Danny Shirley says he and the band he formed more than 30 years ago are under fire, all because of their name. Confederate Railroad, who earned a 1993 Grammy nomination for their hit “Trashy Women,” had their performances at two local fairs in Illinois and New York canceled last month.
In New York, the Ulster County executive’s office is at odds with the county’s agricultural society over who exactly disinvited Confederate Railroad from the Ulster County Fair. But in the Illinois case, the decision to nix the band from the DuQuoin State Fair lineup came from Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose office cited the administration’s stance that state resources not be used to “to promote symbols of racism.” Namely the small Confederate flag that is visible on the group’s logo, a historic Civil War-era steam locomotive known as “The General.”
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But Shirley, 63, says the real reason for their ouster is because of the band’s moniker.
“The first indication that there was a problem was they had my agent get in touch with me and said they wanted me to make a statement as to why the band was named Confederate Railroad,” says Shirley of the Illinois incident. “I said, ‘Well, OK,’ and typed out a statement and sent it to them. Then they canceled the show a few days later.”
Rolling Stone sat with Shirley at his publicist’s office outside of Nashville to talk about the controversy, what he’s learned, and why he’ll never change his group’s name.
This has been a strange summer for you and your band…
It is strange. Especially with us being together for so many years and having that name and it never being an issue. But the thing that makes this different, in Illinois, it was the government that shut us down. It wasn’t that there was a groundswell of people that were offended by Confederate Railroad. You had one political blogger bring it up: “Is it right to have a band named Confederate Railroad at the state fair in the land of Lincoln?” We’ve already played there twice over the years and everything went fine. Nowadays, it feels like they’re looking for something to go off about.
The Illinois fair canceled the performance after you explained the origin of Confederate Railroad’s name. How did you find out you were off the bill?
The fair manager and [our agent] were talking back and forth and I said, “What I would like to do is talk to the people who made the decision and get their side of the story about why it was made, and maybe we can put out a joint statement and calm everything down.” Because they got so much backlash there. They said, “That sounds like a great idea, we’ll talk Monday” after the meeting they were having. We got a call on Monday saying their legal counsel had advised them not to make any further statements.
The governor came out saying it’s because we use the [Confederate] flag, but that’s not even true. We don’t use it as a backdrop, we don’t hang it from the rafters, or the front of the stage. On our T-shirts there’s a part of the flag on there, but when we’re playing venues where there is a policy on that, we just don’t sell T-shirts. It’s not like it was in the Seventies when all the Southern bands flew the flag. The attitude in the country is a lot different than then. I listen to these people and I don’t want to offend nobody, so we just won’t sell it… It would be different if a band was coming out today called the “Good Ol’ Boys Confederate Band From the South.” I wouldn’t recommend anybody doing that.
What about Lady Antebellum? “Antebellum” refers to the pre-Civil War South, a time of slavery, and yet they haven’t gotten any backlash about their name.
They shouldn’t. They shouldn’t. It’s a word. Confederate Railroad is a band name. Confederate is a word. Before you should attack something like that, you should hear what they’re saying. Listen to the music.
Where were you raised?
Chattanooga. And that flag was everywhere. We were never taught that that flag means to hate people. To us, we were taught that flag means you like the part of the country you come from. And like I’ve said in other statements, I will not apologize for liking the South. I love it here.
Do you think the controversy is reflective of our times?
It is… Everything that I was raised to believe in: you respect the police, you respect the military, you respect the national anthem, the flag … and even Christianity, you were raised to be a good God-fearing person, and now you’re ridiculed for that. I just don’t get it, how it changed so much, so quick.
What have you learned from this whole experience?
I’m not the only one that is tired of being so politically correct. I live by the golden rule: I treat you the way I’d like you to treat me. But this political correctness has gone a little too far. The whole deal in Illinois, I don’t think it was as much about me as it was about a disconnect between the rural part of Illinois and the metropolitan parts of Illinois. You have two state fairs in Illinois: the one in Springfield, and the one in South Illinois, and [the latter is] more rural. From what I’m picking up, the farmers and the country people feel like they’re being pushed around by the city people.
Did you ever have any issues over your band’s name prior to this?
Every once in a while you’d get something. After that nut killed those people down in Charleston, when they started taking down monuments and all that, we lost some gigs there. That’s where it started.
There were photos of the shooter with the Confederate flag.
Of course there was probably 10,000 photos of him without the flag. If he were sitting there wearing Nike shoes, would we have to get rid of Nike? A lot of this is blown out of proportion.
Would you ever consider changing the band’s name?
I would never do that. All these people who have stood up for us through this, and the millions of people who have bought these records over the years, and especially now, with us being under fire and people taking a stand in our defense, there’s no way I’d ever change the name of the band. That’d just be a kick in the gut to anyone who ever bought a record by us.