RAMBLIN' ROUND: When Charlie Daniels came down to McAlester

JAMES BEATY | File photoCharlie Daniels picks some hot licks on his Jimmy Vaughan Signature Fender Stratocaster while onstage during a 1999 McAlester Centennial Celebration concert at the Southeast Expo Center. 

Twenty years ago McAlester played host to one of the giants of American music when the Charlie Daniels Band came down to perform as part of the city's 1999 Centennial Celebration.

Daniels and the CDB kicked off what would be an amazing few weeks for music lovers in the McAlester area.

The Charlie Daniels Band came to McAlester when then-Walmart Supercenter Manager Jack Inman wanted to host a special musical event as part of the city's official Centennial Celebration. He said he considered it a gift to McAlester and to area residents.

Inman said at the time he figured Charlie Daniels would be a good fit for the area.

He was right.

The CDB concert at the Southeast Expo Center was a free event — with no advance tickets required, no parking fees or anything else. Those who wanted to attend could simply show up on Sept. 19, 1999 — and enjoy the concert on the Expo Center's outdoor stage.

That's exactly what a crowd of about 3,500 did. They were treated to a hot set by Daniels and CDB, with Daniels appearing to like the down-home ambience of the Expo Center's outdoor stage.

Daniels played plenty of his hits, such as "The South's Going to Do It Again," getting many of those in the crowd onto their feet to boogie along with him. Throughout the concert, Daniels showcased his virtuosity not only on the fiddle, but on guitar as well.

Long before audiences became familiar with the fiddle-playing Daniels fronting his band through their sort of country-southern rock musical hybrid, he was well known in musical circles as a virtuoso guitarist. I first heard Daniels' music — sans vocals and fiddles — as a key guitarist on Bob Dylan's country music album, "Nashville Skyline."

Best-known for its breakout hit single "Lay Lady Lay" and Dylan's then-surprising foray in country music, "Nashville Skyline" is a gem among Dylan's vast catalogue. Not country rock, but bonafide country music, "Nashville Skyline" represents the height of Dylan's explorations of the genre.

I always liked the guitar playing on the album, especially on the track "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" — and one day I learned that the guitarist hitting those tasty licks had been none other that Charlie Daniels, long before he shot to wider fame on his won while fronting CDB.

During his McAlester concert, Daniels played electric guitar even more than fiddle. He seemed to especially favor the then-relatively new Olympic white Jimmie Vaughn Signature Fender Stratocaster he picked for much of the performance.

Daniels played lots of his hits during the concert, ranging from his ode to Southern rock bands, "The South's Going to Do It Again" to "Long-Haired Country Boy" — his anthem to down-home living.

As he played those hits and others, fans stood in front of the stage, cheering and clapping while CDB played song after song.

Daniels saved his huge hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" to close the concert. Of course he played fiddle on his rollicking rendition of his signature song, leaving the horsehair strands on his fiddle bow shredded by the time the band thumped to the song's finale, with cheers and applause filling the air as he left the stage.

When approached for an interview prior to the concert, Daniels had suggested I stick around until he wound up a meet and greet session in one of the buildings at the Pittsburg County Fairgrounds, so he would have more time to talk. A few minutes later he motioned toward a van parked outside the building and told me to hop in, suggesting we do the interview on his bus, parked a short distance away.

A personable guy, Daniels appeared to love talking about music almost as much as he obviously enjoys playing it. Even then, he felt there was a good reason why classic country and rock has endured through the decades.

"We don't follow trends and fads," he said. "We just do what we do."

Daniels had formed his own record label, Blues Hat, at the time so he would have the freedom to record whatever he wanted. "We started the label for me to do what I want to do," he said. He planned to record a rock album, and was also considering recording some jazz.

"I may do a bluegrass album or whatever feels good to us," Daniels said.

He also talked about working Dylan as a session musician in 1969 and 1970, when he played on the albums "Self Portrait" and "New Morning" as well as "Nashville Skyline."

Daniels said he enjoyed the sessions with Dylan.

"He was very relaxed," said Daniels.

Asked about his favorites among his own songs he performs, Daniels said that would be like trying to name his favorite child.

"Some are special," Daniels said — but they might not be among the songs for which he's best-known. Recalling a song about when he grew up in North Carolina, he mentioned "Carolina, I Remember You."

As I jotted down notes, Daniels told me that there was one word that he always found difficult to spell. I wondered if the word would be a tongue-twister related to some esoteric scientific term. Nope.

"It's sheriff," he said. Oh, there's an easy way to remember how to spell that particular word, I said. Just divide in two: she-riff.

Before I left, Daniels let me know that Dylan wasn't the only poetic songwriter he had recorded with when he was still a session musician back in Nashville in the 1960s.

"I recorded with Leonard Cohen, too," he said, mentioning the great Canadian poet, songwriter and novelist whose songs include "Suzanne" and "Bird On the Wire" as well as "Hallelujah." 

Along with many other giants of the genre, Daniels was featured as an interview subject during the recent acclaimed documentary " Country Music — A Film By Ken Burns."

Daniels turns 83 on Oct. 28 and is still touring with the Charlie Daniels Band. They're booked to play on Thursday, Oct. 17, at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa in Catoosa.

Hey, Charlie! It'll be great to have you back in Oklahoma again.

Here's hoping you keep on "doing what you do" for a long, long time. (And I hope you remembered how to spell "sheriff.")

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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