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Charlie Daniels Interview: Country’s Biggest Bob Dylan Fan Offers His Interpretations on ‘Doin’ It Dylan’

Charlie Daniels
Rick Diamond, Getty Images

To say Charlie Daniels is a Bob Dylan fan is to say the famous country singer plays an OK fiddle. It’s an understatement. Daniels was in Dylan’s band to record three albums during the late ’60s and early ’70s, and has since appreciated his music, even if he didn’t necessarily always know what the folk-rocker was talking about.

Off the Grid – Doin’ It Dylan‘ is Daniels’ Bob Dylan tribute album. He picked 10 songs he liked and felt his band could arrange in a way unique to their record, and didn’t spend much time rolling over what each meant, or the social context each song was recorded in. Follow him on Twitter, or read his Soap Box and you’ll get a sense that modern day Charlie Daniels and early ’70s Dylan have disparate social priorities. Whether or not that’s the case doesn’t really matter as the country singer didn’t think that much into it.

Daniels tells Taste of Country he’d been sitting on this idea for quite some time but it didn’t become a priority until his band was forced to go all acoustic for a television show based in the 1800s. He’s sent the project to Dylan, and recently talked to him for the first time in years. However the original writer of these songs had yet to hear Daniels’ country-fied versions.

"I didn’t want to do an album that copied all the arrangements that Bob had and everything. I wanted to do one that would be like we would do it if we had written the songs."

ToC: You really seem to have a nuanced appreciation for Bob Dylan’s catalog. Especially some of the earlier stuff.

Charlie Daniels: I definitely do, I’ve been a Dylan fan for a long time and he’s just one of those guys that hit the spot with me, you know, that I’d thoroughly enjoyed listening to through the years … one of the great things about his catalogue is you never run out of songs. There’s just so many to choose from.

‘Off the Grid’ doesn’t feel like an ‘ultimate hits’ collection per se. A lot are hits but there are some that are deeper cuts. What was your criteria for the ten songs you chose?

I wanted to do songs that I felt that we do best, that would fit our style and the way that we did things. I didn’t want to do an album that copied all the arrangements that Bob had and everything. I wanted to do one that would be like we would do it if we had written the songs.

I went through and tried to glean the tunes that would not fit us out, which there were a few that we tried that didn’t work that we couldn’t find a way to do them. Like ‘Lay Lady Lay’ for instance. I really wanted to do that one but we couldn’t find a way to do it that was not very similar to the way it was done on the album.

Charlie Daniels Bob Dylan
Michael Ochs Archive, Getty Images

As you listen to Bob Dylan’s songs, over the span of 50 years, does the meaning of them or the importance of certain songs change for you?

Not necessarily I mean some things he wrote I had no idea what he was talking about. Others that I think I might know what he is talking about, others that I have a vague idea, but I can’t actually dissect it.

Once you get into even the simpler songs like ‘Tangled Up In Blue,’ I mean you can get certain lines where you know what he’s talking about. So I mean they all mean basically the same thing to me. I think some of his stuff is timeless like ‘Times They Are A Changin’ … some things just kinda mean the same thing now as they did back in the 60’s when he wrote them. [It] just seems like it’s kinda a timeless element to his music. Most of his tunes are things that to listen to now are as good as to listen to back then.

"Some things he wrote I had no idea what he was talking about. Others that I think I might know what he is talking about, others that I have a vague idea, but I can’t actually dissect it."

‘Gotta Serve Somebody’ stands out because it’s the latest or the newest recording of all the ones you chose. It’s also one he recorded after he turned to faith. Is that why you chose it?

I chose it because I like the song. I thought it was something we could do a good job on. I thought it was something that could fit the band and that we could make an arrangement that would work and write a good piece of music out of it. I think we did. I think its unique, different from the way he did it. I think our arrangements are very sound and very good on it. But that’s the reason I chose all of them, not for any kind of introspective deep meaning or anything but just because I think all of his songs are good. I didn’t try to follow some kind of thematic soul type of thing here.

The song ‘A Hard Rain is Going to Fall’ — if you look back at what was happening when Bob Dylan wrote it versus current events, did either one inspire your passionate vocal performance?

Basically it’s inspired by the song, just trying to get into it and sing it. There again, it’s like, to me it like denotes some kind of — I don’t think he’s talking about a rain storm.

It could be the war, it could be the end of times, it could be so many different things. There again, you start dissecting the lines. What’s he talking about? “I saw a white ladder all covered with water?” “Ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard?” It’s a very simple premise, if someone asks their son ‘Where have you been? What did you see and where are you going? What are you going to do?’

But once you get passed that and the way he fills in the blanks along the way, [laughs] who knows what it’s all about. I have an idea, I feel like he’s talking about one of these days it’s just going to — it’s all going to come down. But, the way he goes about saying it is, there again, just Bob Dylan. Different.

It feels like a protest song to me.

Doin It Dylan
Blue Hat Records

I don’t know. To me it’s more of a documentary than a protest. Its like a — like this is what’s going to happen, what I’m looking at.

So many of Bob Dylan’s songs are kind of ambiguous like that. What do you relate to if not necessarily the lyrics?

I do relate to the lyrics, just not — I get a general feeling about the thing. Like I said, I think the hard rain would be like a catastrophic sort of thing. Atomic war maybe, that’s what he’s talking about. I don’t know. Like someone warning us about the danger we’re in. ‘What did you see? I saw the world was in a hell of a place. It’s all messed up out there. I saw sharp swords in the hands of young children. I saw all these crazy things and where have you been?’

… Almost like a warning about what he thinks is going to happen. As to what it is? I don’t know. But I don’t think it’d be good.

Next: A review of 'Doin' It Dylan'

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