Written by Charlie Daniels
Videos by American Songwriter
A consummate storyteller, Charlie Daniels knows exactly how to craft a full-bodied story. “Uneasy Rider,” the band’s first hit, off 1973’s Honey in the Rock, is a spoken narrative, dressed over a sinewy guitar melody and other instrumentation, that speaks to the counterculture that emerged out of the 1960s. There’s a particular novelty to its structure and delivery, but it carries with it a powerful, pointed message.
The narrator, a self-described hippie, mounts a cross-country road trip from somewhere down South to Los Angeles. On his way, he gets a flat tire in Jackson, Mississippi, so stops in at Dew Drop Inn to use the telephone “Well I stuffed my hair up under my hat / And told the bartender that I had a flat / And would he be kind enough to give me change for a one,” Daniels recounts. “There was one thing I was sure proud to see / There wasn’t a soul in the place ‘cept for him an’ me / And he just looked disgusted an’ pointed toward the telephone.”
Daniels’ lyrical specificity is expected in his work, and it absolutely shines here. “Uneasy Rider,” which stands in stark contrast to the 1969 film “Easy Rider,” starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as two motorcyclists, who plot a journey of spiritual enlightenment, is totally fictitious but draws from a very real experience.
Formerly a record producer, Daniels had been producing a live record for a San Francisco-based group called Youngbloods. The album was recorded between shows at Fillmore East and West, as well as a three-day rock festival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It was one of those big three-day affairs where everybody in the world played,” he told SongFacts, “and that day I think it was the Youngbloods and the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, and I don’t know who else.”
Later on, at the motel bar, Daniels observed the wildly varied clientele. “And they were these long-haired hippie-type people,” he recalled, noting the release of “Easy Rider.” “Here we were sitting in Baton Rouge with all these long-haired people, and I think a lot of them had the impression that if they were to get two blocks away that somebody was going to run out with a pair of shears and cut their hair and threaten their life.”
Born and raised in Wilmington, North Carolina, Daniels then admitted to finding “this attitude” as kind of funny,” he said, “and that’s where the idea came from. I just took a guy and put him in a fictitious situation and extricated him. But of course, there’s no truth to it other than just being around people that kind of had a fear of redneck bars.”
Even the detail about “some fella with green teeth” has some truth to it. “I did actually know a guy one time who had green teeth. He had tartar on his teeth, and they actually turn green if they don’t get it off. I don’t think he practiced very good dental hygiene,” he said. “And that’s where that came from; he had little spots of green on his teeth.”
“Uneasy Rider” rose to No. 9 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The album, Honey in the Rock, was later re-released as Uneasy Rider in 1976.