Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family and Flag

A specter is haunting my life: the specter of Charlie Daniels.

Okay, so it’s not quite as menacing as Communism, and it’s not enough to drive me into the arms of Alan Jackson, let alone Chancellor Metternich, but the guy has been all over me like an oversized belt buckle ever since I was a little kid. Back in the late ’70s, when I was just an unformed lad in short pants, my dad used to listen to 8-tracks of Daniels’ oeuvre (which, at the time, fell into that murky nexus where “Southern rock” met “outlaw country” and emerged smelling like a skunkweed-infused sleeveless denim jacket). In the mid-’80s, after he’d transformed from rebel rocker to reactionary redneck, he scored a minor comeback, and I had to clench my teeth through dimwitted anthems like “In America” and “Uneasy Rider ’88” (in which he rewrote his own hit “Uneasy Rider” — a surprisingly tolerant song in which he cast himself as authentic country despite his long-haired, dope-smokin’ ways — as a Neanderthal ode to fag-bashing) while waiting for the KNIX deejays to play some Dwight Yoakum. In the late 1990s, I discovered his website, which was filled with enjoyably crazy ravings by the man himself under the rubric “Charlie’s Soapbox.” I even co-opted a goofy-looking photo of him as a signature for various internet pranks I engaged in back in the heady days of the e-boom.

After September 11th, when poor Charlie (like many of us) became completely unhinged, “Charlie’s Soapbox” took a turn in its constant hysterical tirades against the Hollywood liberal establishment. He hitched his star to the unwelcome wagon of Arab-bashing, tough-talking jingoistic country songs, tallying yet another comeback with loopy hits like “This Ain’t No Rag It’s a Flag.” He seemed to be everywhere; even the generic “protect your hearing” safety film I had to watch at my day job was narrated by none other than Charlie Daniels.

Fortunately (or not), it looks like Charlie isn’t going anywhere. The long, fat shadow he casts over my life deepened once again about a month ago when a hardcover book appeared in my mailbox: Charlie Daniels’ latest venture into the rough-and-tumble world of aw-thentic lit’racher, Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family, and the Flag. (It’s not his first book: believe it or not, he wrote a collection of short stories back in the 1980s.)

Consisting largely of pieces that first appeared in his “Charlie’s Soapbox” column, Ain’t No Rag (might as well get the Arab-bashing started right there in the title, you know?) is published by Regnery Publishing, the right-wing press affiliated with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, responsible for such other masterpieces of philosophical inquiry as Ted Nugent’s God, Guns & Rock ’n’ Roll, Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? and David Limbaugh’s Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity. You don’t even have to open the book to see where it’s headed: the back cover features glowing testimonials by notable literary critics like Sean Hannity, Franklin (son of Billy) Graham, Oliver North, and G. Gordon Liddy, as well as Charlie Daniels wannabes like Hank Williams Jr. and Toby Keith.

But, fool that I am, I opened the book anyway.

This piece could easily become a refutation of all the ignorant horseshit that passes for jus’ folks wisdom in Ain’t No Rag, but simply listing each asinine claim in the first part of the book would use up five times my allotted space; actually refuting them would take more than the 242 pages of the book itself. Even the introduction is rife with error: before you get to page 1, Charlie has claimed that 70 percent of crime is caused by drugs, that world hunger could be solved by having American farmers ship food directly to starving people, and that he has played concerts at the polar ice caps. It doesn’t get any better from there, as in one piece where he sets the tone of reasonable discourse he maintains all throughout the first section by using the words “pampered,” “overpaid,” “unrealistic,” “pitiful,” “idiotic,” “spoiled,” “fanatical,” “hateful,” “disgusting,” “evil” and “mugwumps” to describe a group of unnamed persons who apparently disagree with him about the need for a second war in Iraq. Addressing any of this on its face would be beyond futile; it’s the same parade of hot-button issues in the right-wing Know-Nothing revival that’s been going on for the last three years, and arguing against it isn’t any more my idea of a good time than reading it in the first place.

The chapter titles alone give you a pretty good indication of what’s inside: “Baghdad Sean Is At It Again.” “An Open Letter To The Hollywood Bunch.” “How Low Can You Go?” “Radical Islam.” “Enough Already.” “Total Disgust.” And, my personal favorite, showing that Charlie is actually kind of proud of the invincible ignorance on display in the book: “An Open Letter to a Lawyer Whose Name I Forget, But Whose Stupidity I Never Will.” If you listen very closely, you can hear Charlie’s voice repeating Ned Flanders’ line: I don’t know who you are, but I’m sure you’re a jerk! Charlie doesn’t know, and Charlie doesn’t want to know. Even when he contradicts himself (on page 11, he excoriates Sean Penn for criticizing the Iraq sanctions, but on page 20 he expresses his horror that thousands of children a month starve to death in Iraq — a statistic attributable to those same sanctions — and on page 30 he lambastes the military policies of Bill Clinton, who established the sanctions, and the United Nations, who enforced them). Charlie makes a big deal about refusing to apologize for any of his opinions, which is just as it should be: only a man completely without shame could suggest, among other things, that young people didn’t know what oral sex was until Bill Clinton, er, came on the scene (p. 48), that the real gun control problem is that Chinese communists are smuggling assault weapons to the Crips and the Bloods (p. 50), that the police go easier on ethnic minorities than they do whites because they live in fear of political correctness (pp. 59-60), and that graffiti is “the tip of an iceberg which would terrify us” if we truly realized the sort of heinous acts that it led to (p. 114).

Why do I keep focusing on the first part of the book? Well, that’s clearly what the publishers want. The dust jacket contains only quotes from section one (which Charlie calls “Cowboy Logic” instead of the more realistic “Total Horseshit”); the press kit that came with my copy of Ain’t No Rag features three pages of excerpts, but only half of one page excerpts the second and third sections of the book, even though they take up the majority of its content. And that’s too bad, because the second section (“Why I Love America”) in particular is surprisingly readable. A collection of impressions of the United States from a man who’s spent nearly all his life on the road, it can be downright inspiring; his very first essay in this section, “My Beautiful America,” is simply but effectively written and would do a fine job of convincing someone who’d never seen it what a gorgeous country this is. His travelogues of Colorado and Alaska are fascinating, his piece on the United States’ innumerable back roads and state highways is compelling, and he even manages to squeeze out an entertaining essay on how much he likes New York despite his constant railing, in the previous 128 pages, of the kind of people who live there. New York, for Charlie Daniels, is “a trip”, and it’s kind of a trip hearing him explain why. Strangest of all, Charlie shows that he’s capable of warm sentiment towards people he clearly regards as ideological enemies: the “Why I Love America” section is filled with touching reminiscences of his days working with Bob Dylan and George Harrison, and he has nothing but respect and fondness for these men. He doesn’t even touch on their political unsuitability for residence in the Charlie Daniels universe.

In section three (“Faith and Family”), he returns to the ideological hammering — the entire section lays the heavy-handed Christian worldview on pretty thick. Even in his piece on Christian love, when he’s urging us to follow the lead of Christ and love one another, he makes sure we know he doesn’t mean in some … you know … faggy way: “Try it, just think of someone whom you love and just walk right up and say, ‘John, I don’t think that I’ve ever told you this, but I love you, not in some twisted sexual way, but as a brother loves a brother.’” But there are surprises even here: he calls Jane Fonda his Christian sister and expresses genuine acceptance of her now that she’s a born-again Christian, even though she used to be a dirty Commie traitor. He writes a couple of downright sweet holiday stories. He even defends his decision to play secular music against Christian critics, asking “Why should we let the devil have all the secular music?” Indeed, it’s when he talks about music that he’s at his most coherent and thoughtful: his piece about the hard work and dedication you need to have a realistic shot at making it in the record business should be required reading.

If you just took out all of the first section and half of the third, you’d have yourself a … well, it wouldn’t be an essential book. It probably wouldn’t even be a good book. But it would be a charming book, a book that you wouldn’t go out of your way to avoid reading on a short airline trip or in a dentist’s waiting room, a book that you could proudly say you were once unoffended by. But that’s not the reaction Charlie Daniels is shooting for with Ain’t No Rag; it’s geared towards the dittoheads, ideologues and Know-Nothings who will read the first 50 pages or so, nod sagely at the straight-shooting Charlie does at those phony Hollywood hypocrites and no-good Commie liberals, and then close the book. It takes a center of sweet, pleasant little filler and wraps it up in ugly reactionary name-calling, race-baiting and thoughtless hostility. The good part’s on the inside, surrounded by layers of something that smells bad enough to put you off it altogether. Which means it perfectly suits the description given to a similar offering by another group of cartoonish music legends: Ain’t No Rag really is a shit sandwich.