Commentary

Charlie Daniels: Opportunity Knock, Knock Knocking on My Front Door

Charlie Daniels
By Charlie Daniels | February 15, 2019 | 2:53 PM EST

Charlie Daniels

Charlie is still working on a new book and is limiting himself to one new soapbox a week, but for the 50th Anniversary of Charlie performing on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album, we thought we’d try something different instead of running a “rewind.” Here are three excerpts from Charlie’s memoir, “Never Look at the Empty Seats,” which highlight what was going on in Charlie’s career at the time, and his experiences recording with Dylan, touring with Leonard Cohen, and even jamming with Dylan and George Harrison, all thanks to Charlie’s friend and mentor, the late Bob Johnston. – TeamCDB/BW

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Chapter 19 of “Never Look at the Empty Seats”

Opportunity Knock, Knock Knocking on My Front Door

I had been at the Houndstooth for almost a year when Bob Dylan came to town to record another album with Bob Johnston and the Nashville pickers. I was and still am a big Dylan fan and admirer, so I asked Bob Johnston if there was any way he could let me play on just one session.

Sessions in Nashville are scheduled so you can fit four into a day, 10:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m., and 10:00 p.m. As it happened, the guitar player they had scheduled for the 6:00 p.m. session couldn’t make it and wouldn’t show up until the 10:00 p.m. session, so Bob fit me in for 6:00 p.m.

I was the hungriest musician in the studio. I hung on every note that Bob Dylan sang and played on his guitar and did my best to interpret his music with feeling and passion. When the session was over, I was packing up my guitars to head to my club gig, and Bob Dylan asked Bob Johnston, “Where is Charlie going?” Bob told him I was leaving and that he had another guitar player coming in.

Then Bob Dylan said nine little words that would affect my life from that moment on. He said, “I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.”

And there it was. After all the put-downs, condescension, and snide remarks, after all the times I’d driven to the hill above my house and shook my fist at Nashville and said, “You will not beat me.” After all that rejection, none other than the legendary Bob Dylan was saying that I might be worth something after all. It’s bits of encouragement like that that keep you going. Once in a while, something just lights you up and you say, “Yeah, I can do this.”

Needless to say, I called the Houndstooth and told them I wouldn’t be coming in that night.

The album turned out to be Nashville Skyline, and I went on to play on two more Bob Dylan albums, Self Portrait and New Morning. Since Dylan always listed the names of his recording musicians in his album credits, some people started noticing my name and I started to get some public recognition.

From Chapter 20 of “Never Look at the Empty Seats”

The View From the Other Side of the Control Room

Bob Johnston was in demand and extremely busy and started giving me a weekly salary to be a kind of assistant and errand runner. I took things to Johnny Cash while he was doing his television show. I even picked up Bob’s kids from school a couple of times.

We could never figure out how Bob Dylan's albums got bootlegged.

Spectators were not allowed in the studio when he recorded. At the end of each session, the tapes were locked away in a vault and mixes and copies were strictly controlled and carefully guarded.

I used to take a flight to New York for no other reason than to hand carry a copy of a mix of a Dylan album and personally put it into the hands of one of his people for him to listen to and approve.

Yet, with every precaution that was taken, somehow bootleg copies of Dylan's work would show up on the street.

One time I was in sole possession of an entire unmixed Bob Dylan album in several bulky eight-track tape boxes.

I was in New York and Bob Johnston didn't want to leave the tapes there, so he asked me to take them along with me and get them back to Nashville.

I was going to North Carolina to meet Hazel and Charlie Junior and spend a couple of days with my parents.

When I got to LaGuardia Airport—this was in the days before 9/11—they told me the boxes had to be run through the x-ray machine, which could erase part of the recording.

I told them it was the only copy of a new Bob Dylan album and that the only way I'd let it go through an x-ray machine was for the airline to assume the liability for any loss.

They backtracked pretty fast, and I was on my way, carrying my bulky load with me.

Even while doing these things, I was still playing on all the sessions I could, writing songs, and keeping my antenna out for anything that would take me another step up the slippery music business ladder.

From Chapter 21 of “Never Look at the Empty Seats”
Bird on a Wire

When Bob Johnston brought Leonard Cohen to Nashville to record an album, I have to admit that I knew very little about him and was completely unfamiliar with his music.

Leonard was a totally different kind of artist than any I had ever worked with. His music was sensitive and haunting, and the imagery of his lyrics was abstract and poetic, like a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Leonard was from Montreal and had already built an underground audience with his first album, Suzanne. He was best known in Europe and in his native Canada, where he was an unofficial poet laureate, but he was building a following among the college crowd in the United States.

When I first heard “Bird on a Wire,” I didn't know what to think. Here was a truly unique artist, and his songs were so delicate that one out-of-place guitar lick could bend it out of shape. When you worked with Leonard, you had to listen closely and get in sync with what he was trying to convey. You had to interpret it in the same musical frame he was operating in. Sometimes it only called for a well-placed note or two, sparse but meaningful. I know that sounds philosophical and stilted, but so was Leonard's music. You needed to be in a certain frame of mind, and it was a challenging but satisfying experience.

After the popularity of “Bird on a Wire” and some of the other cuts on Songs from a Room, Leonard wanted to go on tour, and I was asked to be part of the backup band that would be called The Army. It was a different kind of band, mostly acoustical instruments with no drums. We needed to surround Leonard with delicate, genteel sounds. For a bang, slam, redline graduate of thirteen years of honky-tonk and rock and roll, it would be a learning experience.

I had revived my interest in my fiddle and played it, mandolin, guitar, and bass. Bubba Fowler and Ron Cornelius played guitar, and Bob Johnston played harmonica and organ. We had two backup singers, Corlynn Hanney and Susan Musmanno, and with Leonard's gut-string guitar, it was the perfect backup group to match the complicated persona of Leonard Cohen and his unique and fragile music.

We played a few dates in the United States and embarked on a five-country European tour. Leonard and the rest of the band flew from Nashville to Holland, where we would open at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Bob Johnston had to go through New York on business for a day and asked me to go with him. We would fly over and join the others the next day.

I was sitting around the hotel room in New York when Bob called and asked me if I'd like to come down to Columbia Studios and play bass on an impromptu recording session with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and a studio drummer named Russ Kunkel. Of course, I wanted to, and the four of us spent a relaxed and pleasant day just doing whatever song Dylan felt like doing. We cut old songs and new songs, none of which could be released by Columbia Records because George Harrison didn't have current working papers.

It was the neatest day and one of my all-time-favorite musical memories. Dylan even took requests that day. You could just name one of his songs, and he'd go into it.

George was a really nice little guy, friendly and conversational. It was right after Paul McCartney left the band, and he jokingly asked in his thick Liverpudlian accent, “Do you want to be a Beatle?"

What do you think?

Pray for our troops, our police and the peace of Jerusalem.

God Bless America

— Charlie Daniels

Charlie Daniels is a legendary American singer, song writer, guitarist, and fiddler famous for his contributions to country and southern rock music. Daniels has been active as a singer since the early 1950s. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry on January 24, 2008.

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