Rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard

November 2007.  My wife Judy and daughter Emily were on a college trip visiting Nashville with a friend and her daughter to check out Belmont University.  While they were in town, they decided to buy tickets to the Christmas 4 Kids annual benefit concert that Charlie Daniels hosts every year at the fabled Ryman Auditorium.

They were told if they stopped in at a souvenir shop on Second Avenue where a Charlie Daniels Museum was set up in the back half of the retail space there, they’d probably FullSizeRenderfind the man himself, signing autographs and taking photos.

Sure enough, there he was, larger than life with his trademark ten-gallon hat.  Emily and her friend Sarah were thrilled to get their picture taken with the Nashville icon.

At the Ryman that evening, the ladies enjoyed performances by several country artists (including an up-and-coming gal named Taylor Swift) before Daniels and his band took the stage.  Two songs into their set, country star Martina McBride interrupted the proceedings to offer Daniels a Christmas present of his own.  “Thank you, Charlie,” she read from a letter, “for all you’ve done to make Christmas wishes come true for thousands of children through the years.  Now it’s time to make a wish come true for you.  You are officially invited to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry!”

Daniels was visibly stunned.  It took him several minutes to compose himself and offer his heartfelt gratitude for the honor he had dreamed about since he was a boy.  The girls witnessed a very special moment in the life of a very talented man who came from simple beginnings to become a major presence in country, bluegrass, Southern rock and blues music.

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Now Charlie Daniels, at age 83, has died, a victim of a hemorrhagic stroke July 6th.

“My heart is crushed today,” said country star Travis Tritt.  “Charlie was the guy who took me under his wing and encouraged me when I was first getting started.  He was always there for me when I needed him.  I have so many great memories of touring, performing, Unknown-436writing and recording with Charlie, but my favorite memories are of simply talking with the man when it was just the two of us alone.  Farewell, dear friend, until we meet again.”

Daniels has been universally admired for his superb abilities on the fiddle, guitar, banjo and mandolin, and as a vocalist and songwriter.  He was also revered by many for his kindness and generosity.  “He was one of the nicest, kindest people I have ever met,” said Jason Aldean.  “Thanks for the musical legacy you left for all of us.”

Singer/fiddler Natalie Stovall added, “Charlie Daniels was the epitome of a Southern gentleman.  He was kind, welcoming and so sweet.  Playing ‘Devil’ with him will forever be a highlight of my life.  No doubt The Devil is pissed as hell with how loud the angels are rejoicing in Heaven today.”

Unknown-433The “Devil” she’s referring to is, of course, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Daniels’ signature song and by far his biggest commercial peak, reaching #3 on the pop charts and #1 on the country chart in the summer of Unknown-4341979.  It’s essentially a spirited bluegrass workout, telling the story of a competition between Satan and local boy Johnny as to who was the better fiddler.  It was featured in the popular film “Urban Cowboy,” won the Country Music Awards’ Single of the Year, and earned the band a Grammy.  The album it came from, “Million Mile Reflections,” reached #5 on the pop chart and #1 on the country chart, and reached triple-platinum sales figures.

Born in North Carolina in 1936, Daniels grew up listening to Pentecostal gospel in church, bluegrass bands at local events, and R&B and country on Nashville 50,000-watt AM stations, including the Grand Ole Opry radio program.  At age 28, he had his first taste of success when he co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” a song Elvis Presley recorded.  Once he moved to Nashville in 1967, he worked as a session musician, often for his producer friend Bob Johnston, most notably playing guitar and electric bass on Bob Dylan’s images-226“Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait” and “New Morning” LPs.

Daniels fattened his resumé by adding guitar and bass on Leonard Cohen’s “Songs From a Room” and “Songs of Love and Hate,” and also contributed to Ringo Starr’s country LP, “Beaucoup of Blues.”  Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell recorded a few of his songs, and he even produced a few albums for artists like The Youngbloods.

His first couple of solo albums barely made the charts, but his third included the whimsical country story-song “Uneasy Rider,” the humorous tale of a traveling hippie who talked his way out of a fight in a redneck bar, which became a surprise Top Ten pop hit in 1973.

Unknown-435The 1974 album “Fire on the Mountain” was the first to be credited to The Charlie Daniels Band, which included Taz DiGregorio on keyboards, Tom Crain on guitars, Fred Edwards and Don Murray on drums and Charlie Hayward on bass.  CDB, as their fans called them, toured relentlessly and began hosting and headlining the annual Volunteer Jam in Nashville that year, a tradition that ran for 20 years and featured big names like The Allman Brothers Band, Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Brown, Emmylou Harris, Ted Nugent, Chris Stapleton and Billy Joel.

Albums like “Nightrider” (1975) and “Saddle Tramp” (1976) offered a healthy cross-section of Southern rock (“Birmingham Blues”), country rock (“The South’s Gonna Do It Again”), bluegrass (“Orange Blossom Special”), blues (“It’s My Life”), acoustic country (“Everything is Kinda Alright”) and even 10-minute mostly instrumental workouts images-225(“Saddle Tramp”) that were huge in concert.

They maintained a steady core audience throughout the ’80s, appearing on “Saturday Night Live” in 1982 and having a Top Ten country hit, “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” in 1986.   By the late 1990s, Daniels and his longtime manager David Corlew founded Blue Hat Records and released a diverse slew of albums, including his first all-bluegrass album, several Christmas collections, and “Deuces,” an LP of collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Brenda Lee.

Daniels had shown a slightly-left-of-center political leaning during the ’70s when he advocated for legalizing marijuana and appeared at fundraisers for Democrat Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign.  As the 1980s rolled in, Daniels’ first attempts at political lyrics in two mainstream hits showed him drifting toward the conservative side of the spectrum.  “In America” (#11) focused on the heartland’s patriotic response to the Iranian hqdefault-22hostage crisis, and “Still in Saigon” (#22) commiserated with veterans who returned from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses.

In the new millennium, Daniels chose to take on an increasingly outspoken role in the issues of the day.  After the 9/11 attacks, he issued a single, “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” and when peace activists protested the impending war in Iraq, he wrote “an open letter to the Hollywood bunch,” calling them “pampered, overpaid, unrealistic children.”  He also issued anti-abortion arguments, defended the Second Amendment, and later castigated Barack Obama’s policies.  He seemed to relish in stirring the pot, and since most of his conservative Southern fan base concurred with his views, he didn’t see any downside.

His health began failing around 2010.  He had prostate cancer surgery, suffered a mild stroke and had a pacemaker installed, and yet he continued performing and maintaining involvement in his charity events and philanthropic activities up until the end.  His final album was 2018’s “Beau Weevils:  Songs in the Key of E,” and he toured with Travis Tritt and the Cadillac Three late last year.

I was a modest fan of country rock during its mid ’70s heyday, and liked CDB’s music images-224fine, although I didn’t buy much of it.  I saw them in concert once, in the summer of 1982, when I was reviewing concerts for a Cleveland newspaper.  Here’s what I had to say at that time:  “CDB is a very tight band, and they clearly enjoy what they’re doing.  They offered two dozen songs that mixed the newer hits with a liberal dose of tunes from their earlier albums to keep new fans on their toes and older fans happy.  Without a doubt, it was Daniels, a mountain of a man with a gentle twang in his fine singing voice, who dominated the proceedings.  He played his trusty fiddle on only four songs, not quite enough to suit me, but his guitar and the piano, lead guitar and pedal steel of his colleagues more than compensated.”

My friend Mark, who was with me at that concert in ’82, reminisced about the time he saw the band in college.  “It was at the little old fieldhouse at Bethany College.  We sat on images-219the floor right in front of the stage, with our cowboy hats and bottles of Rebel Yell, and we held up signs requesting ‘MORE FIDDLE!’  The band liked the signs enough that they invited us back stage to party afterwards.  What a memorable time hanging out with them.  They were all really great, fun guys, and such terrific musicians!”

Clearly, Charlie Daniels left quite a legacy as a musician, entertainer, storyteller, philanthropist, opinion sharer and friend.  As he often said, “God gave me a gift to play music for a living, and I feel it’s my responsibility to give something back.”  You’ve surely done that, good sir, many times over.  Rest in peace.

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In appreciation of his music, here’s a Spotify playlist of The Charlie Daniels Band’s better known songs along with a few that may be new to you.

 

 

 

 

 

Ain’t the afterlife grand?

I figure the best way to know if a songwriter is any good is by reading what others, particularly other songwriters, have to say about him.

If that’s true, then damn.  John Prine must be one of the best there ever was.

Unknown-259Asked in 2009 to list his favorite songwriters, Bob Dylan put Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism.  Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree.  And he writes beautiful songs.”

Kris Kristofferson, upon discovering Prine in a small club in Chicago in 1971:  “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy.  John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

Close friend and frequent collaborator Bonnie Raitt:  “He was a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain.  For all of us whose hearts are breaking, we will keep singing his songs and holding him near.”

Jack Antonoff, songwriter/guitarist/singer in the indie rock ban “fun.”, said:  “John Prine is as good as it gets.  An honor to be alive in his time.”

Bruce Springsteen tweeted, “John was a true national treasure and a songwriter for the ages.  He wrote music of towering compassion with an almost unheard-of precision and creativity when it came to observing the fine details of ordinary lives. He was a writer of great humor, funny, with wry sensitivity. It has marked him as a complete original.”

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Music critics can be a fickle bunch, but they have been nearly unanimous in their admiration for Prine over the years.  A few quotes:

Alanna Nash of Entertainment Weekly:  “John Prine’s best work has always been slightly cinematic and hallucinogenic, full of images that transport as well as provoke.”

Margaret Renkl, a New York Times contributing opinion writer, wrote in 2016:  “The new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

Michael Branch of CNN:  “John Prine was a gifted writer and vintage American troubadour who reminded us that life is as comical as it is heartbreaking, and that we should never fail to empathize with others.”

Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post:  “Many journalists loved John Prine because he did what we try to do:  document America.”

The late Roger Ebert, writing about a Prine concert in 1971:  “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off.  He starts slow.  But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics.  And then he has you.”

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Unknown-257By all accounts, Prine was a kind, sweet guy, but he was also one tough cookie.  Despite a lack of much commercial success during his five decades in the music business, he nevertheless persevered, started his own record company (Oh Boy Records) and recorded 18 studio LPs and two live albums.  He was on the road a lot in the early days, and he continued performing well into his ’60s and ’70s as health permitted.  He also survived two major cancer-related surgeries in 1998 and 2013.  But on April 7, he fell victim to the coronavirus.  He was 73.

You’ll all pardon me if I’m kicking myself these days.  I somehow failed to pick up on Prine and his work when he was first starting out in the early ’70s when he wrote and recorded many of his best songs.  I’m pretty sure a couple of my friends in college tried to turn me on to some of his tunes, but I too quickly dismissed him because his gruff voice wasn’t much to my liking.

Ah, but here’s the thing:  Prine’s voice was perfect for the kind of songs he wrote.  Like his inspirations, Dylan and Johnny Cash, he sang in a sometimes-wry, sometimes-bitter conversational style that was perfectly suited to his simple melodies and common-man lyrics.

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Prine’s 1973 LP

I’ve always put Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen at the forefront of my list of the greatest lyricists of my lifetime, but I have discovered (after the fact, I’m embarrassed to admit) that John Prine belongs in that exalted group.  He offered such wonderfully keen observations on the human condition, often very concise:

“Just give me one extra season so I can figure out the other four.”

“I don’t care if the sun don’t shine, but it better, or people will wonder.” 

“Broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see.”

“We were trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever came first.”

“If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.” 

In these and other examples, Prine often wrote in the first person, sharing his own experiences and fantasies, in turn poignant, angry and whimsical.  But he just as often served as narrator for his fictional and true-to-life tales, putting potent words into the character’s mouths.

A mother speaking to her son about his absent father:  “Your daddy never meant to hurt you ever, he just don’t live here, but you got his eyes.”

An elderly woman referring to her husband:  “My old man is another child that’s grown old.”

An adolescent boy singing about his troubled father:  “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes.”

Most provocatively, speaking for Jesus:   “I’m a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood. They’re gonna kill me, Mama.  They don’t like me, bud.”

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His 1991 comeback

Prine echoed the belief many songwriters share when he said, “I felt sometimes I was a conduit, a channel through which songs arrive from an unknown source, maybe God.”

He had periods when songwriting came almost effortlessly.  “Sometimes, a song takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it.  They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around too long, the song is liable to pass you by.”

When major or minor life events occurred, both good and bad, they became fodder for new material. “  After my second divorce,” he said with a chuckle in 1990, “about a month later, the song truck pulled up and dumped a bunch of great songs on my lawn.”

Prine had a singular approach to songwriting.  “I think the more the listener can contribute to the song, the better.  Rather than tell them everything, you save your details for things that exist.  Like what color the ashtray is. How far away the doorway was.  So when you’re talking about intangible things, like emotions, the listener can fill in the blanks.  You just draw the foundation.”

In his 1973 song “Grandpa Was a Carpenter,” Prine painted a picture in such a way that listeners could easily insert memories of their own grandfathers:  “”Well, he used to sing me ‘Blood on the Saddle’ and rock me on his knee, and let me listen to radio before we got TV, well, he’d drive to church on Sunday and take me with him too, stained glass in every window, hearing aids in every pew.”

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Prine’s 1971 debut

Last year, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, where he summed up why he chose a life as a songwriter: “I gotta say, there’s no better feeling than having a killer song in your pocket, and you’re the only one in the world who’s heard it.”

There were two Prine tunes I discovered long ago as cover versions by other artists.  One was “Angel From Montgomery,” recorded by Raitt on her 1974 LP “Streetlights.”  She and Prine sang it together often, most recently at the 2020 Grammy Awards, where he won a long-overdue, well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award.

The other one was the heartbreaking “Hello In There,” which Bette Midler recorded for her first album.  In it, Prine described the pain and loneliness that aging brings, and he urged us all to pay attention:  “Old trees just grow stronger, and old rivers just grow wilder every day, old people just grow lonesome, waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.'”

I’m sure as hell paying attention now, Mr. Prine.

He left behind an impressive legacy of nearly 200 songs, and you’d be hard pressed to find one you could label a clunker.  His favored genres were country, folk, a little bluegrass and what is now popularly called Americana, and he did them all well. His songs are generally pretty basic, three- or four-chord construction, which makes them easy to learn on guitar, something I’ll be doing for the next few weeks.  And they’re easy to sing too, so you can bet they’ll start showing up at occasional singalongs by the fire pit, especially the funny ones.

Unknown-264Take “In Spite of Ourselves,” the title track from his 1999 album which features duets with some of country music’s best female vocalists.  The song’s blunt lyrics offer a fairly hilarious yet poignant dialog between Prine and Iris DeMent as husband and wife who adore each other but view their marriage quite differently.  Husband:  “She thinks all my jokes are corny/ convict movies make her horny/ she likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs and swears like a sailor when shavin’ her legs/ she takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’,/ I’m never gonna let her go…”   Wife:  “He ain’t got laid in a month of Sundays/ I caught him once and he was sniffin’ my undies/ he ain’t too sharp but he gets things done/ drinks his beer like it’s oxygen/ he’s my baby and I’m his honey/ never gonna let him go…”

Or consider 1973’s “Please Don’t Bury Me,” a whimsical look at death that now takes on an entirely deeper meaning:  “Please don’t bury me down in that cold cold ground, no, I’d druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around, throw my brain in a hurricane, and the blind can have my eyes, and the deaf can have both of my ears if they don’t mind the size.”

I see that the new generation of country singers adores Prine with as much enthusiasm as their predecessors do.  Check out this YouTube video of Prine sitting on stage with Kacey Musgraves as she plays a song she wrote called “Burn One With John Prine.”  It’ll bring tears and chuckles in equal amounts.

Rest in Peace, John.  Much obliged for your fine body of work.

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A Spotify playlist of some of Prine’s finest tunes.  Dial ’em up!