a longhair going into a redneck bar that seemed to denote that Daniels' sympathies were aligned with the counterculture instead of the reactionaries. A little later, his "Long-Haired Country Boy" also appeared to be a poke a stick at narrow-minded good ol' boys, though its strident lyrical tone suspiciously indicated that Daniels might still have possessed a parallel pugnaciousness.
At the time, Southern rock was raising its ragged, Jack Daniels-swilling head as a music of the moment. For those of you who may have missed that grassroots American music groundswell, it had its merits -- mostly embodied by the blues and jazz influences of The Allman Brothers, and the righteous redneck rocking of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- but it soon descended into near-parody, marked by endless guitar jams, and providing an excuse for too many sons of the New South who embraced the music -- as well as its fans just about anywhere -- to act like old-time drunken jerks. These days the cry from a concert audience for "Whipping Post" may be a (tired) joke, but back then it was a serious request.
Daniels emerged as one of the music's prime Confederate flag-wavers. With his hit, "The South's Gonna Do It," he came up with a perfect theme song for the more thick-skulled elements of the Southern rock movement, as well as the presidency of Georgian Jimmy Carter. It was the first of many Daniels tunes to give those with more progressive sensibilities some pause with its strident tone. His annual Volunteer Jam in Nashville became a Lilith Fair for the Southern rock crowd, and the cumulative effect only seemed to drive Daniels further down below the musical and cultural Mason-Dixon line.
Then came "In America," a crass bit of jingoistic flag-waving filled with the sort of unquestioning patriotism that feels like the first step on the road to fascism. Other songs like "What This World Needs Is A Few More Rednecks" and "Simple Man" sounded not too far removed from recruiting tunes for the Ku Klux Klan. Daniels was no doubt engaging in a bit of hyperbole -- my own encounters with him indicate he's not as narrow-minded as his songs, and something of a gentleman in the old Southern fashion -- but the end result seems to have been that he provided rallying cries for the reactionary forces he once seemed opposed to. As early as 1979, critic John Morthland noted of Daniels in the Rolling Stone Record Guide that "his Southern pride is sounding more like trendy, empty-headed chauvinism. Some of his good-old-boyisms could embarrass even Billy Carter." His 1990s comeback tune, "Same Old Me," remained unapologetic at a time when the attitudes he expressed had faded a bit into the past.
To Daniels' credit, he is a superb guitarist and fiddler, and has always fronted a highly professional and accomplished band. But at the same time, he's a prime victim of boogie disease, even if he also has ventured into Western swing and older-school C&W in a manner that shows he does have considerable respect for the more honorable roots of Southern American music. But hey -- if you're the type who considers whiskey and beer the path to nirvana, and still laments the deaths of Duane Allman and Ronnie Van Zant on an annual basis as the days the music died, this is a show for you. If you yell out for "Whipping Post," you will probably get "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" instead. But I doubt you will be disappointed.