Charlie Daniels was already an accomplished musician before he became a legend in 1979 by releasing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” In fact, he played on some of Bob Dylan’s recordings.
The Charlie Daniels Band is back with a tribute album to Bob Dylan, titled Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan. The group will be performing at Spotlight 29 on Friday, June 12.
Charlie Daniels’ story begins in the tiny town of Gulf, N.C.
“In my point of view, it was great,” Daniels, 78, said about his small-town upbringing. “I never had anything else to do. At the time, in the days before television, we had very little idea about what the rest of the world was like except for what we saw on the movie screens, in books, or in pictures in magazines and newspapers. I guess you could say, especially at that time, we were kind of isolated. We were pretty much only into what was going on in our particular area, but I wouldn’t take anything away from being raised in a small town.”
Daniels is an extremely talented guitar-player; he’s also quite the fiddler.
“I started playing guitar first and learned a little on it, and then I started playing the mandolin,” he explained. “The keyboard on the mandolin and the fiddle is about the same, so I had a little bit of a leg up when I started playing fiddle. … I didn’t have a teacher, and I didn’t know anybody to teach me how to play. It was all about sticking to it and getting it done.”
He’s known for his aggressive, bow-busting fiddle-playing during live shows.
“I don’t go through as many as it looks like I do, because when I break the bow hairs in the spotlight, it makes them look a lot more broken then they are,” he said. “I get rid of the bows as I break the hair on them and hand them to my road guy, because if I don’t, sometimes the loose hairs will catch under my fingers that I chord with. It’s not as many as it looks like it is—but I’d say I’m a little tough on bows.”
Daniels said he’s not completely sure what inspired him to create his group’s biggest hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
“I don’t really know where it came from,” he said, “possibly from a poem I read in high school called ‘The Mountain Whippoorwill.’ It was about a fiddle contest and the devil being in it, but I just got this thought in my head, ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ and I don’t know where it came from. We just went in the studio, sat down with the band and wrote it.”
Daniels said he was quite surprised when it hit the charts. “I thought it might be a good song, but I had no idea it would be (huge) all these years later, after the fact. That’s just pretty amazing to me. We got lucky with that one.”
Daniels is credited as being one of the founders of country rock, along with protégés Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band.
“I never saw country rock as a genre of music. All of the bands were different,” he said. “Lynyrd Skynyrd was as pure of a rock band as you’d ever find. Allman Brothers Band was basically a blues and jazz band, and we were in the middle of all of them. I never saw it as a genre of music, but a genre of people who all came from the same religious and financial background. They were raised the same way and had a lot in common—but I never saw country rock as a genre.”
Through the years, Daniels’ political beliefs have evolved. He supported Jimmy Carter and performed at Carter’s inauguration in 1977, but his views have shifted to the right over the years, and he expresses a lot of opinions on his website in the area known as “Soap Box.”
“I certainly think we can have civil disagreements, and I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be,” he said. “I have friends that have an entirely different idea of things than I do, and we still get along fine. You don’t have to agree on every little thing, and people have a right to disagree, or agree to disagree. That’s one of the things lacking in this country: civil discourse.
“You sit down and talk with people, and they all get up in the air. I was watching some of the coverage from Baltimore, and there is so much anger there that I don’t think people even realize what they’re angry about. They want to argue with everybody to the point of getting hostile, and you can’t get anything accomplished that way. … I’m a big supporter of meaningful, calm dialogue.”
Daniels has faced some serious health issues. He’s dealt with prostate cancer and a mild stroke; he also had a pacemaker installed shortly before playing at Stagecoach in 2013. What keeps him going?
“The grace of God, the love for what I’m doing—and really enjoying myself,” he said. “The high point of my day is walking across the stage at night. I truly love it, and I thank God I can make a living doing what I really enjoy.”
What made Daniels decide to do a Bob Dylan-themed album?
“I did some studio work with him on his earlier albums back in 1969,” he said. “I was a big Dylan fan before, and after working in the studio with him, I was an even bigger fan. I wanted to do some of his music, given I have great admiration for it. We finally got around to it this year.”
I had to ask: What is Daniels’ favorite Southern dish? “Fried chicken is hard to beat. I’m not talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken; I’m talking about the way my grandma used to fix fried chicken. I’m also a big fan of rice and gravy, but good fried chicken is hard to beat.”
The Charlie Daniels Band will perform at 8 p.m., Friday, June 12, at Spotlight 29, 46200 Harrison Place, in Coachella. Tickets are $25 to $45. For tickets or more information, call 760-775-5566, or visit www.spotlight29.com.