Charlie Daniels Talks Hard Knocks, Bob Dylan Endorsement in New Book
Charlie Daniels, true to his manner, offers up some straightforward, no-nuanced reasons for writing his just released memoir, Never Look at the Empty Seats. “I wanted to tell my whole story and the story of the Charlie Daniels Band,” he says. “I think it has been a fascinating life and I have been through a lot over the years.”
That is the understated, and undisputed, truth, to be certain. The North Carolina-born singer-songwriter-instrumentalist kicked around in rough-and-tumble clubs in plenty of jerkwater towns before becoming a go-to session guy in Nashville. As the front man in the Charlie Daniels Band, he scored country-rock staples like the masterful “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” and “In America.” In 2016, Daniels was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame. “So many wonderful things have happened to me,” Daniels says.
Going beyond life and career chronicles, Daniels also weaves some borne-from-experience advice into the book. “That was another reason for writing it, to give advice to the younger entertainers out there,” Daniels explains. “I am always asked by some of the new artists, ‘How do you make it in the business?’ or ‘What do I need to do to have a long career?’ So I have included some practical advice on how to handle certain things and how you need to go about your business.” The title alone serves as a foreshadowing piece of wise counsel. “That’s about being an entertainer,” Daniels says. “Don’t worry about the people who aren’t there for the show. Your job is to entertain the people who are there and put a smile on their faces.”
In the book, Daniels carefully and with crisp detail crafts a full-scale biography of his entire life. He speaks of his North Carolina childhood, his early enthusiasm for music, beer joint gigs and the all-star Volunteer Jam concerts, on up to present day. Little-known facts flesh out the book, beginning with Daniels’ revelation that his family name is actually “Daniel,” as in Jack, but through a governmental mistake, the extra “s” was added to his name on the birth certificate. Perhaps that partly explains his unflagging distrust of bureaucracy (check out his famously political tweets and website musings).
Considerable space is devoted to the true turning point in Daniels’ career, when his friend, producer Bob Johnston, encouraged him to move to Nashville from Kentucky in 1967. Johnston had recently been named head of A&R at Columbia Records. “I had always wanted to live in Nashville,” Daniels notes. “That was going to be it for me. Bob made it possible for me to come there.” As Daniels describes in the book, Johnston co-signed a loan to move Daniels, his wife and his son to Nashville. Johnston also allowed the family to rent a home that he owned at an affordable price. On the career track, Johnston paved the way for the musician to land recording session work.
Daniels, expert on guitar and fiddle, became an in-demand session player at the request of others, but he had to ask Johnston for one special gig: the chance to play on an upcoming Bob Dylan album. Dylan was due in Nashville in 1969 to record Nashville Skyline with Johnston at the helm. “I asked Bob Johnston if there was any way he could let me play on just one session,” Daniels relates in the book. As fate would dictate, one of the guitar players booked couldn’t make the early evening session and Daniels was tapped to fill in. When the session ended, Daniels was packing his case to head out the door for his regular date at a local club. At that point, he writes, Dylan approached Johnston and declared, “I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.” Daniels phoned the club and politely told the manager he wouldn’t be making the late show.
“That happened at such an opportune time,” Daniels says. “My career needed a shot in the arm and knowing that Bob Dylan said that meant a great deal to me.” Daniels ended up contributing to a pair of additional Dylan works, Self Portrait and New Morning. The Dylan he came to know proved the total opposite of his reputed persona as anti-social, moody and humorless. “I didn’t find him that way at all,” Daniels remembers. “He was completely different than what I had read about him. He was funny, down-to-earth and a very nice guy.”
Far from concentrating on the “ups,” Daniels’ book allows plenty of room for the down times that befall every artist. Daniels candidly recounts the periods where he was broke, the unreliable cars (Daniels apparently waged constant wars with Detroit’s finest), the parties that spawned regret, and various muddled relationships,
“It’s all part of the growing process and defining yourself,” Daniels says. “That’s why I wanted to include that. Looking back, we played some raunchy places and had some pretty wild times. But that makes you tougher. And you learn how to entertain people.”
As painful as some of those recollections must have been to relive, they were not the hardest chapters to write. “The most difficult chapter was the one about my faith,” Daniels says earnestly. “I wanted that to be perfect so that there would be no misunderstandings. I knew what I wanted to say, but it was how to say it that was so difficult at times. It had to be right on the money. I would say that was the most meticulously thought-out portion of the book.”
Appropriately, Never Look at the Empty Seats ends with Daniels’ 2016 induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame. But that milestone hardly marks his swan song. As Daniels, soon to turn 81, writes, “We’re still in the saddle, and it ain’t over by a long shot. Bring it on.”