Inside Charlie Daniels’s America

According to the 80-year-old country music legend, only two things protect America: the grace of God and the troops.

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Oct 18 2016, 7:58pm

Charlie Daniels lives in a very different America than most of the people who read this website do. He's a living country music legend who was born in 1936, is best-known for a fiddle-heavy song he wrote in 1979 ("The Devil Went Down To Georgia​"), and, as he likes to remind journalists, lived through the Civil Rights era (and many others besides). He's about to turn 80 years old, was just inducted​ into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and recently released a new record, Night Hawk, that sees the feisty old-timer embrace one of those more American of obsessions: the cowboy. When I called him up to talk about it, I found him to be courteous, direct, and thoughtful—every inch the classic Southern gentleman he was undoubtedly raised to be.

I almost didn't go through with the interview, though. Not because I disliked the album (I don't, it's great) or the long-haired country boy​ himself (he was extremely pleasant and polite on the phone); I got cold feet because of Daniels's political views, which I certainly don't share and with which he is quite generous​​. As his Twitter feed​ and the many entries in the Soapbox blog section of his website illustrate, his America is the same one my 79-year-old grandfather grew up in and still holds close to his barrel chest; one where "all lives matter," where every policeman is a hero, where the "safe spaces" set up by liberal colleges are an abomination, and where—most crucially—Hillary Clinton will destroy us all. 

According to him, "Blue Lives Matter." He thinks nothing of telling lazy college kids that they should "spend a year picking cotton." In between heartwarming photos of his grandkids and farm animals, calls to support struggling American veterans, and simple morning prayers, his Twitter feed is where he expresses his distrust of refugees with tweets like "like for Hillary to tell me why we should import our own intifada by bringing in thousands of refugees. Check our what's going on in France," and regularly tweets sentiments like, "The things Obamas done that we know about are bad enough,wait until we start finding out about the ones we don't know about​," "Here comes the Clinton slime machine and their suck up media​," and "Colin Kaepernick needs to spend a week riding in an inner city patrol car so he could see what the guys he insults every week are up against​​." He never explicitly voices support for Donald Trump, and refuses to endorse either candidate when I ask him about it, but his positions are definitely, unflaggingly conservative.

I don't agree with him on much at all, but I found myself appreciating the way he took time to patiently explain his views, even after I pushed back on his take on Black Lives Matter. Like my grandfather, he spoke with a knowing, paternalistic air—I'd understand when I was older, he seemed to intimate. I didn't always like what he was saying, but he was fully within his rights to say it. Free speech still counts if you don't agree with what's being said, which is a simple truth that many of my fellow Americans seem to have blanked on over the past (seemingly endless) year and I myself have conveniently forgotten on more than one occasion.

Noisey: Night Hawk is really great record, and I'm especially interested in the Spanish influence on Billy The Kid. Where did that come from?
Charlie Daniels: For a long time, I've listened to Spanish-flavored music. I've lived in El Paso, Texas for a while. I sucked up a lot of Mexican culture and mariachi music. It kind of sticks in your mind. It's a style that is so easy to get used to and love. I always did. I was very young when I started recording. When I started really writing and recording, it stuck with me. It's nothing new for me.

The album's theme is very specific and obviously very thought out. Why did you want to focus exclusively on cowboys on the album?
I love cowboys and Western wear. Cowboy culture was big with the young kids, we played cowboy when I was a kid, [but]  everybody now plays with video games. I had planned on doing an album on cowboy music. It's not the variety of cowboy that we see, not the glow in the dark, gun-slinging cowboy. There are still a lot of cowboys in the West that make their living working on ranges, out in the middle of nowhere with cattle. That's the type of cowboy I want to talk about. I didn't have enough songs to do an album for it. I was waiting until I could collect enough tunes, and that took many years. This is an idea that started a couple of decades ago.

Why do you think that people are drawn to the cowboy?
I think that's the most romantic era of American life, and we don't think about that way.​ The British have the knights at the round table, Denmark has the Vikings, and we have cowboys. So much of American culture and literature has been centered around cowboys. When TV was first invented, there were a lot of cowboy shows. 

I think you people like to look back onto when things were wild but simpler. It's such a masculine archetype, too. Do you think that the definition of what a man is has changed since those days?
I don't think it ever has. I know that the men that I was raised around were working people. They were manual workers, like farmers. They got up at morning and went to work. They were men in every aspect of the word. They are still the people I admire the most. My definition has stayed the same, but maybe the world has changed.

I was reading the Soapbox part of your website. It's interesting to see you putting your voice out there, regardless if everyone agrees with it.
I don't think everyone agrees with me. If it did, it'd be a waste of time. I'll be 80 years old in October, and I have some very definite concerns about America and about where America is heading. I have lived through a lot of the dangers that we see happening. The people that we are dealing with and cannot be trusted. It's kind of like Germany back in the day. I'm very concerned about it. It may or may not affect anybody.

I know you're definitely not voting for Hillary, that's very clear.
I don't publicly endorse political candidates. You won't see me endorsing anybody.

That's a smart, especially now, when that can be a very difficult and controversial sort of thing to do. This particular race is so wild.
I do things that people misconstrue as endorsements, but I don't actually do endorsements. I've been asked a lot to do political things, but I have turned them down. It's not incumbent on me to do that. Although I've very opinionated, my opinions don't have to endorse a candidate. I do talk about it a lot.

I'm interested in your opinion about how so much of the media is framing Trump's rise on this cipher of ignorant hillbillies that don't know any better. Personally speaking, I grew up in the woods, but I know that that doesn't make me ignorant.
That is the epitome of snobbery. Of people looking at folks and thinking they're less then what they are. Just because somebody is not of the elitist class don't mean they don't have any sense. That is just ridiculous. All my life, being from the South, at a time before television changed the stereotypes, there was innate prejudice about people from the South. It's snobbery and it's ignorance. It's like the word "racist"—people forgot the point because it's been used so wrongly. People don't even know what it means anymore. For a lot of people, it means if you disagree with Barack Obama, you're racist. That's how they see it. If you disagree with Hillary, then you're a misogynist. If you disagree with something that they come up with and they think it's right, then that makes you ignorant. If you don't vote the way they do, it makes you ignorant. That's what it's all about. I don't understand how people who claim that they're elitist in this country can be so damn stupid. It is stupidity. Every time I hear that, I think, "You guys are dumb, you're an idiot." That's how I feel about it.

I think a lot of people in the States keep to themselves and don't meet other people with different viewpoints and that makes it more difficult to understand one another.
A lot of people don't look at both sides of an issue. They have certain people they respect and they don't listen to anyone else. They are very, very close-minded. Look at what happened on college campuses, they used to be a place where ideas were listened to and talked about. They won't even have certain people on their campus [now]. If they have someone they don't like on their campus, they'll shout 'em down or do something to keep them from speaking. Is that open-mindedness? No, it's not, it's bigotry when you come right down to it. The people that accuse other people of being bigots and racists are literally morons. They refuse to hear other people's ideas. 

Can you imagine what these kids who have these safe zones on college campuses are going to do when they get out in the real world, and someone disturbs their peace? That is a fallacy that campuses even do that. If people are that fragile, then they should go to where they'll be alone because no one else is going to respect that. I think that it's a disservice to kids going to college, to make them think that they'll never have to hear anyones' ideas except their own. Where are they gonna work?  How are they gonna survive? How are they going to make it in the world? They are going to be a nervous wreck or a very disillusioned person.

You got in a bunch of hot water for your cotton-picking comment​, about students that need to work harder.
I could not care less. Anyone that wanted to could understand what I was talking about. These people don't bother me because I know what I mean. Everyone else can just shove it. If you want to be so ignorant to take a statement…I got in a thing with CNS News​ about the Confederate flag. I know what was said. They wrote me into a corner that I was a prejudiced person. I know what prejudice is, I know what a racist is. I was raised in the middle of it. I grew up in the Jim Crow days. I came through that by myself. I learned that myself. I don't need some dead-brained, smart-aleck, pseudo intellectual, stuck up jerk trying to tell me what racism is. I know what racism is. I experienced it firsthand. This stuff about "You're racist if you disagree with a black president?" Come on, that's just downright stupid. A lot of people are that way now.

Things are very divided now.
I've never expected to see racial relations fall back into the same way they are now. No one is acting up. Did you see the guy that was with Black Lives Matter and was running for president? He said "All Lives Matter," and retracted his statement. What's wrong with this country? If you feel that way, you really are a bigot. You're saying my life is more important than theirs. Everybody's life matters.

I believe the thinking there is that black people are made to think that their lives don't matter very much, so they want to get onto equal footing. Their lives matter, too, not instead.
I agree with you, but I heard that one of the Black Lives Matter people said that we should do away with the police department. Would you like to do that? Would you feel safe stepping outside of your door? There's no way it would work. It's silly stuff. If we tried it, there's no way it could work.

How do you think that we can make things better?
I treat everyone the same way, I don't care what color you are, it makes no difference. I have black people as my employees and my friends. It doesn't make a difference. If you criticize Barack Obama you're a racist, it doesn't matter what else you do. That's the stupid part about it. It's ridiculous.

You've worked with people who have different views from yours, like Bob Dylan, and with other conservatives like Kid Rock. Do you think that music still has the power to heal people and bring people together?
It depends on how it's perceived. I think it can be, if it's perceived in a right way. You're thinking about the 60s. Music had a lot more substance to it, and it dealt with important things. Look at Dylan and Leonard Cohen, they were introspective songs that you could listen to and feel good about and feel like there were other people that think the way you did. That's not the case anymore. In any music. If you look at rap, what's it telling you? It calls women "whores." It's the same in country music. It's opportunistic.

You're still out there and going, at least.
I don't have hit songs on the radio.

You don't really need them anymore, do you?
That's the point. We were talking about what people were listening to in the 60s, the stuff was on the radio and people were listening to it. The stuff that's big doesn't have an interesting property anymore. You can make more money with something that doesn't say anything. I don't think music says much, unless you listen to an oldies station.

You've been doing this for so long, and now you're in the Country Music Hall of Fame! Are you excited about that?
It's something very special this time in my life. It's the cherry on the top.

Speaking of looking at your website, I noticed something called the Journey Home project; can you tell me about your involvement there?
The Journey Home project that I started to help our veterans make the transition from life in service into civilian life. To the uninitiated of us, it sounds like a mundane and easy thing to do, but there's so much more involved when you take a person out of an environment where they get shot at and two days later they're walking down the street in America with a bunch of people that have no idea or concept of what they've been through. They have very specific problems. We try and help out with that and help them make the transition. I have been a life long patriot, I was five years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. There are two things that undoubtedly protect America: that is the grace of God and the US Military. That's it. There's nothing else. If they go off and lay their lives on the line for us, the least we can do is take care of their needs when they get back. As you know, that's not happening right now. If we can pick up slack and help these guys, that's what we want to do.

Is it fulfilling to you as the music at this point?
It's a different thing. There's nothing that compares with that. It's in a class by itself. There are a lot of broken lives out there. To watch a kid that had his head blown off get a college degree, and graduate. We helped finance a Veterans and Family Center at Tennessee State University, to come together, where they have likeminded people. There's a mental health counselor there, teleconferencing opportunities for them to apply for jobs. This is so needed by the student populations. We are hoping to expand these programs. It's a different thing than music all together.

Why does the military mean so much to you?
I remember the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. I come from Wilmington, North Carolina. It's a very strategic part in the Second World War. We had a shipyard, it's a port city. The troops going to Europe came through here. We felt unsafe, and we were very aggressive. Only two things protect America: the grace of God and the troops. We can never pay our military back for what they've done for us, but we can at least try. That's how I feel about it.

That's wonderful that you're taking your visibility towards this cause. And, to wrap up, I've got to ask: After all this time, is it still fun to play "The Devil Went Down To Georgia"?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It gets better every time. I haven't played it perfect yet.

Cover image by Kelly McGovern​

Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter​.