In 1979, having recovered from a near-fatal mountain climbing accident in Montana, Hank Williams Jr. made a return to the spotlight with his whiskey-bent outlaw persona fully formed on the album Family Tradition. The title track – a defiant, sneering statement of rebellion – has since become one of Williams’ signature numbers and the kind of song that somehow isn’t diminished when it’s being howled loudly after several long-necks.
“Family Tradition” features some tidy, melodic fiddle work from Charlie Daniels, who released the fiery “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” at almost exactly the same time. That one would eventually become Daniels’ first country Number One and his signature tune after helping to aid the rise of Southern rock.
The two entertainers have had considerable success on their separate paths in the years that followed: Williams, the country singer embracing Southern rock; and Daniels, the Southern rocker embracing his country roots. Today, nearly 40 years after “Family Tradition” unleashed its defiant, individualistic yell and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” put the trash-talking devil in his place, both Williams and Daniels have channeled that renegade spirit into uncommonly outspoken support of conservative politics.
Though country music has long had a reputation for being a haven of conservative political support, the genre’s current center is much harder to pin down, making Williams and Daniels somewhat fringe figures. Given fans’ ever-shifting tastes, the two country veterans are long out of the radio conversation, replaced by approachable, well-groomed stars like Luke Bryan and Little Big Town. Whether through media coaching or good old common sense, most of the current generation of stars – conservative and liberal alike – are savvy enough to navigate their way around talking politics, having witnessed the Dixie Chicks’ swift, severe backlash from country radio (and fans) in 2003. (A handful of artists, like Kacey Musgraves and Brothers Osborne, however, have been outspoken about socially liberal causes that align with their bases.)
But Williams and Daniels are usually happy to sound off, and in that respect serve as the antithesis to country’s present reticence toward political speech. For anyone who suspects that country music is populated by hyper-conservative redneck types, these guys stand as irrefutable proof – two smoking, Second Amendment-protected guns.
But it’s also complicated: Only one of the singers is currently in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and, as David Cantwell pointed out in a 2016 New Yorker essay, it’s not the son of the guy who wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
Love of the U.S. and support for the military have long been recurring themes even with the country music’s mostly apolitical center, though the lines between patriotism and politics got blurry with some of the jingoistic country tunes that followed 9/11. But in Charlie Daniels’ case, veterans’ issues are a special concern. He tweets “22 veterans commit suicide every day,” every day. He also started the Journey Home Project, which connects donors with veterans’ organizations and which is a beneficiary of his annual Volunteer Jam concert in Nashville. He’s made a habit of telling interviewers that, other than God’s guidance, the U.S. military is the only thing keeping the country safe. Williams has also been a vocal supporter of the military, collecting the Patriot Award from Operation Troop Aid in 2013, joining past recipients like Toby Keith and Aaron Tippin.
Neither Daniels nor Williams were big fans of President Barack Obama because they perceived his policies as a weakening of the military – whether through cuts in defense spending or drawing down troops in Iraq. Williams has been the less subtle of the two about voicing these concerns. At the 2012 Iowa State Fair, he unleashed an anti-Obama rant from the stage, unprovoked, saying: “We’ve got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S. and we hate him!”
This shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone who was paying attention: Williams was doubling down after an incident on Fox & Friends where he said that Obama playing golf with John Boehner was like Hitler playing golf with Benjamin Netanyahu. Shortly after, ESPN dropped Williams – and his “Are You Ready for Some Football?” tagline – as the musical face of its Monday Night Football broadcasts.
Whatever anger Williams may have felt over the dissolution of this professional relationship was channeled into his 2012 album Old School, New Rules. The song titles give a pretty good indication of what’s contained inside: “Takin’ Back the Country,” “We Don’t Apologize for America” and “Stock Market Blues.” The song “Keep the Change” – propelled by some bluesy slide work and a mean, AC/DC-styled guitar riff – lays out his worldview in no uncertain terms. A few of the things Williams would like to keep for himself, in no particular order, are: guns, religion, money, his family’s safety, a big V-8 engine, the government out of his business and, tellingly, his Christian name. Anyone who disagrees is invited to, you guessed it, keep the change.
It’s a pretty dismal vision of America after four years of Obama’s presidency, and it dares to suggest that the incident on Fox & Friends was totally a misunderstanding, twisted around by those liberal ninnies at Fox News. Later, he updated “Family Tradition” in time for the 2012 election, titling the cringe-worthy new version, “McCain-Palin Tradition.”
He’s mostly kept his nose clean in the last couple of years, however, giving politics a wide berth as he promoted his latest album It’s About Time.
“I don’t give a shit about the election, I’ve got a smash CD coming out,” he told Rolling Stone Country in 2016.
The crazy thing is, none of this diminished Williams’ ability to play arena-sized venues in the slightest – he’s still a hot touring act, even pairing up with Chris Stapleton in 2016 for a series of outdoor summer dates. Then, in early June, not six months into the presidency of Donald Trump, ESPN announced it would be bringing the rowdy back to Monday nights, once again enlisting Williams to sing the MNF theme song (though this time with Florida Georgia Line and Jason Derulo).
By contrast, Daniels’ approach has been considerably more measured, though no less extreme.
Unlike Williams, Daniels never brings politics onstage and has made most of his statements of the last 15 years away from the recording studio.
The Soapbox section of Daniels’ website is endlessly fascinating to browse, depending upon one’s tolerance for paranoid, evangelical, anti-Islamic writing. But it’s noteworthy in that it truly appears to be completely unfiltered dispatches from the artist himself, not carefully crafted, on-brand marketing copy – though it is absolutely on brand for Daniels. You’re just as likely to find him pondering his own health and his wife’s shopping habits as trying to untangle political matters. Some may also find it surprising that he’s a damn good writer – thoughtfully articulating opinions that, while challenging to anyone center-left, have actually been thought out and aren’t just hot takes about the trending topics.
Daniels really reached his prolific stride in 2013, at the beginning of Obama’s second term, hammering on the idea that he doesn’t like what he’s been seeing in America. He hit some predictable notes: The country’s proud traditions have been perverted by weak-willed politicians and an ineffectual congress, he says – processes like immigration and cultural assimilation now mean something different than they did when he was growing up, not to mention civil rights struggles. He also takes firm stances against LGBTQ rights, abortion, climate change and anything he feels may foster a culture of laziness or entitlement. That last one was a popular favorite complaint during the Obama years, with Daniels viewing 44 as an enabler for people who couldn’t face up to their worldly responsibilities.
On the other hand, Daniels has plenty in common with moderates and liberals who supported Bernie Sanders, expressing disgust at Washington gridlock and a fervent belief in term limits for people in Congress so that fresh ideas keep coming. He also supports the idea that someone can criticize the president’s decision making and not be called anti-American. And mercifully, he’s not a Holocaust denier – which is a crazy thing to have to type in any year.
Speaking to Noisey, Daniels acknowledged his opinionated nature and grievances with the country but denied ever throwing his weight behind any candidate.
“I do things that people misconstrue as endorsements, but I don’t actually do endorsements,” he said. “I’ve been asked a lot to do political things, but I have turned them down.”
True to his word, Daniels was circumspect about endorsing someone in the shitshow that was 2016’s presidential election. “Does either candidate have the capabilities of dealing with this myriad of essential priorities? The sad answer is no,” he wrote on his website.
Though it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t going to be pulling for Hillary Clinton. Following the 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Daniels made it a daily mission to call out Obama and Clinton for what he saw as obscuring the truth about that tragedy. “Benghazi ain’t going away,” he still tweets, every single day. (Mentions of Russian interference in the 2016 election occur less frequently.)
Since Trump’s election, Daniels has mostly urged cautious optimism and openness to new policies, maybe having seen enough in his 80 years to not get too freaked out when his candidate doesn’t win. Or, like a certain variety of Christian, he feels pretty good about his chances even if the end of the world is hastened by inept leaders.
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But sometimes Daniels lets his conservative homerism get in the way of what should be a reasonable argument. In a prescient post from 2013, Daniels tried to dissect the complex geopolitical mess of Syria, following chemical weapons attacks by Bashar al-Assad, and the ramifications of military force from the U.S. He stressed caution and careful planning, wondering how long a campaign would go on, and to what extent. He wrote: “These and other questions need to be answered before any kind of action, bilateral or unilateral is taken. Otherwise, we will be right back in the same old Middle Eastern boiling pot again and I think everybody, doves and hawks alike, have had enough of that.” But following Donald Trump’s unilateral April 7th strike against military targets in Syria after more chemical weapons were deployed by Assad, Daniels tweeted: “The world changed yesterday, America will no longer be viewed as a cowering toothless tiger.” Cowering, toothless tigers are the ones whose stripes make them prone to caution and planning, evidently.
Unlike Williams, Daniels never brings politics onstage and has made most of his statements of the last 15 years away from the recording studio. He composed the furious “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” in response to the September 11th attacks and recorded the strident 2012 song, “Take Back the Country,” which imagines a godless nation teetering on the edge of collapse. Otherwise he’s branched out with the cowboy songs collection Night Hawk and 2014’s quite good Off the Grid, Doin’ It Dylan Style, Daniels’ tribute to the countercultural icon and poet Bob Dylan, with whom he played many years ago. Then there’s the duets collection Deuces, featuring the song “God Save Us All From Religion” a duet with Marty Stuart that – in a surprising twist – condemns religious violence of all types, along with preachers masquerading as politicians.
But it may well be Daniels’ don’t-rock-the-boat approach that makes him a more attractive candidate for big lifetime honors in Nashville, where the process of getting into the Hall of Fame or being invited to join the Grand Ole Opry is its own kind of politics. While he may continue to ring the bell about Benghazi, he’d never dare compare a president to Hitler.
In the end, it’s those very disparate approaches that continue to make Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. such fascinating figures. While the bulk of contemporary country stars artfully dodge questions about their political beliefs, Williams and Daniels continue to hit them head on. They did it through all eight years of Obama’s presidency, as if such political criticism was akin to recording one of their defiant songs of individualism. So don’t expect them to ease up now that Trump is in the White House – and definitely don’t expect to always like what they say.