The Charlie Daniels Band has cut a tribute album to Bob Dylan. This will surprise people who think Charlie Daniels’ music started with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and jumped straight to the Reagan-era America’s-back anthem “In America.”
These days, Charlie Daniels is known widely for his conservative politics as well as for the music he has produced over some decades now, so the notion of him recording an album of songs by Dylan, cultural icon of the liberal 1960s, does at first sound … unexpected.
It may be unexpected until you recall – or learn for the first time – that Charlie Daniels played on not one, not two, but three albums Dylan recorded as 1969 turned to 1970, including “Nashville Skyline,” Dylan’s critically acclaimed 1969 foray into country music, recorded over 12 days in Nashville in February 1969.
Daniels was already a fan of Bob Dylan when Dylan’s producer called and asked him to fill in for a guitarist who couldn’t make it to the first recording session for “Nashville Skyline.” Daniels was working as a session musician in Nashville, but his own debut album was a year in the future, and his first hit – “Uneasy Rider” – wouldn’t happen for four years.
After his first recording session with Dylan, Daniels thought he was done. “I went to leave, and Dylan wouldn’t let me leave,” he recalls. “Dylan said, ‘I don’t want the other guitar player. I want him to stay around,’ so I ended up doing ‘Nashville Skyline’ and then two other albums with him, ‘Self Portrait’ and ‘New Morning.’”
One song from “Nashville Skyline” – “Country Pie” – shows up on Daniels’ newest album, “Off The Grid – Doin’ it Dylan.”
“This will always be a special song to me because when Dylan first started singing it, I came up with a guitar riff for it on the ‘Nashville Skyline’ album, and it’s probably my favorite piece of guitar playing on the whole album because I felt like it certainly added to what the song was about,” Daniels recalls.
But replicating that recording was not what Daniels set out to do when he took his band into his recording studio. When culling through Dylan’s extensive catalog to pick songs for the new album, Daniels says they chose songs which they thought they could “do right by” without trying to mimic Dylan’s signature sound. “My main concern in doing this album was staying away from Dylan,” Daniels says.
The idea for making an acoustic album grew out of The Charlie Daniels Band’s song recorded for the cable TV series “Hell on Wheels.” They recorded using only acoustic instruments, because the show is set in the 1800s, when there were no electric guitars.
“We did the song, and we liked the way it sounded – it still sounded hot, that CDB sound, but acoustic,” he said. He also had been wanting to do a Dylan album, and the two artistic impulses collided to produce “Off the Grid.” It is described as a “Dylan tribute,” but Daniels would rather you just think of it as the newest album from the CDB, which happens to be acoustic and have 10 songs written by the Dylan.
“When I went in to do the vocals, I didn’t want to phrase like him, I didn’t want to sound like him, I didn’t want to do any thing like that. I wanted to do a record of Bob Dylan songs, but I wanted it to be a CDB album – the way we would have treated it if we had written the songs. I wanted to stay away from his arrangements.”
That meant he couldn’t do every Dylan song he really wanted to do. He couldn’t find a way to do “Lay, Lady, Lay” that “wasn’t completely reminiscent of the way that it was done” by Dylan, he says, “so I just bypassed it.”
“There were songs that didn’t fit what I was trying to do – that we couldn’t do a decent job of them without following along what was done on the record. I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to do it completely different,” he said. “If we had written these songs, how would we do ’em?”
One good example is the song “Gotta Serve Somebody,” a song on Dylan’s 1979 album “Slow Train Coming.” Daniels, whose own songs often pit good versus evil, clearly connects with the message of the song – life is basically a choice between serving God or the Devil – and he’s proud of how the CDB put its own musical spin on it.
“If you listen to the introduction to that song before you hear the lyrics, you’d never guess what that song was until the lyric comes in. It’s totally different, and that was my aim. That’s one of the things that I wanted to accomplish – that it would be totally different from the way Bob done ’em.”
The 10 songs Daniels ultimately chose come from all parts of Dylan’s career. Two of them – “Hard Rain” and “The Times They Are A Changin'” – are “vintage ’60s Dylan,” Daniels says.
“Hard Rain” is a warning of something catastrophic coming, he says, but he admits there are lines in the song he doesn’t understand. “It speaks of something catastrophic – I don’t know if it would be an atomic attack, judgment day, war, but something earth-shaking.”
But lines like “I’ve been 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard” and “I saw a room full of men with their hammers bleeding” and a white ladder “all covered with water” – the meanings of those lyrics Daniels can’t say – and he wouldn’t ask Dylan to explain them even if he had the chance.
“I wouldn’t dare. I don’t think anybody would ever ask Dylan what he meant,” he says.
“The Times They Are A Changin’,” on the other hand, is not difficult to understand. It’s about the inter-generational conflict of the 1960s. Daniels calls the song “a mini-documentary.”
The CDB’s own first hit, nine years later, is another look at culture clash – this time between a long-haired marijuana user driving a Chevrolet with a “peace sign, mag wheels, and four on the floor” making a cross-country drive to Los Angeles when he meets up with some southern rednecks in a Mississippi bar. The song – considered a novelty song by some – tells the story in a humorous way, but, like “The Times They Are A Changin’,” Daniels’ song is about very real cultural divisions in the country at the time. Instead of intergenerational conflict, the CDB song pits the 1960s counterculture against traditional Southern culture. But the protagonist of Daniels’ song is the counter-culture, pot-smoking peacenik.
Charlie Daniels today is a member of the Grand Ole Opry – the heart of country music traditionalism – and the traditionalist streak runs strong through his music and his lyrics. But throughout his career, he’s also recorded many songs that defy traditionalism both musically and lyrically. He’s the fist-pumping, flag-waving in-your-face patriot of “In America,” the rural sentimentalist of songs like “Carolina (I Remember You),” and the defender of a man’s right to his own choices – whether counterculture or redneck – on songs like “Uneasy Rider” and “Long-Haired Country Boy.”
He’s a fiddle-player extraordinaire – showcased on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and his 1975 recording of “Orange Blossom Special” – who is also a fantastic guitar player. And he’s the country music icon who made some of the best southern rock back during the heyday of that sub-genre – and had a hit song that name-checked some of the greatest in country and southern rock with his song “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”
But all of that would come after his recording sessions with Bob Dylan, though Dylan sensed a kindred spirit and a real talent during those sessions, as he acknowledged in his 2005 memoir “Chronicles: Volume One.”
“I felt I had a lot in common with Charlie,” Dylan wrote. “The kind of phrases he’d use, his sense of humor, his relationship to work, his tolerance for certain things. Felt like we had dreamed the same dream with all the same distant places. A lot of his recollections seemed to coincide with mine. Charlie would fiddle with stuff and make sense of it. … When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions.”
Dylan continued, “Charlie eventually struck it big. After hearing the Allman Brothers and the side-winding Lynyrd Skynyrd, he’d find his groove and prove himself with his own brand of dynamics, coming up with a new form of hillbilly boogie that was pure genius,” said Dylan, “atomic fueled — with surrealistic double fiddle playing and great tunes like ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’…”
High praise from Dylan, whose own maverick genius is such that the culture coined a new word to describe it – “Dylanesque.”
Charlie Daniels’ new album isn’t “Dylanesque” – but it is most certainly CDB-esque. That makes it a tribute record in a way that an album merely mimicking Dylan could never do.
For all their mutual admiration, it might surprise you to learn that Charlie Daniels and Bob Dylan haven’t played together since that last recording session in 1970, more than 40 years ago.
“I’ve seen Bob Dylan, gosh, two times in 20 years,” he says – once at a TV show taping and once at a Grammy awards show.
“You don’t run into him – you aren’t going to see him go walking down the street. You may run into me at the grocery store in Mt. Juliet, but you’re probably not going to see Bob Dylan there,” Daniels said. “I talked to him the other day and said I was gonna come see him, and he said, ‘Bring your fiddle and guitar with ya,’ and I said, ‘Okay’.”