Musician, former legislator Charlie Albertson releases song for gun reform
Born in 1932 in Beulaville, N.C., Charlie Albertson is a country musician and former state legislator. He was first elected to the state legislature in 1988 as a Democrat, winning 11 elections in a row to represent Duplin County. He began releasing records in the 1960s and later performed at the Grand Ole Opry. He live just a mile away from where he grew up on the family farm.
Earlier this year, Albertson released "Change Our Ways," a song that asks why semi-automatic assault weapons are protected in the U.S., addresses their role in mass shootings, and targets the NRA for lobbying against the renewal of the 1994 assault weapons ban.
Ryan Shaffer, PRE: I saw that you say you were raised in a conservative democratic family. Could you clarify that for me? What do you mean by that?
Charlie Albertson: Well, we had to be conservative in many ways when I was growing up because it was tough. Yes, we were always, we used to be conservative. We had to be in order to make ends meet, so to speak, and so, I'm one of those, I guess what you might call, an old-time Democrat, pretty conservative. I served in the legislature. I was honored to be elected 11 times. And of course, to do that I had to have a lot of support from a lot of different folks.
Shaffer: Would you say you were raised in a political household?
Albertson: I was. And of course when I was raised up, everybody was just about a a Democrat because of President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt had done so much, after President [Herbert] Hoover had left office to get some jobs available for people in the Peace Corps and different things. Things started to get better because they helped people with electricity, for example, and so, most people back then were Democrats, and of course now there's been quite a change in that regard.
Shaffer: You were first elected in 1988, right? To represent Duplin County and different portions of eastern North Carolina?
Albertson: That's correct.
Shaffer: You say your music helped you get elected. What do you mean by that?
Albertson: Well, I was visible with the band and played it a lot. We played the community colleges, you know, different places but I say I had name recognition, which is important, I think, for someone who has an interest in becoming involved in the political world. So that helped me a lot, opened a lot of doors for me as far as meeting a lot of people.
Shaffer: Let's backtrack a bit. You say things were tough for you and your family, especially with the farm. Could you? What do you mean by that?
Albertson: There just wasn't much money in circulation. My father, he had a couple of guns, and he'd go to the woods and come back with a pocket full of squirrels. Mom would cook them and make some dumplings to go along in. That was pretty good to us. And we had two milk cows, which would be unheard of now, I guess. But they provided plenty of milk and butter and made some good biscuits from it. Of course, we had a garden, and we raised our own potatoes. And raise our own hogs. It was pretty tough, but we had a good life in many ways. We were loved and that was so important.
Shaffer: Now, how do you go from being a farmer to a country musician? Where did you first learn to play guitar?
Albertson: Well, my father, he played banjo. But he injured one of his fingers, which after that, he was no longer able to play the banjo, but there was a blind lady who lived just across from the elementary school where I attended in Beulaville. So, I took some guitar lessons from her. She taught me how to play “Little Brown Jug.” Her and her husband both were blind, but she played the piano, and they sang so well. Of course, back when I was growing up, people listened to the radio, and we listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. That was a big thing. Of course, we didn't have television. So, we’d gather around the radio to listen to the music when we could, and that's sort of lifted this up. We had little dances in the community and listened to people play. it was just something I think I always wanted to do was play a little.
Shaffer: I enjoy country music a lot. I really do. And whenever I listen, when I think of country music, I think about the stories. What sorts of stories are you drawn to sharing with your music?
Albertson: That's the one thing I've always admired about country music, and it seems like we may have lost a little bit of that in today's music, but the music always told a story. And you think about Hank Williams's songs. They were mostly three-chord songs, like “You’re Cheating Heart” (1952), and it was really simple to understand. It sent out a good message, I think about whatever you might be feeling at the time – be it about the war, or whatever, but I was just always drawn to country music.
Shaffer: What stories do you like to share with your music or what are you drawn to?
Albertson: A lot of my music, believe it or not, the first song I ever wrote was called “A Place Called Heaven.” It wasn't the first song I recorded, but I've written quite a few songs and been honored to have a few songs recorded by Charlie Louvin, Justin Tubb, David Houston and some of the folks who did little funny things I wrote. I had a bunch of folks that recorded those: John Connolly, Gene Watson, Rhonda Vincent.
Gospel music has always had a little effect on my music. I think that was the first song I ever sang on Opry was “Love is the Best Thing Going Around.” And then I wrote a song called “Nobody Cares,” and I wrote that song from the experience of the [Vietnam] war. And it was “When we send soldiers to fight a war / Nobody knows what we're fighting for / Saying we are living in a world where nobody cares.” And then I went on with three or four more verses about “Little hungry children cry for food / Nobody cares / We talk about the welfare line while we dine and drink our wine / But it seems we live in a world where nobody cares.” And then I wound up with two or three more versus, and “But there is someone who cares / Jesus died for you and me / Somebody cares.” Here, so that was a little story I told and it really came from the war.
Shaffer: Moving on to the song you just released, the single titled “Change our Ways.” It tackles gun violence and mass shootings. The proceeds you get from the songs go to fund violence prevention programs. Why have you written this song and why now?
Albertson: I guess maybe one reason now that I've gotten older, I have more free time to think about my grandchildren and my great grandchildren and the other children of the world. It just really concerns me, Ryan, that parents have to take or send their kids to school and then have to worry about the fact that someone might come in with a military style weapon and shoot and kill a lot of kids. I wonder... I can't... I just can't... I wonder what kind of effect it's having on the children that we may not be aware of. And I just think it's sad that we're in this place, quite frankly. And we don't have to be this way. I've learned that the laws are what people say they are at a given time in history. The laws can be changed. The Constitution has been amended 27 times, if I remember correctly, so those can be changed. We don't have to be this way really.
Shaffer: What would you change?
Albertson: Well, I expect I might ban the sale of assault weapons. At least take them off the street. You wouldn't be allowed to have an assault-style weapon on the street, and I'm not sure the Second Amendment when it was written, our forefathers ever envisioned us having the kind of weapons that we now that we have available to us. And I'm not sure what it's going to take to change it, but that's what the song was about – to try to initiate some airplay and maybe it would motivate people to ask themselves what they could do to make a difference for our kids.
Shaffer: I'm going to run a few lyrics by you that caught my ear whenever I was listening because I think they're saying a lot and I'd like to get your interpretation or your perspective on them. The first lyric is “I've got guns, but I don't belong to the NRA.” What's your take on that lyric?
Albertson: I do have guns, and they’re hand-me-down guns really from my father. And there was a time when I belonged to the NRA. But I decided, as I said in this home, that there are better places for the money to go than the NRA. And I know a lot of good folks who belong to the NRA, and I believe in a person’s right to have weapons, you know, guns. But I think it's a little bit too much for people to have assault weapons, weapons made exactly for killing. Those bullets that come from those guns are a different kind of bullet that comes from a regular pistol of rifle.
Shaffer: The next lyric is “Guns made and meant for killing should be out of sight.” My mind goes to two things. One, maybe we shouldn't have them or two, they should be locked in a gun safe. What do you mean by that lyric?
Albertson: I was thinking if somebody had an assault weapon, and if what I read and if I remember, there's about 20 million assault weapons in our nation. And I think if someone has that weapon, which I wouldn't want to have one – I don't see a need for it, but it should be out of sight. I think most people know that that gun is made for killing. It’s a war weapon really is where this all came from. My understanding, and you certainly wouldn't need it for hunting. I think they should be out of sight.
Shaffer: What do you think is holding the conversation or legislation back from another assault weapons ban?
Albertson: Well, it's primarily NRA and the gun lobby. The first thing, if you start talking about doing any kind of legislation that's gun related, the word will be out: “They're going to come get your weapon.” And if you start telling stories or lies and you, what's that old saying? “You tell a story long enough; it becomes the truth with a lot of people.” And that's truth. We've seen that happen. Well, I think we're seeing that happen right now in our nation in fact if you tell things enough. And the gun lobby will spread that word and get people fearful that they are in fact going to come take your guns, which I never heard anybody in the 22 years I was in the legislature say anything about taking anybody's gun. Ain't nobody that want to take your gun, but I do know some people that would like to ban the sale of assault weapons, like myself because I don't think there's a need in the place for them in our society.
Shaffer: That was Charlie Albertson, a country music artist and former state legislator from Beulaville, NC he released. Change our ways. A song confronting gun violence and the proceeds go to violence prevention programs. Charlie, thank you for joining us.
Albertson: Thank you so much.