Uneasy Ride

The cultural contradictions of Charlie Daniels.


When Country Music Television held a benefit for the victims of the September 11 attacks, one performer who'd been invited didn't appear.

Charlie Daniels had hoped to play a new song at the October concert, but organizers worried that its opening lines might offend Arabs: "This ain't no rag, it's a flag/And we don't wear it on our heads." Daniels gamely tried to defend the lyric, claiming at one point that it was aimed at Osama bin Laden alone, not all Arabs ("If Osama wore a cowboy hat, I'd write about a cowboy hat"), and at another point that he was merely expressing his disapproval of American-flag bandanas. On one matter, though, he stuck to his guns: If he couldn't play the song at the benefit, he wasn't going to appear there at all. And so he didn't.

Daniels had come a long way since 1973, when his first hit, "Uneasy Rider," told the tale of a hippie whose car breaks down in Mississippi. The hero nearly gets into a fight with "some fella with green teeth" and his right-wing redneck buddies, then outwits them. But for all the song's hick-baiting, the singer couldn't conceal his Southern drawl: A North Carolina native who's spent most of his professional career in Tennessee, Daniels' long hair couldn't cover up his red neck, to borrow a phrase from David Allan Coe.

Fortunately, it was the era of Willie Nelson and Lynyrd Skynyrd, of outlaw country and Southern rock. With 1974's "Long Haired Country Boy," Daniels embraced his cultural contradictions: "People say I'm no good, crazy as a loon/'Cause I get stoned in the morning, I get drunk in the afternoon…/I ain't askin' nobody for nothing, if I can't get it on my own/If you don't like the way I'm livin', just leave this longhaired country boy alone." Suddenly, the hippie ethic didn't seem that far removed from backwoods libertarianism.

The longhaired country boy may be anti-authoritarian, but he's also patriotic. In 1980, four years after campaigning for Jimmy Carter, Daniels had another hit with the hard-rocking "In America." A sample lyric: "We may have done a little bit of fighting amongst ourselves/But you outside people best leave us alone/'Cause we'll all stick together, and you can take that to the bank/That's the cowboys and the hippies, and the rebels and the yanks." The sentiment isn't very different from that of a country boy, longhaired or otherwise, telling a trespasser to get the hell off his yard. But the target is a bit more diffuse. The song may be a response to the Iranian hostage crisis, but the only foreigners to be cited by name are the Russians, who had just launched their own war against fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan.

At any rate, while the Ayatollahs and Soviets certainly deserved Daniels' ire, the American government hadn't exactly refrained from askin' nobody for nothin'. Most notably, it had asked Iranians to tolerate the brutal regime of the Shah, then sheltered him after he was overthrown—not unlike the Taliban's willingness to shelter Osama bin Laden, come to think of it. That doesn't justify hostage-taking, of course, but one suspects that in the Iranian students' minds, they too were telling Uncle Sam to leave their, um, long-bearded country boys alone.

Daniels stumbled into yet more contradictions in the ensuing years. "Uneasy Rider '88" recast his first hit's hero as a good ol' boy getting stuck in a gay bar. And 1990's "Simple Man" declared war on the people who once had helped him get stoned in the morning: "If I had my way with people selling dope/I'd take a big, tall tree and a short piece of rope/I'd hang 'em up high and let 'em swing 'til the sun goes down." By 2001, Daniels was willing to blame the September 11 attacks on drugs, homosexuality, and music "fit for nothing but a garbage can," among other secular forces, writing on his Web site that "we've shaken our fist in God's face for too long."

You never know where a longhaired redneck is going to end up, politically speaking: Willie Nelson campaigns for Ralph Nader, Charlie Daniels sounds like Jerry Falwell. But before more liberal readers write Daniels off as an utter know-nothing, I should quote another part of his 9/11 rant: "The vast majority of the Middle Eastern citizens came to this country for the same reasons our forefathers did, to escape repression and have a better life. They deplore this atrocity as much as we do."

A lot has been said about love of country in the past few months. Surely one of the most lovable things about America is the particularly vibrant set of paradoxes it's given us to suss out. That, and the music.