I'm a Southern boy,
Southern born and bred,
I got 'Sweet Home Alabama' buzzing all around in my head. . .
-- The Charlie Daniels Band, "Southern Boy"
American rabble-rouser Charlie Daniels, the fiddle and guitar-playing rock, country and gospel singer, is the über-Southern boy. Forget about those who wear their patriotism on their sleeves: Daniels wraps himself in layers of it. His over-the-top lyrics in "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" are just one example of his obsession with America, and his definitive 70s song, "The South's Gonna Do It," is the requisite sing-a-long anthem for those self-identifying southerners with a need to express their regional pride.
Charles Edward Daniels was born in Wilmington, but has called Tennessee home for decades. His flag-waving, hard-talking, god-fearing music and lyrics have gotten him into a heap of trouble since the early 80s, when he went from being a Southern rock pioneer to being a conservative blowhard. But Daniels' twangy, post-Allmans jam-country sound has always been peerless. Before he hit his stride in the early 70s, Daniels wrote a song for Elvis and later toured with Leonard Cohen, produced the Youngbloods, played on four Bob Dylan albums and fiddled on Ringo Starr's Beaucoups of Blues.
Daniels' songs are a tad too heavy on the ideology and too region-centric to a first-generation immigrant like me, who also loves America and the South, but doesn't want his nose pushed into it. I pondered his hits closely when I first heard them years ago: The South's gonna do what again? Return to the pre-Civil Rights era? It took time for me to understand the South's distinct, complex character. When Daniels sings, it's about heritage -- even if some of that heritage is stained with dark deeds.
Willie Chandran, the protagonist of V.S. Naipaul's saga Half a Life, spoke the following words in another story of heritage, involving immigrants: "I don't know where I am. I don't think I can pick my way back. I don't ever want this view to become familiar. I must not unpack. I must never behave as though I am staying."
These words would be anathema to Daniels, who would happily eat Georgia red clay to prove his loyalty. But it's the space where Chandran and Daniels meet that defines my sensibility.
When my family left India, I was old enough to remember vivid details of childhood and yet young enough to experience this new land and its people with a sense of awe. My family immigrated to the US via New York in 1974, the year Daniels' buddies in Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the Top 10 with "Sweet Home Alabama." Our migration to North Carolina in 1979 is what helped cement my identity as an American -- or, more specifically, a Southern American. Culture shock did rear its head on our move from the Northeast to North Carolina. I was not only in America, but now I was in the South. I had just begun to feel at home in New Jersey when we left. Soon after our arrival in Charlotte, I began to absorb the Southern state of mind to the degree that I now consider myself genuinely Southern. I can blast "The South's Gonna Do It" on my boombox with a sense of belonging, all the while not denying my own Eastern origins -- the drone of harmonium overlaid with the scatting of tablas and shower of sitar notes. Because the South accepted me, I am at ease with this duality. Here, I never have been called a "sand nigger," as I was in New Jersey.
It was Charlie Daniels' musical South, along with records by the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, that served as a catalyst to my record-geek tendencies during the late 70s and early 80s. Ultimately I would move on to the Clash and the Ramones, but Southern rockers were prominent among my sonic pals who got me through late-teen hormonal years. In my jukebox, Daniels' "The Devil went Down to Georgia" and "The South's Gonna Do It" fit right in with the Clash's "I'm So Bored with the USA." I immediately identified with the songs' common spirit of rebellion.
Daniels' latest recording, a collection of gospel-bluegrass music called Songs from the Longleaf Pines, showcases his more subdued side, but the fiddlemaster still takes a rebel stand in front of fans and American soldiers. But today it's a more obvious excessive patriotic bravado with heavy Christian overtones. Of course, he's also kept a boothold in outlaw country, most recently in a cameo appearance alongside Larry the Cable Guy, Kid Rock and Hank Williams, Jr. in rebel-gal Gretchen Wilson's video for "All Jacked Up."
However hypocritical and dubious Daniels' politics may be, he remains an essential figure in the shaping of the New South. This region, although still riddled with social ills, is changing as more and more immigrants arrive here, adding to the South's rich distinctiveness. Perhaps even Naipaul's protagonist would agree.
The Charlie Daniels Band will be at Coyote Joe's at 4621 Wilkinson Blvd., on Friday, Nov. 25. Doors open at 7pm. Call 704-399-4946 for further details.