Graded on a Curve: Charlie Daniels, Deuces

He may have turned into an unreconstructed redneck jingoistic asshole, but once upon a time Charlie Daniels was cool. He played sessions with one Bob Dylan, wrote one of the funniest anti-redneck songs ever, and wrote another song about the South doin’ it again that was so jaunty even the ghost of a Union bluecoat could dance to it. Oh, and he bragged about getting stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon, and if you didn’t like it you could go fuck yourself.

But somewhere along the line he became a right-winger and a vitriolic patriot, a calling that Samuel Johnson once described as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” America can do no wrong as far as Daniels is concerned—his 2003 LP Freedom & Justice For All falls on the wrong side of despicable—and it makes me kind of ill because like I say, he used to be the kind of redneck country boy whose politics seemed limited to his belief in his right to wear his hair long and take the occasional toke. I’ve seen the same phenomenon occur with the band that tours the land calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd; it seems to be an occupational hazard of being a country rock artist in these complex times. Unhinged by God knows what, they wrap themselves in the flag (see Daniels’ “This Ain’t No Rag, It’ a Flag”) and utter “America: Love It or Leave It” rhetoric, and it’s all rather queasy making.

Which is why I’m so ambivalent about Charlie Daniels. I love a lot of his music, and suspect he’s a sweet guy, but seeing what he’s turned into almost makes me grateful Ronnie Van Zant died young, because if he’d become what Daniels has it would have broken my Skynyrd-loving heart. That said, back in the day Daniels was producing a hybrid of southern music that mixed rock, blues, Southern swing, jazz, and everything in between, and say what you will, he produced some mighty tasty songs.

And he’s still producing interesting records, like 2014’s Off the Grid—Doin’ It Dylan, on which he does a more-than-decent job of interpreting such Dylan tunes as “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Quinn the Eskimo (The Mighty Quinn).” It’s a cool move, as is 2007’s Deuces, on which he sings duets with a wide range of artists, choosing some odd tunes in the process, like “What’d I Say” and two Dylan classics, “Maggie’s Farm” and “Like a Rolling Stone.” He may be a knee-jerk flag waver with vigilante tendencies and a belief that Darwinism is bunk, but he’s still one interesting and talented musician unwilling to rest on his laurels, and Deuces is a pretty good LP as a result.

It opens with Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” which Daniels sings with Travis Tritt, and it’s one wild trip, with lots of vocal interjections and a funky groove, to say nothing of some happening guitar. The duo swap lines until some female vocalists come in, and Daniels promises to send us all back to Arkansas before the song ends with some marvelous vocalizing and a “Mercy!” from Tritt, while Daniels is laughing. Unfortunately it’s followed by the awkward and stilted “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” which Bonnie Bramlett, who is in good voice, can’t quite save. Even the extended guitar workout doesn’t resuscitate this one, and that’s too bad. On the bright side Daniels’ duet with Gretchen Wilson on “Jackson,” which Johnny Cash (amongst others) made famous, is fired by some sizzling guitar and Wilson’s big, big voice. Daniels hits his stride when he describes how everybody’s gonna “scrape and bow” when he hits Jackson, while Wilson burns down the barn when she sings contemptuously, “Yeah, go to Jackson/You big talkin’ man.” Meanwhile that guitar is as hot as a pepper sprout, the drums are great, and the repartee they engage in as the song goes out is pretty darn amusing.

The cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” opens with some martial drumming, and then Daniels does a pretty good job of singing it, although he’s no Levon Helm. The problem with this one is Vince Gill, whose thin vocals are totally unsuited to the song, which requires grit and a mournful stoicism. I can’t say I know who this Vince Gill fella is, but he ruins the song for me. Thanks Vince. Next up is Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” which incorporates fiddle and banjo and boasts a great coupling: Daniels with Earl, Gary, and Randy Scruggs. This one motorvates, thanks to its plucky pacing and the great vocal interaction between Daniels and Gary Scruggs. Also great is Daniels’ collaboration with Dolly Parton on “Daddy’s Old Fiddle,” which is one rollicking good time. The duo sing together, and their voices mesh wonderfully, then they swap lines, but no matter who’s singing, this one will have you cutting a rug at your next hoedown. Parton’s in extraordinary animated form, and her enthusiastic “Ain’t my daddy good!?” seems to bring the song to an end, but they break into “Amazing Grace” before kicking the song back into gear and swap lines before the song’s close.

Daniels’ chose well when he picked Darius Rucker to join him on “Like a Rolling Stone.” The song isn’t dramatically altered, but Daniels does a surprisingly good job of channeling Dylan’s contempt, while Rucker, who joins in on the chorus, kicks ass on his verses. Meanwhile that organ plays on and on, as Daniels and Rucker swap lines and toss in vocals behind one another, and it’s great, especially when they take turns repeating “everything.” The Del McCoury Band join Daniels on The Band’s “Evangeline,” and it’s one real purty tune. I’m not sure which of the McCoury boys is singing, but he doesn’t have the best set of pipes, but they’re interesting—nasal to the point of head cold. That said, this one is all about the banjo and mandolin, and doing the old country waltz at a barn dance with good old boys passing the jar while the older kids get up to no good in the hayloft. The only tune on the LP I truly dislike is next; a version of the Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me,” a maudlin love ballad that brings the saccharine out of Daniels. His duet mate Brenda Lee somehow escapes unscathed—a testimony to her otherworldly talent—but it is my fervent belief that this song should have a large concrete sarcophagus built around it, like the one they erected around the doomed reactor at Chernobyl.

Daniels lined up Brooks & Dunn to join him on his own “Long Haired Country Boy,” and while it drags a bit, they sure sound good on the choruses. And singing separately for that matter. A great song, “Long Haired Country Boy” is the perfect union of hippie smoking materials and redneck defiance, and along with “Uneasy Rider” marks Daniels’ high-water mark as a songwriter who could actually give Ronnie Van Zant some competition. Next up Marty Stewart joins Daniels on the surprisingly open-minded “God Save Us From Religion,” which Daniels helped write. It’s a mid-tempo barroom ode to a fella afraid of religion, Christianity included. Both singers are in good voice, and hearing the same Charlie Daniels who has supported one very bloody and unjust war singing an ode to tolerance and love (“Ain’t it a shame/How the world’s gone insane/How we hurt and we hate/And we kill in God’s name/But Heaven above knows the answer is love”). Which would make me wonder if I’m being too hard on the fellow, if not for the fact that he’s done his share of Old Testament eye for an eye moralizing in some of his other songs.

Anyway, next up is Daniels’ “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” with Montgomery Gentry joining in. It’s a kick ass rockabilly tune with Daniels’ fiddle riding atop the song like a hobo riding the top of a boxcar. It demonstrates that Daniels is well versed in the field of honky-tonk anthems, and evokes images of the Duke Boys hightailing it past Boss Hogg in The Dukes of Hazzard. The LP’s final track is a surprise; a remarkably fluid guitar workout—we’re almost talking jazz fusion here—called “Jammin’ for Stevie,” presumably a tribute to Stevie Ray Vaughn. That’s Brad Paisley on the guitar, and his style falls somewhere between the Allman Brothers and Wes Montgomery. There’s also some nice organ thrown in for further jazz flavoring, and if you’re a fan of a good jam, this one is a guaranteed good time.

Charlie Daniels may be a flag-waving creationist nutjob, but LPs like Deuces make me glad he’s still making music that matters. It’s possible I’d like the man but I will never like his beliefs, and I don’t suppose it matters much because at the end of the day he’ll be judged by his music, not his crackpot right-wing ideals. And his music stands up, has since the early seventies when he was still writing hilarious redneck hippie odes and songs as jovially defiant as “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” And the guy played with Dylan, for Christ’s sake. That’s the Charlie Daniels I choose to think about when I’m listening to his songs—the one who still has something to say that doesn’t have to do with patriotism or creationism or his support for the Iraq War. This is the Charlie Daniels you get on Deuces, a very good LP that holds up because at the end of the day he makes a better singer and fiddle player than he does a pundit. God save us from pundits.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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