We took this opportunity to speak with Charlie Daniels about his songwriting, which can be overlooked when you consider his career as a performer and Southern Rock icon. In this interview, he talks about writing for Elvis, the "Uneasy Rider," and why the Devil had no chance against Johnny.
Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): Has anybody ever told you you have one of those names that just really rolls?
Charlie Daniels: Yeah?
Songfacts: Charlie Daniels. It just comes out so easy.
Charlie: (laughs) Well, bless you. I guess I've been saying it so long it's kind of familiar like, you know, 50 years or so. I'm in my 50th year. I first started playing professionally – I wasn't recording all that time – but 1958. So '08 I'll complete my 50th year.
Songfacts: That's actually a good segue into my first question for you. I've got a list here of songs that have kind of followed me around for about the last 25 years.
Charlie: Persistent little devils, aren't they? Well, go right ahead, I'm ready.
Songfacts: Well, okay. And again, like I said, the segue… I was just reading last night that you sold your first song to Elvis Presley, or he recorded it – "It Hurts Me."
Charlie: Yeah, it was a song that a guy named Bob Johnston and myself – he was writing under the name of Joe Byers at the time, but it's really Bob Johnston and myself – wrote back in '63. And Elvis came to town. He picked it up and held it for, I think, a year. I think it was '62, really. He picked it up and held it for almost a year in what was called his portfolio. You know, they pick songs out for Elvis and when he'd go in to record he'd review them, and if he liked them he'd do it. So anyway, he recorded it, and it was by far the biggest thing that had ever happened to me in my life.
Songfacts: There was one line in it the song, "To see him treat you like he does," was it a personal thing that you were experiencing?
Charlie: Well, no not really. You know, so much of songwriting is supposition and some of it's vicarious, some of it's personal experience. Some of it's autobiographical. But some of it's just things that come into your mind. I remember when I had the idea for that song. I lived for a very short time in El Paso, Texas. And it was right before Christmas, and I decided to come back to the East Coast. We drove back, I was riding back with a friend of mine. And for some reason this song started coming in my head. And I went out from my hometown of Wilmington, where I spent Christmas with my family. And I had met Bob Johnston in 1959, and we'd done some work together. He had wanted me to come out to Nashville to do a writing session, "Let's write some songs." So I came out, and that's one of the songs that we wrote. I said, "Here's an idea I've got." We just went on, and we finished it up, and he did a demo on it, and the company that he was writing for at the time – Hill & Range was the parent company – handled Elvis Presley Music and Gladys Music, which was Elvis Presley's two companies. And when they heard the song they put it into his portfolio, and as I said, the rest is history.
Songfacts: Did you ever get to shake his hand?
Charlie: I never did. The closest I ever came to Elvis was Lisa Marie. I saw her in Memphis sometime back, and I had never met her. She looks like a miniature Elvis with feminine features. I just got to tell her, I said, "Your dad picked one of my songs. I was a big fan." But she was just as sweet as she could be. I like meeting people like that who are nice, and she was just a really nice little lady. But she sure is spooky. She had her shades on, and it's just kind of spooky to look at her because she looked so much like Elvis in his younger days.
Songfacts: I can imagine. Okay. "Uneasy Rider." Is this a character that you just made up, or is this an experience that you had?
Charlie: Well, I can tell you where the idea for the song came from, but it doesn't go with the story. The story, of course, as with so many songs, is totally fictitious. I used to do a little bit of record producing. I used to produce a group called the Youngbloods that were headquartered at San Francisco. And we were doing a live album, and we did part of it at the Fillmore East and West, and we did part of a – used to be called a rock festival. It was one of those big three-days affairs where everybody in the world played. And that day I think it was the Youngbloods and the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, and I don't know who else. But you know what I'm talking about, one of those extravaganza type things. And all these people were there at the motel. Of course, one of them stayed at the same motel we were staying at. And they were these long-haired hippie type people, and the movie "Easy Rider" had not been out very long. And here we were sitting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with all these long-haired people, and I think a lot of them had the impression that if they were to get two blocks away, that somebody was going to run out with a pair of shears and cut their hair and threaten their life. And I was born in the South, and to me this attitude was just kind of funny, you know. And that's where the idea came from. And I just took a guy and put him in a fictitious situation, and extricated him. But of course there's no truth to it other than just being around people that kind of had the attitude, a fear of redneck bars. Of course, I don't go to redneck bars, either.
Songfacts: In fact, when that came out I was just little, and my dad used to love that line, "kicked ol' Green Teeth right in the knee." He used to run around quoting that all the time. It was funny.
Charlie: (laughs) Well, I did actually know a guy one time who had green teeth. He had tartar on his teeth, and they actually turn green if they don't get it off. I don't think he practiced very good dental hygiene. And that's where that came from. I actually knew a guy that had little spots of green on his teeth.
Songfacts: But did you ever kick him?
Charlie: (laughs) No, I never kicked him. Maybe I should have. But I didn't kick him.
Songfacts: Speaking of long-haired people, "Long-Haired Country Boy." I have a couple of questions about that. Back in the days when I was in high school, and this song we used to listen to all the time, and I swear I remember the lyrics being slightly different than they are now.
Charlie: Well, they are different than they are now. I was a different person then than I am now. At the time I did that very tongue-in-cheek. You're speaking of "I get stoned in the morning, I get drunk in the afternoon." I did that very tongue-in-cheek. But things got so serious. We're talking about 1973 – 1974, actually. And things have gotten so serious and it's such a big problem with drugs and alcohol with kids, and it just went against my Christian feelings to actually do anything that somebody could construe with being promoting that lifestyle, or those things, the alcohol and drugs. And yet the song was such a big part of our repertoire and was always just a popular song for us to do. But I did quit doing it for a while, I just quit doing it at all. And people kept wanting it, and I felt I could put it back in, so I changed the "I get up in the morning, I get down in the afternoon," which means the same thing. I wish I had done that to start with. But the song means if you don't like me, we don't need to have any trouble, we don't need to be going upside each other's head or anything. Just leave me alone, just walk around me. Maybe you don't like the way my hair looks, maybe you don't like the way I eat my soup, or whatever it is that you don't like about me, it doesn't make any difference to me. I don't care. If you don't like me it's okay. Maybe I don't like you either, but I'm not going to bother with you. But just walk around me, go to the other side of the street, or I go to the other side of the street, and let's just co-exist here. There's no need to have problems. There's no need for people who don't see eye-to-eye – I mean, you may mentally and intellectually disagree with people, but you don't have to be nasty about it, and you certainly don't have to be physical about it. So it's like, you don't like me, it's okay, just leave me alone. And that's what the song's about.
Songfacts: And again, was that from a certain experience that you had, or is that just from general observation?
Charlie: I don't think it was from any particular experience. It was just kind of the way I was feeling at the time. I remember the song, I sat down, and my wife Hazel was doing something in the kitchen, I was sitting there with my guitar, and I started doing this song. I said, "What do you think it is?" And we put it on the Fire On The Mountain album, and it's been a mainstay in our music, in what we play.
Songfacts: Right. Okay, tell me about "In America" and "Still In Saigon." You didn't write "Still In Saigon," did you?
Charlie: No, I didn't. "Still In Saigon" came at me from two different directions, from our producer at the time, John Bowman, and from a group called Vietnam Vets of America, somebody had found it. Dan Daley had written it and it was very much in with the way that I felt about the Vietnam veterans, because it was so totally unfair how these people were treated when they came back from a war that they had nothing to do with starting. That was the drug generation – and how screwed up their minds could get? – that young men and women would go over and start a war in Southeast Asia and go over and then intentionally kill babies and stuff. I mean, you know, that's not what our military's about. It's picking bad apples, I know that. And of course, as is happening now in Iraq (2007), every time there's the slightest misstep they blow it up and magnify it all out of proportion while the good things that are done are not even mentioned. It's a proven fact now that that prolonged the war. It cost the lives of Americans, because the Vietnamese had already admitted that they had thought about quitting, about giving up, and along comes John Kerry, and along comes all the stuff that was generated by the media, basically. And when these guys came home from over there, some had the temerity to spit on these people. That's beyond the pale, you can't spit on somebody. That's a huge, huge insult. I talked to Vietnam vets before I recorded that song because I'd never been to Vietnam. I thought it was a very personal experience. And I went around and talked to some of the guys, "How do you feel about me recording this?" I had a guy, ex-Green-Beret, was working security with me at the time, and they said, "Do it." So I did. And I've always been glad that I did, because it was, I guess, the first song of support for the Vietnam veterans.
Songfacts: And the song "In America," in kind of contrast to that. Your memory is so much better than mine. I'm thinking back in 1980 when that song came out – I can't remember what happened in '80 that would have inspired that.
Charlie: The Iranian Hostage Crisis. Our hostages over at the American Embassy in Tehran. It was a reawakening of patriotism. That was something that our enemies did that they had no idea what they were doing, because it galvanized America, the people, the Old John Doe out here, and John Q. You're not supposed to be able to go into the embassies there. That's like a little piece of American soil over there, and these people go in there and take hostages. And it just literally made America mad. I kept hearing, "Well, we ought to go over there and do this, we ought to do that, we ought to do the other thing, we ought to do something about this." And I thought, you know, patriotism is making a reappearance. And then the lines popped in my mind, "Well, you never did think that it ever would happen again," because after Vietnam, patriotism was at ebb tide. And all of the sudden here we were, we had people ready to go to arms or do whatever we needed to do to get the situation straightened out. America was just a flat-out piece of flag-waving patriotism. That's what I am. I'm a flag-waving patriot.
Songfacts: And a Pittsburgh Steelers fan? The line, "Lay your hand on a Pittsburgh Steelers fan…"
Charlie: Yeah, I've gone to ball games at different places, but I've always felt the Pittsburgh Steelers fans, especially in the old stadium, they were just… I used to go do the National Anthem there sometimes. I mean, they're steel workers and they're good old guys with blisters, or calluses on their hands. The salt of the earth, the finest, just the greatest people, the strength of America. The strength of America is not in Washington, D.C. It's in our people, it's on the farms, in the factories. It's the people out here that make this country work. The truck drivers, the farmers. And these people – that's what they were, and I just felt like if you want to go to war, let me take some of these guys with me. Go lay your hand on a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and you're gonna find out what American anger is, because it's the kind of people they are.
Songfacts: Okay. I absolutely agree with you. I don't know about Pittsburgh Steelers, but San Diego Chargers, boy, we're just like that.
Charlie: There you go. We're gonna steal LaDanian Tomlinson from you. We're gonna come get him and bring him to Nashville, and dare you all to come here.
Songfacts: For LaDanian we just might come.
Charlie: We're needing a running back pretty bad over here.
Songfacts: He's something.
Charlie: He is. I tell you what, I've never seen anything like him. I have so much enjoyed watching him play.
Songfacts: And he's so classy. He conducts himself with such class.
Charlie: Yeah, he's a good Christian kid, and he's just the package. Now, there's your role model. Not Pac-Man Jones and his bunch of punks. I'm serious, Pac-Man plays here in Tennessee, and he's a punk. But these guys in Cincinnati, that's not the kids I'd be looking up to. LaDanian Tomlinson, and hey, there's your role model. And Shaun Alexander up in Seattle. These kids, they ought to be the role models. Not Pac-Man Jones.
Songfacts: I absolutely agree. I bow to LaDanian. Okay, "The South's Gonna Do It Again."
Charlie: Well, "South" is just about a bunch of bands that we play with and enjoy working with. That was 1974, we brought them out, and we worked with Marshall Tucker, and the Allman Brothers, and Skynyrd, and our good old bunch. We all came up basically in the same kind of situation, and most of the guys that I wrote about we felt very close to. We felt a kinship to, a brotherhood sort of thing. So it's just a tribute song to the bands.
Songfacts: Okay. I would be remiss if I didn't mention the Devil going down to Georgia.
Charlie: I wish I had a story about that, for anything other than, of course, it's an old fasty and it's been done a bunch of times. But we had rehearsed, written, and recorded the music for our Million Mile Reflections album, and all of the sudden we said, "We don't have a fiddle song." I don't know why we didn't discover that, but we went out and we took a couple of days' break from the recording studio, went into a rehearsal studio, I just had this idea. The devil went down to Georgia.
I don't know where it came from, but it just did. Well, I think I might know where it came from, it may have come from an old poem called "The Mountain Whippoorwill" that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school. He didn't use that line, but I started playing, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down.
Songfacts: Who came up with what the Devil plays, and who came up with Johnny plays?
Charlie: I did. I played the fiddles on them.
Songfacts: You played them both? You made them up and you said, "Okay, this is what the Devil's gonna sound like."?
Charlie: Well, yeah, because the Devil's just blowing smoke. If you listen to that, there's just a bunch of noise. There's no melody to it, there's no nothing. It's just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course Johnny's saying something. You can't beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn't have that in the song, but I should have.
Songfacts: Have you ever had anybody say to you anything like, "Well, gee, the Devil sounded better, he should have won"?
Charlie: Oh yeah. Well, I've had them say they like the part better. But if you dissect it and listen to it, that's the smoke and mirrors thing. Like the Devil, there's just nothing there. There's nothing. There's just a bunch of noise. There's no music involved. It's just a huge bunch of noise.
Songfacts: Did you start out playing fiddle as kind of a back-up band thing, or did you just go full-force into it?
Charlie: I've always been a bandleader. But I started playing guitar first, and I started playing fiddle a little later. But very few times I've worked in anybody else's band. I've always worked in my band.
Songfacts: Okay, so you kind of formed your own thing and then went from there.
Charlie: That's it, you got it.
Songfacts: Great. Okay, well, I certainly appreciate your time, Mr. Daniels.
Charlie: God bless.
We spoke with Charlie Daniels on March 30, 2007. Get more at charliedaniels.com.