Will Dailey Discovers a “$300 Man” in Civil War History

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Will Dailey doubled up at the Boston Music Awards in December, winning artist of the year and album of the year for National Throat. Now he’s gearing up for a deluxe edition of that album on March 24, featuring six bonus tracks.

One of those is “$300 Man,” an urgent roots-rocker that draws upon his experiences of performing at Farm Aid. (He’s made multiple appearances at the annual festival.)

As for the song title, there’s a Civil War history lesson to be learned. With the Enrollment Act of 1863, a potential soldier could pay a $300 commutation fee — a huge sum back then — to get out of the draft lottery. In other words, if you were wealthy, you could avoid battle if you chose to.

Listen to the CMT Edge premiere of Will Dailey’s “$300 Man,” then read a Q&A with the singer-songwriter below the player.

CMT Edge: I understand that “$300 Man” was in part inspired by Farm Aid. For people who have never been to Farm Aid, how would you describe it to them? And what was it about that event that led you to write the song?

Dailey: Farm Aid has been alive and motoring going on 30 years! First, in 1985, to protect and defend the family farmer whose lands were being overthrown by corporate agriculture. Since then it has also incorporated the good food movement, small farming, organic farming. Like Willie Nelson says, “If agriculture fails so does the country.” I suppose I am most inspired by those who get their hands in the soil and get work done. The good kind of work.

The title has ties to the Civil War, too. How did you discover that information about the $300 payment? And why did that particular fact grab your attention?

I binge watched Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary years ago! I dove straight in. The $300 man stuck with me for a long time before I wrote the song. The class warfare that it represented, the long-held truth that people with money and power can get out of a lot of things while the rest are called lazy or cowards for not going. But it will always be those who get their hands to the soil that move us forward.

What I really like about this song is the strong, persistent groove you gave it. How long did it take you to settle on the right tempo/melody to match the message of the song?

I sat down with my band and these four chords one night. The cadence of the lyrics and their point of view lead the groove I think. It has to be as unwavering as its subject matter. It doesn’t always go this way and it doesn’t always need to but every aspect of this song from writing to recording was fast and fluid. Not overthought or too precious. Just honest.

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