A journalist toiling in the fever-swamp of daily deadline pressure comes to appreciate the occasional prospective interview subject who does not fool around and waste everybody’s time.
This is why my one and only interview with Charlie Daniels looms large as one of my more pleasant memories from a lifetime of struggling to get celebrities on the phone. I thought of it on Monday when I first heard the news about his death.
One day in June 2002, after a Google search lasting about 15 seconds, I found some kind of personal website for Charlie Daniels, dialed the phone number I found there, introduced myself to an assistant, asked him if I could speak with Mr. Daniels, explained why, and then, less than half-a-minute later, I was on the phone with him.
There was no back-and-forth with publicists gumming up the works and requiring me to then wait for hours while they deliberated the pros and cons of putting Charlie on the phone with me -- and then, often as not, denying me the interview.
Instead, here was Charlie Daniels on the other end of the line from somewhere in Tennessee politely addressing me by name. “Hi, Adam. This is Charlie Daniels,” he said in a tone of soft-spoken familiarity, although we had never spoken before, and certainly never met.
I called that day to speak with Charlie about a controversy that had erupted over a song he had hoped to perform in a few days on the annual July Fourth concert show on PBS called “A Capitol Fourth.”
This was July 4, 2002 -- the first Fourth of July since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And Charlie had a special song to perform that he had recently written.
The song, titled “The Last Fallen Hero,” touched on a number of subjects related to the attacks -- among them patriotism, anger and the War on Terror.
The lyrics included “Now the winds of war are blowin’, and there’s no way of knowin’ where this bloody path we’re travelin’ will lead. We must follow till the end or face it all again …”
The whole song was basically like that, and Charlie felt strongly about it. Unfortunately, PBS objected to it, reportedly on the grounds that the song did not conform to the celebratory or upbeat tone of the public TV network’s annual July Fourth show.
But instead of just choosing another song to perform on the show, Charlie quit the show entirely. This is what I wished to talk to him about on the day I looked him up and called him.
In our interview, which probably lasted all of 15 minutes, Charlie was passionate about the song and its message of national resolve in the aftermath of the attacks.
“I refuse to be a part of anything that goes on on the Fourth of July that we have to ignore our fighting men and women, that we have to ignore the victims of 9/11,” he told me. “I just don’t think it’s right. I think that’s what the Fourth of July is about.
“There’s not going to be anybody on the Fourth of July who sees an American flag that is not going to think about 9/11,” he said.
This was another characteristic of this interview that was so memorable. Not only was Charlie Daniels easy to get on the phone that day, but he did not mince words either. He was not a “prepared statement” kind of guy.
“It’s just this political correctness,” he said. “Anybody with a brain in their head knows we’re in the same position we were in on the 11th of September, and I personally think we should constantly be reminded of that.”
When thinking about this July Fourth story from 18 years ago, it was not lost on me that Charlie Daniels died two days after what would be his last Fourth of July. I hope he got to celebrate it his way.
Photo of Charlie Daniels courtesy of CMT (Country Music Television).