Long before Charlie Daniels became known as a Southern Rock pioneer or topped the country and pop charts with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” he was a journeyman club musician who occasionally found work as a Nashville studio musician.
It took several more years for Daniels to become a household name, but his reputation as a musician skyrocketed after playing on the sessions for Bob Dylan’s 1970 album Nashville Skyline. Dylan had previously traveled to Nashville to record two other significant albums — Blonde on Blonde (1966) and John Wesley Harding (1967). However, it was the first time Daniels recorded with him. After the Nashville Skyline sessions, he was also featured on Dylan’s Self Portrait and New Morning albums.
Daniels has just released Off the Grid — Doin’ It Dylan, a mostly-acoustic collection of the singer-songwriters songs, including “Tangled Up in Blue,” “I Shall Be Released” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
During a recent interview at CMT’s offices in Nashville, Daniels talked about the challenge of covering Dylan’s music and how it was a fluke that Dylan producer Bob Johnston called him to play on the first session.
CMT.com: I remember interviewing Charlie McCoy about his work on Blonde on Blonde. He said after Dylan recorded that album, the session musicians agreed that everything had just changed in Nashville. How much session work had you done prior to Nashville Skyline?
Daniels: I had done not nearly as much as Charlie McCoy, by any means. I was not one of the first-call session musicians. There was a lot of stuff going on here that I didn’t fit on very well. I came here after 12 years of bang-slam rock ’n’ roll, playing beer joints and taverns and that sort of thing. I tended to play loud. I tended to play bluesy. I tended to play a different style than what was going on in Nashville at the time. When Al Kooper came to town, I fit good on his sessions and certain people that I played with — Marty Robbins stuff, to some extent.
Do you remember where you were when you got the call to record with Dylan?
I really don’t. I was working in a beer joint or a club. I’d asked Bob Johnston about it. I told him I really wanted to play on one of the sessions. The way it worked out was that the guitar player he had coming in could make every sessions except the very first one. So he said, “You come in and play.” And I thought it was great that I could do that — that I could go in and play that one session. When we got through and I was packing my guitars up to go to my club gig, Dylan said, “Where’s he going?” Johnston said, “I’ve got another guitar player coming in.” Dylan said, “I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.” I was like, “Wow! That’s gangbusters to me.”
Having previously worked with Mike Bloomfield, it could be that Dylan wanted a guitar player who had more of an edge.
I hung on every word that came out of his mouth and every note he played on his guitar. I was trying to interpret everything he was doing to the very best of my ability. I mean, I really got into it. I really concentrated as hard as I could. I played as good as I could. Evidently, I played some notes he liked.
What was the vibe like at the sessions?
It was a great vibe. A lot of Nashville sessions back then, you had to do four songs in three hours. And that was it. It was a financial thing. To make it work, you had to cut four songs in three hours. With Dylan, it didn’t make any difference. If you cut one song in five hours, it didn’t make any difference. It was like he wasn’t in any kind of a hurry. But it went so smoothly, they only used a part of the sessions. I think they had 15 booked, and I think they used only three quarters of them.
Part of that is a testament to the Nashville session players.
Oh, absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. There was a looseness and a good vibe going on. But Dylan was in a good mood. All the preconceived things I’d read about him being reclusive and eccentric, all that kind of stuff just fell out. It just wasn’t happening. He was just one of the guys. Just in there playing music. That’s the way it was. He was having a good time, we were having a good time, and I think it shows on the record.
Recording with people like Dylan and Ringo Starr is some high cotton for a guy who was playing in beer joints.
Everything’s high cotton to me. Making a living playing music, I just thank God I’ve been able to make a living doing something I love so much. … I’m still having fun. If I quit having fun, I wouldn’t do it. The music business, if you don’t love it, will aggravate you to death.
I have to admit that I’m always a little skeptical when somebody makes an album of cover songs, but some of the songs, such as “Country Pie,” aren’t the obvious choices. The arrangements of the famous songs manage to be unique, too.
We tried to make it different. I didn’t want to do Charlie Daniels Does Bob Dylan. I wanted The Charlie Daniels Band Does Bob Dylan Songs. The only thing we literally took were the songs — the melody and the lyrics. We didn’t copy the arrangements. We didn’t copy the tempos. We didn’t even copy the beats, in some ways.
For instance, “Lay Lady Lay,” which I did play on for Nashville Skyline, is one of my favorites. And I wanted to do it for this album. But we could not find a way to do it that would complement the song other than to do it like it was done on the record. It’s the quintessential recording of it. Pete Drake’s got that crying steel guitar behind it, and what Kenny Buttrey played on the drums and what everybody else played made it a special cut. And I couldn’t hear it any other way. So we just left it alone. There were songs like that — songs that we could not put our mark on, basically — so we found songs that we could put our mark on.
What’s your favorite Dylan album?
I like Nashville Skyline a lot. To me that was a departure from anything he’d ever done. I thought it was much more mellow. … I like the early albums. You go back to Freewheelin’ and all those early albums that he did. When I really got into him was when he started adding the other musicians with stuff like ’Like a Rolling Stone.’ My favorite Dylan is him with other musicians, but I like the early stuff.
He has caused so much change in the music business. There was a time when the only way you had hit records was either you recorded something from a Broadway musical or you got something out of the Brill Building from the staff writers or Tin Pan Alley. … When people hear somebody who takes that kind of license and freedom when they create something, they think, “That’s got to be the way to do it. I want to get in that bag. I can’t do it like he does it, but in my way, I want to do it.”
Some artists go through a brief period of creativity and then seem to lose the muse, but Dylan is still making vital music and still touring — and so are you.
I love what I do. I can’t imagine my life without it. I’m 77 years old, and I love it as much as I ever did. I’ve done it on a lot of levels, and I’ve loved every one of them. Dylan, I guess, it’s just that God-given talent that comes out in him, and he wants to express himself. I don’t know if he loves performing live as much as I do or not, but he keeps doing it. He’s fixin’ to go on a tour of Japan and Europe. He’s got to love it.
You previously did a bluegrass album. Are there any other theme-type projects you want to do?
There’s no telling what I’ll want to do. I’ll have to live to be 150 to do everything I want to do.