He's sold more than 18 million records in 35 years. In April 1998, two former Presidents paid tribute to him when he was named the recipient of the Pioneer Award at the Academy of Country Music's annual nationally televised ceremonies. His studio work includes sessions with artists such as Bob Dylan, Lester Flatt And Earl Scruggs, Leonard Cohen, Ringo Starr and Johnny Cash. His songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette. Songs like, "The Devil Went Down To Georgia", "The South's Gonna Do It Again", "Still In Saigon" and "The Legend of Wooley Swamp" have helped make his name a household word. By now, you know who we're talking about - Mr. Charlie Daniels. Charlie is still touring and recording. In fact, his latest CD is titled "Fiddle Fire, Twenty Years of The Charlie Daniels Band" (Blue Hat Records). We spoke to Charlie Daniels recently about his life and music.
Q - Charlie, you went into the studio and re-recorded the songs you liked. Now, why did you feel the need to do that, and aren't you really competing with the original masters?
A - Well, obviously we are competing with the original masters, but I have very valid reasons for wanting to do it. This is something I had planned on doing for a long time. This is not something that just came up in my head. For several years it's been inside my head, the reason being, the old songs that we've done; "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" and "The South's Gonna Do It Again", are the ones people are familiar with and were recorded a long time ago. Back before the advent of the CD. Back before digital recording, and all the bells and whistles that make records sound so good today, it makes you think. Then, there was another reason, you have to buy basically three CDs to get all the fiddle songs on one album, so we wanted to make that era sound better. We wanted to put 'em all together on one album. I just wanted to re-record these things for a long time and we wanted to sell some records. (laughs) If I left that out, I'd be lying.
Q - Do they make records anymore?
A - No. I'm an old-timer. I say record, but I really mean CD nowadays. I still call 'em albums.
Q - Does it also come out on cassette?
A - Yeah, we still sell a lot of cassettes. People like to use our music to travel by, I think. (laughs)
Q - How much are you working these days?
A - We'll do about 150 dates this year.
Q - Where have you been playing?
A - We were over in Australia earlier this year. Of course, we did smaller venues over there. We do all kinds of venues. We do a lot of fairs; state fairs, county fairs, that sort of thing. We play casinos, we play all over the place.
Q - You're as busy today as you've ever been then.
A - Pretty much, so yeah.
Q - Charlie, I think you had a distinct advantage over almost every other musician, and that was your father. He told you, "As long as you have to work, you better find something you enjoy doing."
A - Absolutely
Q - How'd your father get so smart?
A - Well, you know he was just telling me the way he felt about things. My Dad loved pine timber. He made his living as long as I can remember one way or another with timber. He was a buyer. He was an inspector. But always in the timber business. That was just one of the things he felt. The way he put it was, "A man is going to be working more than he's not working, and he ought to do something he enjoys doing."
Q - At one time you were involved in this Trivia Country Style game that was developed by two Syracusans...
A - Right
Q - Whatever happened with that game?
A - Well, I don't really know. I don't know what the deal was on it. We got involved in a TV commercial for 'em. I thought it was a good game. I thought it was well conceived and well thought out. But, I don't know what actually happened with it. I'd like to see it happen 'cause I think it could be a really good thing. But, I really don't know. I haven't had any contact with 'em for a long time.
Q - You wrote a song, "It Hurts Me", that Elvis recorded in 1963. How'd you get a song to Elvis?
A - Well, actually the guy I wrote it with, a guy named Bob Johnston, was a staff writer for the company, not Elvis's company, but the company that handled Elvis's publishing. If they ran across a song that they thought Elvis would like, they would hold it for him. They held this particular song for about a year and he decided to record it. Of course, I had no idea that Elvis would do it when we wrote it. It was really neat, you know. (laughs)
Q - Did you ever meet Elvis?
A - No. I never met Elvis. I wish I had. He was one of my favorite artists of all time.
Q - The only time you didn't work in music was a five week stint at a Denver junkyard.
A - That's right
Q - Now, how'd you like working in a junkyard?
A - I didn't like it at all. It was just a means of keeping body and soul together. It was really kind of silly to go to Denver. I couldn't even get anybody to listen to me play. It was just a bad time to be there. I would go around and say, "Hey man, I'm a player. I'm looking for a gig." There was no interest. I left there and went back to El Paso to play music again.
Q - But, why Denver? Did they have a music scene?
A - No. I just kind of pulled it out of the air for some reason. When you're young and foolish, you do crazy things. (laughs)
Q - Back in 1979, you headlined the Grandstand at the State Fair in Syracuse and set a new attendance record of 17,000 people, which stood for a long time. At that point, did you think, "I'd better enjoy this while I can"... or ..."This is gonna go on forever"?
A - I didn't think in those kinds of terms, actually. I was more or less doing things on a day-to-day basis. I remember that date. I was just taking it one day at a time. I remember that date 'cause I was not with the band. I flew in for some reason. I must've had something else to do before we got together. I had no idea the show was sold out. I was very gratified when I found it out. For some reason, the New York State Police would not allow the last couple hundred people in. That really bothered me. I was afraid they'd blame it on me, and there was nothing I could really do. They were very nervous, for some reason, about the crowd. I don't know what the reason was. I never did find out. It really bothered me that they wouldn't let these people in. I tried to find out who they were. I wanted to send 'em all an album or something. I do remember that and I do remember it's a record. I think Bob Hope finally broke it, didn't he?
Q - You know, I don't know.
A - Well, it was really a feather in our cap, that's for sure.
Q - The gentleman who books the entertainment at the Fair referred to this season as a "Dollar Frenzy." He stated that acts that would've played for $100,000 in the past have doubled, or in some cases, tripled their asking price. But, when you get right down to it, there is only one Clint Black. There is only one Vince Gill. There is only one Charlie Daniels.
A - Believe me, that is not what we're charging to come there. We don't command those kind of prices. I feel that sometimes acts charge more for Fairs than they do other places. I feel sometimes the agents and the managers who handle the acts take advantage to some extent. I think there is sometimes one price for the general dates and then another price for Fairs. I think they tack on a little extra sometimes. It's unfortunate because I want to see entertainment continue at Fairs because it's a good situation. It's a family situation which we fit right into 'cause we're a family type band. I hate to see acts price themselves out of the category. What it comes down to is, if you can't make money with an act, there's no sense in having them. If you can make money with 'em regardless of what their price is, I'm sure Michael Jackson would be worth $200,000, or whatever it would cost to get him. Some acts that maybe aren't worth quite that much, I think from time to time, tend to charge money like that. If you're gonna pay somebody $100,000 and it costs you $150,000 to put the show on, and you lose money, it's kind of ridiculous. It doesn't make sense. If you can make money on someone regardless of what they charge, absolutely, by all means, that's fine. Bring 'em in.
Q - We had two guys from Syracuse, Marty Lee Flynn and Gary LaVancher, who traveled to Nashville to try and break into the big time. They even had two people in Syracuse, Dan Dunn and Eric Will (of "Homegrown" radio and "Rhythmz" TV fame) who were going to put them in touch with you. I say these guys most likely never made it past the secretary in your office. How difficult is it to get a song to you?
A - Well, in the first place they probably couldn't find our office because our office is way out in the country. It's not on Music Row (he laughs). Secondly, we have to be very careful about unsolicited material. The reason being, if I was soliciting a song and just by chance, without even knowing I was doing it, would lift a line from their song, they would sue me. It's unfortunate, but you have to be very careful about material that somebody just brings in and plays. I don't do it myself. I very seldom listen to a tape. I get a lot of tapes. I pass 'em on to somebody else to listen to.
Q - In your office?
A - Well, in my office or my son is in the publishing business. I'll pass it on to him. But, myself listening to it, I don't do it usually, unless it's somebody I know. It's unfortunate, but you can literally get sued for doing nothing. That way, if somebody says, "I sent a song to your office", I can say, "I never heard it." The stains of the business sometimes make it pretty difficult. So, the best thing to do is affiliate yourself with a publishing company and let them fight your battles for you.
Q - I recall seeing an article about you in Rolling Stone about the time "Still In Saigon" came out They described that song as being controversial. What was controversial about that song?
A - I don't know. Everything is controversial with Rolling Stone. I have no idea. I'm ashamed of the way Vietnam veterans were treated when they cam back. I think they deserve just as much honor and just as much glory as anybody whose ever fought a war for this country. I didn't write this song, it came to me from another source, but I certainly agreed with it. I talked to people. I've never been in the service. I didn't want people who had been in the service to think I was trying to speak for them, and tried to put myself in their place. I think the Vietnam experience was very unique and I don't think, unless you had been there, you can speak about it with any kind of authority. The guys I talked to said, "By all means, go ahead and do the song," and I did, and I'm glad I did. I don't think it healed any wounds, but at least it let some people know that somebody was thinking about 'em. What was controversial about that, I do not know. I have never been able to figure that one out myself.
Q - Country music today, sounds a lot more Rock influenced than ever before. What's going on here anyway?
A - Well, that just happens to be what's going on right now. (laughs)I have never considered myself to be a total Country artist. I love Country music. We obviously play some of it, but we play a lot of other things too. But it's at a point right now where it's become a very narrow business. I can't listen to Country music anymore because the radio stations keep playing the same 14 songs over and over again. You literally get tired of listening to 'em. I think Country music is kind of in the doldrums right now. It's gotten very dance oriented. Dallas, Texas has been a big Country market obviously. At one time, Country radio controlled, or had, twenty-two percent of the overall market. Today they have twelve percent. Ten percent is gone. Their upper demographics have left, because they don't like what they're hearing on the radio. They're hearing the same song on the radio over and over again. That's what's going on right now. Country has had, for the longest time, this thing that we need to get the younger audience. Well, now they've done that, but at the same time they have run off a pig part of their older audience. So, Country music is very strange right now. Who knows? It's that way this week, and next week it'll probably go back to traditional. It's become a business that is very fad oriented, and it never was fad oriented. It's more image than sound now, with some notable exceptions.
Q - And who would those exceptions be?
A - Garth Brooks. I'm a big Garth Brooks fan. I love Garth Brooks. I think Garth is one of the best things that's happened to the music business in that he's very sincere about it. He works really hard. He tries to give people their money's worth. He's just really good for the business. I think Vince Gill is a great artist. Travis Tritt, I like a lot. Like I said, there's some notable exceptions.
Q - You're wearing a white hat, yet you call the record label "Blue Hat". Why Blue Hat?
A - (laughs) The first album we made was a Blues album. Well, I wore a blue hat on it. There's a song on that album called "Blues Hat" and that's basically where the name came from.
Q - And that is your own record label?
A - Uh-huh.
Q - For you exclusively?
A - No. We're probably gonna do some other artists later on. That's our thoughts at the time, if we don't go broke first. (laughs) What we will do with the label is, we'll do music that other people aren't doing. I'm not necessarily interested in the mainstream of music. We want to do things that nobody else is doing. We're probably operating from more of an aesthetic angle than most record companies would be.