Confederate Railroad - Danny Shirley


This interview with Danny Shirley of Confederate Railroad took place in the summer of 1995, backstage at the Choctaw Indian Fair near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The afternoon temperature, before their outdoor show that evening, was in the neighborhood of 100 degrees, with almost 100 percent humidity. We begin with my teasing Danny about the weather.

You know, I was telling some of your merchandise people, you should have been here Monday; it was hot then.

(Laughs)Yeah! Boy, I tell ya, I can sing a lot better in this than I can if it gets cold.

Right. 

'Cause that cold, boy, will mess my throat up for days. This, once I cool off, I'll be fine, even though it does dry you out a little bit, sweatin' like that. But I can handle that a lot better than I can that cool weather.

Right.


(Courtesy Atlantic Records)

But, we've done outdoor shows where it's actually snowed; you know, unseasonably cold.

You've been in this area before. You worked (the) Jimmie Rodgers (Festival) a couple of years ago, didn't you? (NOTE: Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father Of Country Music," was from nearby Meridian. A festival in his honor is an annual event there. -- T.W.)

I sure did; spring of '92, and that's one of the favorite shows I've ever done. My grandfather, that taught me to play - like, my idol was Waylon Jennings, his was Jimmie Rodgers - and it was real special to me to get to go there and play.
And, the neatest thing happened. I guess, "She Took It Like A Man" had been out, maybe six weeks or so, and just starting to get heard a little bit, so people really didn't know who we were. We do our show, about a 30-minute show, step off stage and go to the other end of the football field to sign autographs. And we're trying to get back before Paulette (Carlson) gets on stage, so not to detract from (her show), you know, a professional courtesy.

Right.

And, we're making our way down to the other end of the football field, and all of a sudden, the crowd just starts goin' wild. And, I thought, "Oh, man, how did she get onstage so quick?" And I turned around and looked, and she wasn't onstage, they were applaudin' for us. And I thought, "Whoa! All right! I can get used to this!" But that was a big thrill; that was one of my favorite memories, in the music business.

And Hank (Williams) Jr. was there that night, too, as I recall.

Yeah, it was Hank Jr., Paulette Carlson and us.

You just had a personnel change; let's talk a little about that.

Yeah! Michael, my guitar player, had been with me almost ten years. And, Michael's diabetic - my dad's diabetic, it runs in my family - so I'm familiar with how to cope with it and everything. And on our (touring) schedule, it was just to where he just wasn't able to travel and maintain a certain schedule that a diabetic should do of having a certain time to eat and go to bed and that kind of thing. And it was really gettin' to him, and he really started getting worse, so he decided to come off the road for a while. And Jimmy Dormire, our new guitar player, was with Clinton Gregory and had just left Clinton, to look for work elsewhere, and he had sit in with us once before when Michael took about a week off. He knew Gates, our steel player, from years ago, so it's working out real well. I'm really happy with him.

How long has this bunch, more or less, been together, other than the recent change?

Well, the drummer and I have been together since '81, so we've been together 14 years now. Next was Chris, the keyboard player, and he was ten years last month, and Wayne, the bass player, was seven years last month. We had known Gates for several years when we were playing in Atlanta so much. There was a Miss Kitty's, where we played a lot, and a Miss Kitty's down in Underground Atlanta where he played a lot. So we knew each other for several years and then hired him, right when we got the (record) deal with Atlantic.
I'd always wanted a steel player, but, financially, when you're out there countin' pennies, there just wasn't any way to do it. So, we hired Gates then, and then Jimmy just started this past year.

Did you start in Chattanooga (Tennessee)?

Yeah! I started playin', doin' solo jobs, in Chattanooga back in 1976. And I was paid $25 a night, minus tips. Like, if I got $10 in tips, the club just paid me $15.

(Laughs) Really!

(Laughs) And there were a lot of nights when that didn't happen (laughs), I didn't get any tips, and they were real upset with me. But, I did that, around Chattanooga, until '81, put the band together, and still played there locally. And it went so good that in the spring of '82 - my dad and I were in the construction business together - and I told him, "I want to take off for the summer, to play music for the summer and see what happens, and I'll come back to work the day after Labor Day." And, Labor Day weekend, we opened for Waylon Jennings. And a producer was there, and I got a deal with him, to just do some small-time records, and I told Daddy that night, "I don't think I'll be back."

You were now laboring in a different business.

There you go. So, I went ahead and cut three albums, on an independent label, and played clubs around the southeast, and then went to work with David Allan Coe for about five years, right up to the time we signed the Railroad deal.


(Courtesy Atlantic Records)

What were you called before Confederate Railroad?

Danny Shirley and the Crossroads Band. My grandfather, who taught me to play, the Jimmie Rodgers fan, they had a restaurant in Powells Crossroads, just outside of Chattanooga, and so in memory of him I named it the Crossroads Band.

What has been the progression, over the course of the three albums? How have you developed your sound and grown over that time?

Oh, gosh; it's hard to say. I got a good head start, just doin' those old albums, back in the 80s. I learned a bit about the studio and how some things that work live don't work on tape. And some things that work on tape don't work live. It's like the difference between playing basketball and baseball, it's the same thing between studio and live music.
So, I had a good foundation built, before I did the Railroad album. I learned a lot, and I think it kept me from making some mistakes that I probably would have otherwise made. The (first) album sold double platinum, and, of course, any time you have a debut album that does that well, you're going to have a lot of pressure on you for that sophomore album. We squeaked through it, though; I'm still proud of that album. It's platinum now.
I tried some things on (Notorious) that didn't work, and some things that people took the wrong way. And, on the new album (When And Where), I went back and really studied (the first two), and just made a mental note, "these are the things that worked, and these are the things that didn't work, or didn't work the way I had planned."

Right.

And I think we put the best of both the (first two) on the new album. I'm very Southern, and very proud to be that way, and I tend to sing songs about the South. There was some feedback from radio on the Notorious album that maybe I got a little too Southern. So, what I did on this new album was that I kept the same values and principles and ideals and way of thinking, but I didn't say, "Tennessee," or "Mississippi," or "Alabama" or "South" or "Dixie," you know? I don't feel that I compromised myself, as being proud of being a Southerner, but I didn't make it so regional so that other people wouldn't accept it.

Was there any particular reason why there were no band members on this one?

You know, it gets back to ... Like I was saying earlier, that it's so different from the studio and playin' live. The band just about always gets great reviews, and good response live, 'cause we've got that edge, that rowdiness, and I like looseness in a show. I never make out a set list. I mean, as we're walkin' onstage I tell them what the first song is and that's it. After that, we just kinda go with it.

Just play it by ear, so to speak.

And, I like that spontaneity. I don't choreograph things; I've never been a fan of watching people, you know, that, "when I sing this line, you run over here and jump up and down." (Laughs) I hate that.
On the other hand, the studio is so disciplined, you know. I don't want them to get to thinkin' "studio," and get so mechanical, that we lose that magic that we have on the live shows. Just among the band, we've talked about it before. There's much better singers, there's much better musicians, there's much better entertainers. The thing that we have goin' for us is that we like to get together and have fun onstage for an hour, hour and a half. And it's worked this well for this long, I doubt that I would ever want to change it.
Now, I think when we talked before, I think we talked about how I signed the (Atlantic) deal as a solo artist. And, it's still that way. So, the label and myself and the producer, basically, put the records together. But, it's up to them, as to who plays on it. Barry Beckett has used these musicians so much that they're in such a mind-sync together, that, at this point, I'm not willin' to gamble and go against a legend like Barry Beckett, and not trust his judgment. When he feels that we're ready to make that step in the studio, I'll look forward to it.

So, you're not worried about any negative response from that?

Aw, hell. I ain't worried ... Nah. As long as you're honest about things, you know? I mean, if I was to sit here and tell you that we did play on it and the other guys just come in to do a little, here and there, I mean, you'd know I was lyin'! (Laughs) You'd know it. As long as you don't try to keep something from somebody, you know. I mean, we've sold over three million albums and we turn down more dates than we take because we just can't do 'em. It's going great, and I don't know why it is, but it's going great, and I ain't gonna mess with it (laughs).

It didn't seem to bother Alabama, when they started. They just went ahead.

Not at all. And we have the same management as Alabama. That's probably another reason why they haven't let us in there and do this, but I'm sure they have their good reasons, and you can't argue with success. So, I'm not going to question them.

But, you think the band will record all its music eventually.

Ah, sure. I think, eventually. I'd love to go in and us just do an album of things we've written. It'd probably be the least commercial album ever recorded in the history of Nashville (laughs), but it would be real fun and I'd be proud of it.

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