Charlie Daniels likes touring, and events like the big annual concert at HITS in Saugerties where he’ll be playing on Sunday, September 7, make him feel “at home” in the Hudson Valley.
Daniels, longtime bandleader and songwriter (his first effort getting picked up by none other than Elvis), moved to Nashville as a bluegrass fiddler in the 1960s. Drawing him there was the legendary Bob Johnston, known for producing Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, and Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence. Daniels arrived with a young wife, a two-year-old and what he remembers as “only $20 in my pocket.” And then things started to take off.
Daniels was the guitarist on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. He played on for the varied Self Portrait sessions, then switched to bass for a series of afternoons and evenings where George Harrison played guitar and the comeback album New Morning eventually came into shape (after he made a series of unreleased recordings of such classics as “I Met Him on a Sunday” and “Yesterday,” singing tête-à-tête with Mr. Dylan). And then Daniels went on to become Leonard Cohen’s bassist, in the studio and on tour, during what many consider Cohen’s most prolific period (including the sublime “Famous Blue Raincoat”). Daniels even got involved with music producing himself, putting together what many consider one of 1969’s greatest albums: the Youngbloods’ Elephant Mountain (including its hit “Darkness, Darkness”).
By the 1970s, his Charlie Daniels Band was touring and recording, known for its “longhair country boy” sound akin to other Southern bands like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, with whom Daniels played on albums and tours. By 1974 he founded the annual Volunteer Jam, a big concert of Southern rock bands in the middle of Nashville, and penned the hit “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” – just in time for Georgia governor Jimmy Carter’s rise to the White House. Then he recorded his signature song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group in 1979 as well as single of the year at the Country Music Association Awards.
Later, during the Iranian hostage crisis, Daniels penned the anthemic “In America,” after which he became known for turning his back on his more eclectic roots – until, a few years ago, when he returned to playing bluegrass and a more personal sort of music that then yielded the Dylan album last spring. There, covering everything from “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the 1980’s born-again classic “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Daniels and his band bring their signature sense of gusto to Dylan’s great tunes; while on “I Shall Be Released” and the Nashville Skyline classic “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” Daniels seems to be reaching back to embrace a lifetime of experience, including one’s all-so-human idealistic reversals.
“I’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time, and he’s just one of those guys that hit the spot with me, you know, that I’d thoroughly enjoyed listening to through the years. One of the great things about his catalogue is you never run out of songs. There’s just so many to choose from,” he has said of Off the Grid and his choices thereon. “I wanted to do songs that I felt that we do best, that would fit our style and the way that we did things. I didn’t want to do an album that copied all the arrangements that Bob had and everything. I wanted to do one that would be like we would do it if we had written the songs… I went through and tried to glean the tunes that would not fit us out. There were a few that we tried that didn’t work. Like ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ for instance: I really wanted to do that one, but we couldn’t find a way to do it that was not very similar to the way it was done on the album.”
In the end, Daniels’ choices, like his shows, are about good entertainment. “I’ve always been a bandleader,” he said. “But the one piece that I love above all the rest is performing for people live. There’s nothing I do that compares with that. I just thank God that I can make a living doing something I enjoy so much. Being on the road is just as natural for me as it is for someone who lives in the suburbs to drive into the office every day. That’s my life, and the way I choose to live it.”
He’s at home as well in our Hudson Valley, it seems – here in upstate New York near where a certain someone once penned so many of the songs that he’ll be bringing back to us all, in his inimitable style, on Sunday.
Tickets for the concert, which include admission to the HITS Harvest Food Fest as well as the HITS’ Championship Sunday show-jumping finale, cost $15 in advance; $25 at the door; admission is free for kids under age 12. Purchase them at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the Ulster Performing Arts Center box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; the HITS box office at 319 Main Street in Saugerties, (845) 246-8833; and also through Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.
Charlie Daniels Band, Sunday, September 7, 5 p.m., $25/$15, HITS, 319 Main Street, Saugerties; www.bardavon.org.