The Charlie Daniels Band: Essential Super Hits

[22 September 2004]

By Will Harris

Koch Records bowed their head because they knew that they'd been beat...

I’m a Southern boy / Southern born and bred / I got ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ buzzing all around in my head / I’m right at home in Georgia / Or down in Caroline / Yeah, I’d be happy anywhere below that Mason-Dixon line.
—The Charlie Daniels Band, “Southern Boy”

My God, Charlie Daniels is quite the redneck, isn’t he?

Please understand that, as a resident of the South, I use that descriptor with all due respect. I come from a family that, while not exclusively full of rednecks, certainly contains its fair share, and, for the most part, I think they’d concede to being somewhat proud of it at times. Being a redneck doesn’t (or shouldn’t) instantly imply ignorance. According to the good-humored, it just means you love fried food, barbecues, cold beer, gravies, and sweet tea, you enjoy outdoor events such as hunting, fishing, auto racing, and fairs, you’re hard working and independent, God fearing and patriotic, and “won’t take no guff from no-one”.

What they don’t mention, however, is that, in the South, even if you don’t actively listen to country music, they still try to get you by force-feeding you country-rock on AOR. If you’re anything like me, you eventually rebel against it and explore any possible alternative to the Marshall Tucker Band and Molly Hatchet that you can find. Eventually, though, you realize that a lot of music you’ve tried so hard to get away from still remains the soundtrack to your youth, which means that, dammit, you really don’t mind hearing it some of it once in awhile.

Anyone who came of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s remembers when “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was a top-five hit… and, for a lot of them, it was probably the first time they heard the expression “son of a bitch” in a song. (It was for me.) “Devil” was Daniels’s signature song, but he and his band scored five other top-40 hits: “Uneasy Rider”, “The South’s Gonna Do It”, “In America”, “The Legend of Wooley Swamp”, and “Still in Saigon”. Often unheralded is the fact that, prior to scoring his own success, Daniels toured with Leonard Cohen, produced the Youngbloods, played on four Bob Dylan albums (Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and Dylan), and even fiddled on Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues.

Aficionados of Southern rock should certainly have a Charlie Daniels Band greatest hits disc in their collection. Essential Super Hits, however, is not the way to go, athough a quick scan of its track listing would have you believe that it is, as all of the above titles can be found. What you need to pay great attention to, friends, is this phrase at the bottom of the back cover:

“All selections are new studio recordings, except selection marked (*), which is an original recording.”

That’s right, ol’ Charlie went back into the studio and knocked out brand-new versions of all the classic hits, plus one new track: “The Intimidator”. One strike against these re-recordings is Daniels’ attempt at historical revisionism, adjusting some lyrics to remove lyrical references to drugs and alcohol (he’s more Christian now than he used to be), and, perhaps worst of all, the new version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” finds Johnny, the song’s narrator, only saying “son of a gun” now. Additionally, the performances are, while far from bad, just not up to the standards set by the originals; some of the tracks are so familiar that even the slightest change in lyric or arrangement is jarring. And though it’s been a staple of his concerts for some time, Daniels’ studio recording of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” comes across as just so much filler.

To speak of his lyrics for a moment, Daniels has never been afraid to wear his patriotism on his sleeve. Cynics may be tempted to accuse him of getting all jingoistic to take advantage of the post-9/11 pro-America mindset, but there’s ample evidence to prove that Daniels has been a proud American for a long damned time. Still, it must be said that the song “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” is so over the top that it’s simply ridiculous. It’s not a matter of questioning his beliefs, it’s just that in what other way can you describe a song that includes a section where Daniels and his band chant “USA!” over the sounds of a little girl reciting the Pledge of Allegiance?

With a title like Essential Super Hits and a track listing like this one, it’s clear that the goal was to let people believe that these were the original recordings; there’s no sticker on the front advertising that these are new interpretations of classic songs, and the earlier-reference line of type is in pretty small letters on the back. I hesitate to say outright that the label’s plan was to blatantly trick fans into buying this album, but when you consider that Sony/Legacy released the similarly-titled (and far superior) Essential Charlie Daniels last year, which did include the original recordings of twelve of Super Hits’ 15 newly-recorded tracks…?

You make the call.

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