Trusting His Own Instincts
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It’s a good bet that Charlie Daniels doesn’t get asked about time travel very often, so I was happy to be the first reporter (probably) to broach the subject with him.
If he could go back in time, I asked, would he change anything?
“I have made my share of mistakes,” he said in a phone interview. “But if I went back and started fixing a few of those, maybe I’d return to the present to find that some of the good things I never planned for hadn’t happened to me.
“I think all the lessons I learned — all the times I got my fingers burned on whatever hot stove I was ignoring at the time — happened when they had to happen,” Daniels said. “If I went back and tried to help my younger self avoid some pain and heartache, maybe I wouldn’t have become the person I am now.
“Things turned out wonderful for me,” he said. “I am happily married. I love what I do, and I love the people I do it with.”
Daniels almost generates more headlines these days for his political views than for his music. There are people who wouldn’t be able to steer clear of politics in a conversation with him, but I am happy to do so.
That’s because Daniels is essentially a charming and humble guy. There’s no earthly reason why an entertainment reporter would want or need to pick a fight with a musician over hot-button issues.
One thing you might not know about Daniels is that his fan base has something in common with the Grateful Dead’s fanbase.
Daniels’ fans follow him around the country. Any fan who has seen Daniels perform 100 times joins an informal society known as The Century Club.
Daniels said he knows of “one guy who has seen us over 300 times.”
“There are folks who commit to seeing 10 shows a year for ten years or something like that,” he said. “I am both amazed and flattered by that.”
Daniels has been slowed by a few health setbacks in recent years. He suffered a stroke in 2010 and had a pacemaker installed in 2013. Arthritis has been an ongoing problem.
At 81, Daniels chooses to work around these issues.
“Getting older is about making adjustments,” he said. “If you want to keep pursuing your passion, you have to be willing to make adjustments.”
“The flexibility in my hands is not what it used to be,” he said. “So I had to do some things to my fiddle to put in into the position I need it in for my fingering. You do what you need to do to keep doing what you’re doing.”
Daniels said he can’t play 200 dates a year anymore. “But I can do 110,” he said, “and do them well.”
Daniels sais that every performer knows whether he has lost his passion, even if he claims to be uncertain.
“My advice (to any touring musician) who doesn’t feel passionate about it is to go home,” he said. “Don’t sell tickets to shows that people won’t enjoy.”
Daniels is best known to most people for his 1979 hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It is one of the modern story songs that almost everyone has memorized, regardless of their musical tastes. The way that Daniels and his band perform the song today is not the way they played it in 1979, although that was not by design.
“A song like that doesn’t change so much as you add things to it,” he said. “The most entertaining things that ever happen are things that happen off the cuff on stage. One night you just start doing something. You’ve got a bunch of guys that have been playing with you, in some cases, for 40 years. And they just fall in with you.”
Daniels said he never tires of playing that hit or “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”
“Those are the songs people come to see us for,” he said. “The ones they heard on the radio. Every time I play ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ it’s a chance to play it better than I did the night before. I ain’t played it perfect yet.”
Ask people what sort of musician Daniels is and most of them would answer “country.” But Daniels also plays blues, rock, and gospel with an authority that many bro country himbos can’t match.
He started his career as a jack of all trades, performing with (and writing songs for) Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen, among others.
Daniels even released an album of Dylan covers in 2014.
The album is really quite good, but it received a few lukewarm notices from Dylan-loving writers who seemed to be reviewing the concept rather than the result.
One of the benefits of still going strong at 81, Daniels said, is that bad reviews don’t sting the way they might have when he was a much younger man.
“What am I supposed to do? Quit and go home?” he said, laughing. “Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem taking advice. I get good advice all the time. But I think I’ve earned the right to trust my instincts.”