Charlie Daniels has been playing his guitar and fiddle and touring the world for 60 years. The 81-year-old Country Music Hall of Famer will be playing in Lake George’s Charles R. Wood Park on Sunday, but he took time Tuesday for a 45-minute phone chat about many subjects, including his affinity for upstate New York fans, playing with Bob Dylan and the role of God and family in his life.
Q. What are you most looking forward to about playing on the shores of beautiful Lake George and do you have any surprises for your fans Sunday?
A. We’ve been playing upstate for a long time. It’s one of the first places, oddly enough, that really got into this band, back in the ‘70s. We’ve played I think every SUNY college in the system. We’ve got a lot of history up there. As for surprises, we always have a few. We always play the songs people are familiar with, but we’ll have some you haven’t heard us play before.
Q. Do you get to stay here a day or two and drown a worm in the lake?
A. Nah, we’ll be hitting the ground running. This is our really busy time, we’re all over the place. Won’t be able to fish this time. Maybe next time.
Q. If any artist, living or dead, could join you in Lake George on stage, who would it be?
A. (Instantly) BB King. I’d just love to spend about two hours jamming with him. He was one of a kind. Sit there with guitar and fiddle and jam away.
Q. I’ve always wondered what it feels like when thousands of people are staring at you and singing every word to a song you wrote? Describe that.
A. Well, it’s a great feeling. Except for my God and my family and my country, I live for my work. I’m so into it and have been for 60 years now. I left Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1958. I’ve been doing this ever since and I’m just as excited to walk on stage and entertain people as I was then. And to have people be familiar with your songs is an incredible feeling.
Q. How much of your values, talent and personality do you attribute to your folks from your formative days growing up in North Carolina?
A. My whole foundation and what my formative years were built on was family and God. There hasn’t been a time in my life I didn’t believe in God. My priorities are God, family, country and work. My work ethic came from my family, a long line of farmers and timber people who made their living with their hands and backbone.
My patriotism: I was 5 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Wilmington, North Carolina, my hometown, was a strategic part of World War II. We had a shipyard that built liberty ships. And we had German U-boats just off the coast that sunk some of those ships as they came out. I never saw it. I was too young, but people said it was so close you could see the fires of battle from our beaches. We took the war very seriously, and I say this onstage every night: “The thing that protects America is the grace of God and the U.S. military.” My patriotism, my love of country, they’re all built on my family days and the love I was surrounded with.
Q. Of all your musical accomplishments, what are you most proud of?
A. Keeping 25 people gainfully and steadily employed for 40 years. I know that’s not what you asked, but that’s one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. My road manager, I hired when he was 18 years old. It’s the only real job he’s ever had. I’ve seen him get married, have children, have grandchildren, lose his wife. I’ve seen people lose parents, and divorces and children and grandchildren. They are your family. You feel responsible for their well-being.
Q. Everybody knows “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” But what song do you always love to play even more than that one? I love “Long Haired Country Boy,” maybe because I’m bald.
A. I’m going to be honest. I enjoy everything we play because, if I play it 10,000 times or three times, I am bent on playing as good as I possibly can on that song. I enjoy playing them all. I’m living the dream and I love it.
Q. I’m watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Bob Dylan right now and I know you played on three of his albums before you got huge. How would you describe Dylan if you only had a handful of words to do it?
A. Innovator, innovative, talented, very, very unique, nice guy, gentle, soft-spoken, um, different. I like Bob Dylan personally. He changed the face of American music I think more than any other artist insofar as context and content. He went into studio and did whatever he wanted to do. He didn’t pay attention to the clock. However long it took him to get his message out is what he did. I can’t write the stuff he does, but I can turn creative juices loose and let them go free and crazy and write what I write and not worry about fitting it into the context of: Will somebody record it if it’s too long? I think he did that for a lot of people. His approach was a big influence on me. His was like: I’m going to say it this way and if you understand it, fine, if you don’t — I am sorry. That was Dylan. That is Dylan.
Q. Your life on the road has been long. What tricks do you have to occupy yourself and your mind on the road?
A. I have never been bored. I always got something to do, songs to write. I have another book coming out in the fall. I write columns every week for the website. I run scales on guitar to keep my arthritic hands loose. Being bored is not part of my life. I read a lot too. I don’t care much for drivel on TV. Football season is my high time of the year to watch TV. I start on Saturday with college and end with “Monday Night Football.” I played in high school but I wasn’t very good.
Q. I think you’re considered a bit of an outspoken American patriot, having played countless times for troops abroad and defending the president. Do you embrace that?
A. Of course I do. One of the things that hurts this country is too many people make their decisions and base their thoughts on too little info. I have several different news sources. There’s a mindset on network news. If that’s the only place you get your news, you get one concept. So far as the president is concerned, he’s a loudmouth, he’s brash, he probably should lose his Twitter account, but stop and look what’s being accomplished. African-American and Hispanic unemployment is lowest it’s ever been, but nobody is trumpeting that on the evening news. The economy is cooking. If this thing in North Korea amounts to something, fine. If it don’t, it’s nothing ventured, nothing gained. What has been accomplished in the practical part of America is amazing. I don’t think anybody has been colluding with the Russians. I mean somebody might have done it for profit or something, but it was not Trump or his closest allies. And they know that. Pelosi knows that. Schumer knows that. It convinces me more than ever we need term limits. Eight years for senators, eight years for president, eight years for congressmen. Get the hell back home and go to work and get somebody fresh off the street as it was intended by the founders of our country. … We need fresh faces who know what’s going on now, not Mitch McConnell who has been doing it for 500 years.
Q. You’re 81 years old and I assume don’t have to be touring anymore, so why are you?
A. There’s a multitude of reasons. I love what I do. I’m firmly convinced once you cut yourself off from what has been holding your interest for years and you sit back and do nothing and let talent wilt away, you start getting really old and you take your rocking chair and sit there and you eventually die. I got a reason to get outta bed in the morning and my wife travels with me. If she didn’t, I probably wouldn’t do it, but she does. I just don’t want to sit and wither away.
Q. If you could write a song about how you want to be remembered, what would it be called?
A. I have answered that question in different forms, about how I want to be remembered. I’ve always said I don’t think a person should be magnified or lessened because of death. They should be remembered for what they were and what people perceived them to be. I ask for nothing more than to be remembered for what I am, which is not anything special, just a country singer, fiddle player, guitar player, employer, father, Christian, husband, grandfather. I don’t really know what I’d write. I guess: The old man had a good time when he was alive. (Laughs)
Q. You co-wrote “It Hurts Me” for Elvis, who never wrote any of his songs. How does it feel to have that connection and what did he miss out on not writing his own songs?
A. I never met Elvis. I wrote that song with Bob Johnston and he demo-ed it and sent it in to a place they were picking music. They held it about a year before they recorded it. Regarding writing, some people have that talent, some people don’t. Maybe with all his entertaining and vocal talent, Elvis did not have the talent to write music. I think it would have been wonderful if he had the talent to write his own songs. It’s great to communicate with people through somebody else’s words, but there’s nothing like doing it in your own words and your own feelings.
Q. I wonder if he felt inferior? I have read books on him and he was a complex character for sure.
A. I think Elvis was very complex. First of all, we’re talking about a poor boy raised in the projects, and all of the sudden he had the world by the tail. A lot of people don’t understand you don’t just become a sophisticate because you made millions of dollars. You are what you are. One of the things I always admired about him is that he loved his family and he had religious beliefs. I think he got torn by a lot of things and, of course, the worst thing that happened was getting on those pills. That changed everything. Changed who he was and what he was.
Q. My 78-year-old dad tells me God plays a bigger role in your life as you get older. He says, “You wait, your hands will come together.” What role does God play in your life?
A. When I was younger, I got very confused. All my life I sat in church and heard Jesus died for my sins. I didn’t understand why. Instead of preaching the love of God, they preached the wrath. I decided many years ago I was going to read the Bible and make my own conclusions. I learned what I considered to be the truth. To try to go into it right now, it’s a long, convoluted thing and I devoted a whole chapter on my spiritual journey. I’ll send you a copy of my book. It’ll explain better than I can now unless you have two hours to sit here and talk (laughs).
Q. I read the touching Oklahoma Rose tribute to your wife, Hazel, for her 65th birthday. How does she feel about you still being on the road at 81 and what has she meant in your life?
A. She’s sitting right across from me. She travels with me. We make an adventure out of our lives. We had three days off, and, rather than go home (to Tennessee) for a day and come back up, we’re in Massachusetts now. There’s a place we like here and we’re on a mini-vacation. We take January and February off to go out to Colorado. But my wife is everything to me. She’s the other half of me and I’d be incomplete without her. (His wife offers “that’s true” in the background.)
Q. I know you have a book out called “Never Look at the Empty Seats.” For people who think they know all about Charlie Daniels, tell me one thing the book reveals that’ll surprise them?
A. Well, it begins with my earliest memories. Little kid stuff, the single-digit things that wouldn’t make a lot of sense if it wasn’t part of someone’s life, like the size of snowflakes, a moon that looked like country butter. I wrote the book over 20 years or so, but I could not find a place to stop it — until I found I was getting inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. What a great place to end it. But there are a lot of things that’ll surprise people, like the work I did when I was younger, my school days, 22 people in my graduating class.
Q. I never realized you have so many movie and TV credits — including the cartoon “King of the Hill.” Describe that TV and movie world for me? Was it fun?
A. Actually, the one (“King of the Hill”) I did I was in Portland, Oregon, and had script and I did it remotely. The most time I’ve ever been around a movie set was “Urban Cowboy.” Don’t particularly care about doing things like that because when I go record, I’ll play a song and quit when I know I got it right. In the movies, they take a shot in front, shot in the back, shot in the side, then they change lighting and do it all over again. It’s very boring after a while. Believe me, doing “Urban Cowboy” was a big shot in the arm, but as far a devoting lots of time to it, I just don’t. It’s not my cup of tea. I’m not an actor.
Q. When you’re traveling, what tunes are you listening to on the bus and in planes? Any hot new artists you’re loving?
A. You’d be surprised how little music I listen to. I always got stuff I’m working on. I’m constantly in the process of getting material together for another album. Don’t really listen to a lot of music. I was perusing the roster of the Bonnaroo Festival and, hell, I didn’t know who anybody was. I don’t know the new artists in country music. I’m always looking for something unique for ME to do. There are artists I like, like the Zach Brown Band — there’s a guy who did it his way, stuck it out and got a record contract. Good music.