Monday, July 6, 2020

Charlie Daniels

Charlie Daniels died today, at the age of 83. Given his age, it's fair to say it probably wasn't totally unexpected, although considering how active he remained - touring relentlessly, grinding out fiddle fire virtually right up until the end - I'm sure it was a little unexpected, but in any case, his passing has left me feeling a strange array of emotions. Part of that might be due to the times we're living through currently, the untold weirdness that has become the common denominator of our daily lives. Like everyone, I'm sick of death, tired of hearing about it in such overwhelming numbers, tired of having to fear it and potentially face it, and more sensitive to any news of it - however far removed I may be - than ever before. But it's also the fact that it's Charlie Daniels who passed away. There's been no other artist, from any genre of music, with whom I've had a more starkly marked love/hate relationship over the years.

When I was twelve - and like most kids I knew at the time, not a fan of country music - a bunch of us were hanging out on the playground, making hella fun of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia".  I don't remember how it came up; I do know there was a kid from a religious family there with us, who insisted the song was sacrilegious, but that just meant we made fun of it even harder. I remember a whole lot of us indulging in spastic fiddle moves and mock southern accents, designed to express our distaste for the song, and all things "country", distaste for the hicks we imagined were square dancing in their barns. We linked elbows and spun each other around, clapped our hands and stomped our feet and cried "yee haw!", as that religious kid stood off to the side, slowly shaking his head. "That's not funny."

About ten years later, I found myself working in country radio and realized two things: 1) not all country music is terrible all the time, 2) "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" isn't so bad at all, can hardly be called a "country" song really, and is in any case not the least bit mock-worthy. In fact, I realized, when you take a moment to consider the time in which it was recorded and what is actually going on in it, it's a pretty killer piece of music. There was, after all, a reason so many of us on the playground thought to make fun of it all at once, and with so much commitment to exaggeration: the song is impossible not to notice, and hard to forget. Even forty years later, in this age of "Old Town Road", "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" stands out as unique and boundary-pushing, unlike anything else in country music. I've said it more than once about certain other artists, and it certainly applies here: who else could "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" be but Charlie Daniels? He'd already been around for a while, had a fairly long history not just as a recording artist, but a session musician for everyone from Bob Dylan to Leonard Cohen, but with "Devil's..." release in 1979, from the equally unique and impactful album Million Mile Reflections, Daniels branded himself a true country music original.

Realizing this prompted me to delve into his music, and what I found was a body of work far more impressive than I could ever have imagined. The Charlie Daniels Band, or CDB, was first and foremost a jam bad, and their jams were as tight as they were twangy. Seriously, this was "next level" country music in my opinion, produced by consummate musicians who played long and funky and fast, were as likely to include electric guitar as steel, and sometimes their live performances, which went on throughout Daniels' 60s and 70s and into his 80s, with show dates for this summer cancelled/postponed only because of Covid-19 (and now, sadly, permanently), reached Mach speeds. The CDB was the Primus of country music. Or, perhaps, it should be said, Primus is the CDB of alt metal.

Either which way, musically speaking, they were astounding.

But there was more. Charlie Daniels' music has always been therapeutic for me, one of those reliable inoculations against dark or long thoughts. Although every once in a while he recorded a ballad, a "hurtin' song",  his music rarely concerned itself with sorrow. Instead, it was upbeat and playful, his own brand of southern drawl inserted into it with surgical precision (the wound stitched up nice and tight with broken bow strings), and always seemed to possess a strong presence smack dab in the moment at hand. Charlie Daniels' music neither lingered too much in the past, nor dwelled on the future, and there was always some level of enthusiasm present, a positive energy for the richness of living. It was a surefire elixir for the blues.

Part of this, I think, was on account of Daniels himself. There was an authority about him, a command presence, on and off stage, which never suggested anything other than the fact that he was completely in control - of himself, his music, and his life. Though doubtless he had his moments in younger days (like most people), and though his music did at times suggest a certain amount of personal chaos, Charlie Daniels himself never seemed like a wild partier, never a Hank Williams Jr., or Waylon Jennings, or Merle Haggard, his celeb persona never accompanied by stories (rumored or otherwise) of exploits laying waste to his personal life or health. He was never the guy who had too much to drink, or didn't know when to quit, and always seemed like the one who would make peace at the bar rather than try starting a fight. He was, by his own admission, not so much an outlaw in the industry as an outcast, and for a long time, I said there was no other celebrity I'd trust more to take my son fishing, for instance, than Charlie Daniels.

I still say that. He just seemed like a standup guy, you know? Married to the same woman for decades, a fantastic musician, and also intelligent. As his music was always about the moment at hand, so too was he, ever aware of what was going on in the country and the world, and always ready with an opinion, which he was never shy about expressing.

Often he did this through his music; songs like "In America" and "Still In Saigon", "Simple Man" and "Let 'Em Win or Bring 'Em Home" present to the listener a social and/or political awareness that, with a few exceptions, has always been missing in country music.  But beyond the music, he posted frequently to his own blog located at his website, called "Soapbox". What was really impressive about "Soapbox" was that he did this consistently for at least twenty years straight. He had a lot of posts back in 2001 when I first discovered it, and he had a lot of posts recently, just this spring and summer. He posted two days ago, actually, a fairly moving July 4 ode to the nation he loved so much on its birthday.

Over the course of my life, from the early 1970s until now, Daniels' politics changed, something that may have gone unnoticed were he not so opinionated, not so quick to tell people what he thought. He transformed from a groovin' "long-haired country boy", to a still-groovin' but staunchly conservative country music elder statesman, fiercely patriotic and an unflinching supporter of our military and Christian values.

Becoming more conservative as one ages is not that unusual (and my guess is Daniels was patriotic his entire life), and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing to tighten up as you age. I think that's a fairly common progression. We get older, life kicks us in the ass here and there along the way, sometimes seems to be laughing as it kicks, and it's just not as easy to be idealistic. 

But as the years passed, Daniels seemed to tilt hard right. This was surely driven largely by his deep faith (that religious kid on the playground years ago really had no idea the extent to which he didn't know what he was talking about calling "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" sacrilegious), and the perpetuation, I think, of a certain image as a right-winger. As time passed, and our country sunk deeper and deeper into its inflexible red and blue divide that now has us all of us in a dangerous stranglehold, Daniels stuck to his guns, metaphorically and literally, and held position knee-deep in the red that makes up the red, white and blue. He really couldn't have done otherwise. I mean, come on, once he released "Simple Man" in 1989 (a kind of conservative coming out party), he could hardly go traipsing back to 1973's "Uneasy Rider", with its shades of counter culture snark.

And it's still only really notable as it pertains to my own life. Contrary to the natural order of things, I've gotten more liberal as I've aged. I'm not far left by any means, hardly counter-culture anything. I'm more what might be a called a classic liberal, a liberal for the golden age of television, let's say, with a little libertarian thrown in. But I was, in any case, far more conservative in my twenties than I am now. When I was the right age for boundary pushing, I pushed back and latched onto conservatism, for some semblance of order and structure, I think.

But a lot of what once I believed to be sensible politics has darkened and hardened over the decades, led to this inexplicable and preposterous support of Donald Trump by people who cannot, and will not, change their mind. No matter what Trump says, or does, no matter how much he shits all over the very things they claim to care most about - the military, our Constitution, just basic decency - they have doubled down repeatedly on their support, and in doing so have, in my opinion, jettisoned every last ounce of credibility.

It's not a left wing or right wing thing for me, it's just Trump. He is fucking terrible, the worst president ever...of all time...Democrat or Republican, it doesn't matter. He doesn't represent any facet of this grand old republic except the swamp he promised to drain (and didn't), and is at least six degrees removed from that which has made it great for 200-plus years; he just reflects the ugly, colorless glare of celebrity that has defined our society for at least the last two decades. He's the first, but rest assured, he won't be the last unqualified celeb to seek the office, and the sludgy by-product of his incompetent sociopathy has really started getting smeared in our faces since the pandemic hit. Trump has demonstrated ineptitude and callousness so often in the last six months, to speak nothing of the last four years, I agree with Howard Stern: how could anyone vote for him? What's it going to take?  

I hold Trump's dogged supporters accountable for not seeing it, or refusing to admit it (because they have to see it, right?), and in recent years, started viewing Charlie Daniels and the vast majority of overtly conservative country music stars as emissaries from that camp, and so became alienated from him, and the music.  One notably questionable choice Daniels made was appearing in a promotional ad for the NRA, in which he called Barack Obama our "fresh-faced, flower child president...."

Now, he had every right to do that, and it makes sense that he would do it for the NRA, I guess, in terms of his persona and all that. But....what the fuck were you talking about, Charlie? That "flower child" president drone bombed the shit out of Afghanistan and other locations around the world throughout his presidency, and fucking nailed Osama bin Laden, as well he should have. It's one thing to state your opinions, get on board with a cause, it's another to embrace flagrantly misleading falsehoods rooted in the potting soil of name calling.

But falsehoods - and name calling - are what we have now, on both sides. Or if not falsehoods, then truths that are specious at best, and are further twisted and pulled into near oblivion for a custom-fit to some kind of agenda, whether that's guns or abortion or the military or the environment or LGBTQ, whatever. And it's not just Charlie Daniels. I fully admit that while Fox News is not the least bit fair and balanced, MSNBC and CNN aren't either. Clearly suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome, nearly all their hosts and commentators come across - to me - just as smug and arrogant as the Trump supporters say they are.  

It's all "fake news" now. That's where we're at.

But you know what, for that reason alone it doesn't matter anymore, and I'm happy to be able to say that and really mean it.  Charlie Daniels has joined that great band in the sky (Heaven should be even prouder now, man...!), and politics is not how I will choose to remember him. It's possible he wouldn't want to hear that, perhaps outside of his faith his opinions were most important to him, I don't know. But politics is not how I want to remember anyone, and sure as hell not the way I want to be remembered. I am so much more than my politics, and sometimes - often times - not my politics at all.

Nope, for Charlie, it's going to be all about the music (and honestly, it's a distinct possibility he'd want to hear that). I have had an immediate resurgence of interest in his electrified, of-the-moment music since hearing of his death. Just this afternoon, it has all sprung back as fresh and enlivening as ever, all of it, from all his life stages.  From the snarky (and gutsy) humor of "Uneasy Rider" to the bright light funk of "Trudy", to the airtight intonation of "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye" or "Boogie Woogie Man", to the sheer emotional (and psychological) splendor of "Aint No Ramblers Anymore" (a song that leaves little left to say), to the lofty pursuits found in "Reflections" and "Rainbow Ride", to, yes, the patriotic, conservative posture of "Simple Man" and "Let 'Em Win or Bring 'Em Home", and of course, his numerous blistering and free-spirited live renditions of "Orange Blossom Special", Charlie Daniels left behind a tremendous musical legacy, none of which could be anyone else, and most of which need not be associated with politics at all.  It's happened already, of course, but the CDB is one of those acts, like the Beatles, and Prince...among others...who I just think should be left alone, rather than covered. 

And as to the politics, insofar as it matters (and at the end of the day, it doesn't), just listen to what the man himself said: "'Cause we'll all stick together, and you can take that to the bank / That's the cowboys, and the hippies, and the rebels and the yanks..."

Talk about leaving nothing left to be said.