Born in Wilmington, Charlie Daniels is one of North Carolina's most significant cultural exports. He's a scorching fiddler with an unforgettable voice, and his biggest hit, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," remains a country standard. Daniels's place in country music history cannot be denied, and the Country Music Hall of Fame officially agreed by inducting him last year.
This weekend, Daniels headlines a concert in Cary called Carolina Uprising. The language of the billing and its roster—all good ol' boy country and rock bands, almost all of whom are native Southerners—quickly bring to mind Lost Cause ideology and "the South will rise again" specters. It's troubling stuff, given that there are proud white nationalists marching in public with the Confederate stars-and-bars to support their message. Even so, Daniels doesn't think the show's title is a problem.
"I see absolutely nothing wrong with it. I have been and never will be that politically correct," he says.
Daniels is an eighty-year-old superstar whose appearance in Cary might be less remarkable in a different political climate, or even under a different name. But where's the line between dog-whistle prejudice and simple poor taste? With Carolina Uprising, the answer is complicated.
For one, Carolina Uprising is in a unique position due to its venue: the Koka Booth Amphitheatre. It's owned by the Town of Cary, which raises the issue of local government's moral and ethical responsibilities in facilitating a potentially controversial event, as well as the possibility for the town to make or lose money on such an event. That answer isn't simple, either.
Koka Booth Amphitheatre operates through two budgets: a maintenance budget, which covers upkeep and repairs, and an operating budget, which covers the cost of some programming, staffing, and more. According to Lyman Collins, the cultural arts manager for the Town of Cary, Koka Booth's 2016 maintenance budget was $203,000, and the operational budget was just over $233,000.
Part of the operational budget covers a contract with Outback Booking, a promotional agency that the town hires to bring in a handful of national touring acts every year. The arrangement is such that Outback Booking assumes all financial risk for its shows. Thus, the Town of Cary isn't actually out any money if a show sells poorly.
"We don't take any risks on those shows, however, those are the shows that generate revenue for the facility through ancillary income. Concessions sales, parking, ticket rebates, merchandising, that sort of thing," Collins says, adding that the town generally anticipates that each show will make about $30,000 through those channels. A sold-out show will blow that figure out of the water, which can make up for lackluster sales at a concert that doesn't sell as many tickets.
As for the title, Collins says that the show now billed as Carolina Uprising was originally just booked as a Charlie Daniels concert. The town had nothing to do with the title change.
"The Carolina Uprising aspect of it—and I'm not really sure what that means—that was tagged on to the concert as a promotional thing before any of the current events took place. It wasn't really something that was factored into our decision-making," Collins says.
It's not clear who, exactly, decided to rebrand the Charlie Daniels all-day extravaganza as Carolina Uprising. The poster on Koka Booth's website has a note that the show is "Powered by David Corlew," who is Daniels's manager, but Corlew declined an interview via another member of Daniels's management team. The Town of Cary didn't choose the name, and representatives from Outback Booking did not respond to requests for a comment.
There's the additional curiosity of at least one band that has no claim to Southern heritage or pride. The country-rock outfit Poco, the third of Carolina Uprising's seven bands, formed in California in 1968. Russell Young, who cofounded the group and is its only original member, says that even though the band played with the likes of Gregg Allman and Gram Parsons in its early years, the band doesn't consider itself to have any deep Southern influences.
"Southern bands haven't really affected us much—we're a little different kind of music than Lynyrd Skynrd, outlaws and those guys, although there's some interplay," he says.
Why, then, would Poco play a show called Carolina Uprising?
"Yeah, that is a little unfortunate, isn't it?" Young admits, not venturing much further than to note that he doesn't share many of Daniels's political beliefs. Poco has performed with Daniels and the Marshall Tucker Band, the South Carolina group responsible for the flute-heavy jam "Can't You See" and Carolina Uprising's second headliner, dozens of times over the years. Young says he'd rather think of the day as an opportunity to get together with old friends for a good time.
"I try and keep out of the politics of that stuff, and look at it as being a fun afternoon of music where we can all be outside, have a good time, and kick up our heels and not get too involved in the politics of the day," he says.
Daniels's feelings about Carolina Uprising aren't a surprise, but they reflect a disappointing cognitive dissonance about the divisions between art and politics. Suggesting that the concert's language in our current climate could raise a few eyebrows rankled him quickly.
"There's nothing to read in that name. It's just a musical show," he says, continuing, "Let me tell you something: that's one of the problems with the world today. Everybody reads something into something that's not there. It's just a musical show! That's all it is! Look at what it is, don't look at what it says. It's a whole bunch of bands getting together to make people happy. It's just music. That's all it is. There's no anything there. Don't be fooled by that crap."
But his claim that he's only about the music doesn't hold water. To his 529,045 Twitter followers, he's chimed in on his distaste for "the more gun control bunch," how much he likes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and his disapproval of NFL players protesting police brutality by kneeling during performances of "The Star Spangled Banner." After the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, Daniels floated the idea that ISIS was responsible for the horrific massacre. Every day, he tweets, "Benghazi ain't going away," nodding toward debunked conservative conspiracies about the attack on U.S. facilities in Libya that killed four Americans. For someone who says he's "just about the music," he has a whole lot to say about decidedly nonmusical issues, and he has hundreds of thousands of fans following along.
The shoulder-shrugging around Carolina Uprising seems to be based on a shared idea that music and entertainment exist in a vacuum, and that it's possible to wholly cleave art and politics. But art influences culture on a larger scale, just as politics and culture influence art. That circle can't be unbroken, regardless of who's leading the tune.