interview by Mike Hennessey
Charlie Daniels, “Preachin’, Prayin’, Singin'” – Blue Hat Records, 2008
Charlie Daniels arrived in Nashville in 1967 with a wife, child, and a literal twenty dollar bill in his pocket. In a few short years, he was lending his fiddle to Bob Dylan’s seminal Nashville albums. Since then he has sold over 20 million records as the larger-than-life leader of his Charlie Daniels Band. In 1979, he laid claim to country music immortality with his epic of electrified fiddling, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Yet it wasn’t until 2005, as documented in the newly-released DVD “Preachin’, Prayin’, Singin’,” that Daniels returned to his Carolina roots by gathering bluegrass legends like Earl Scruggs and Mac Wiseman at the Country Music Hall of Fame for an intimate concert.
Casual followers of country music who think of Daniels only as a right-wing fiddler taken to pleasing his audiences with provocative boogies like “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” or tales of bar brawling with cross-dressers, may be ripe for a continuing education. This is the same artist who was in Nashville’s earliest ranks of long-haired hippy sympathizers. His gay-thrashing talking blues “Uneasy Rider ’88,” we learn, is a re-working of Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider” from 1972. The original version is just about the most strident anti-redneck, pro-peace, and ultra-marijuana ditty you will find this side of Arlo Guthrie. In what would be a towering achievement were his life’s work not so wide-ranging (and contradictory), Daniels founded Volunteer Jam in 1974. This annual cavalcade of Southern rock arguably begat every summer palooza since.
Charlie Daniels is a prolific man who has lived a long time. “Preachin’, Prayin’, Singin'” finds him in great company making good music. Performing traditional tunes with a backing band plucked from bluegrass royalty, Daniels claps, stomps, and quakes through “I’ve Found a Hiding Place,” “The Old Account,” “Salty Dog Blues,” and others with soulful conviction. On the holy-rolling tunes that begin the set, his emotive — if not angelic — voice draws off blues and gospel to impressive effect. If viewers turn on this revival unaware that Daniels truly and firmly trusts in Jesus Christ for his eternal salvation, the impassioned singing (and, indeed, praying) contained therein will inform them, if not reform them. Meanwhile, many old fans of Mr. Daniels’ country-western persona will no doubt find themselves true believers and the newest members of the Church of Bluegrass. At the very least, viewers will get to know several generations of bluegrass musicians, rightfully adored by many, and vaguely familiar to some, who otherwise carry on and renew an important form of American music in relative obscurity.
In an interview with Country Music Goodness, the affable elder statesman of that venerable, rolling Southern omnibus known simply as “CDB” discussed his lifelong appreciation of bluegrass and how the “Preachin’, Prayin’, Singin'” DVD came to be. Daniels also hinted at a possible stylistic surprise (rumored to be jazz-inflected) one might expect from his iconic band.
Country Music Pride: What did it mean to you to choose a project where you are returning to the music you enjoyed with your family as a child? Is this part of reaping the reward of a long, successful career?
Charlie Daniels: I really enjoy bluegrass music. It’s good American music…. I cut my teeth on [it]. So it’s great to be able to do something meaningful in bluegrass music. To get together with bluegrass legends, it’s special. No doubt about it. Mac Wiseman and Earl Scruggs are people I have been admiring all my life. It is an honor to be able to play with people like that. It is an honor to be able to be on the same stage with them, and especially in a setting that’s as relaxed as this one.
CMP: It occurs to me that this DVD captures what it was like to listen to the Grand Ole Opry and other shows on the radio: extraordinary musicians and singers playing together in a room. It’s a contrast to over-produced cable TV “specials.”
CD: A lot of times you see people in a kind of a controlled setting, you’ve got a script you go by, and you got to do this and that at the end of the thing, and we didn’t have to do anything. If this tape hadn’t come off, we wouldn’t have used it. It’s just that kind of thing. If it had not been something we were proud of, we could’ve just scrapped it.
CMP: That definitely comes across. This is what “live” is supposed to mean.
CD: How natural it was… is not a particularly easy thing to capture. We just did as it was going on, as we were doing it, there wasn’t any pretension.
CMP: Any upcoming projects to tell us about?
CD: I want to document my band. I think I’ve got the best band I’ve ever had. I want to let the world hear my band in the way that I hear it, where we maybe do some things that you wouldn’t ordinarily think about being a “stage-type” thing. Not that we wouldn’t play it on stage. We would do some things… a little different.