As most folks know by now, country music and Southern-rock legend Charlie Daniels passed from this life a week ago Monday. The longtime Wilson County resident and voice behind the No. 1 popular hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” claimed membership in the Musicians Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the most famous country club of them all — the Grand Ole Opry.
As a journalist in his home county, I had the opportunity to interview the music man a half dozen times or so over the past 12 years. I wanted to pass along a few reflections about Mr. Daniels, a giant of a man in more ways than one, but for the most part wish to allow him to speak for himself via some of the words he shared with me as we conversed about his long and full life.
While he collected numerous honors for his talents, I believe at the top of his list of accomplishments he would have placed his roles as husband, father, friend, musician, singer, songwriter, cowboy, patriot and Christian.
I was simply a fan in the crowd the first time I saw Mr. Daniels in the flesh at Volunteer Jam in 1979. What a stellar show he put on, making music and merriment with his band on the stage, and there likely was nothing better that he loved to do than sing and play that fiddle.
Much later down the trail, I was shaking in my boots the first time I shook his hand in late 1996 inside the barn at his Twin Pines Ranch near Gladeville where he proved to be a congenial host. The occasion was a Nashville Network taping of “A Wrangler Cowboy Christmas.”
Mr. Daniels headlined the TV special along with his friend, pro rodeo rider and singer-songwriter Chris LeDoux. Guests on hand included Diamond Rio, Linda Davis, cowboy poet Baxter Black and world champion rodeo cowboys Jim Shoulders and Ty Murray.
I was in Western heaven as the TNN publicist who invited me to the taping knew what a big fan I was of cowboys. That was a tie that connected me to Mr. Daniels probably more than his music.
He told me that evening, “Going to Saturday morning matinees I always dreamed of being a cowboy.” And that was something I, along with millions of other boys of the 1940s and ’50s, would have echoed “Amen” too. (More on Mr. Daniels the cowboy to come.)
About his main thing, the music, I once asked him how he described his style. He responded, “I guess country, hillbilly, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, gospel, blues,” followed by a great laugh.
The life of Daniels
Born in Wilmington, N.C., in 1936, the young Daniels had a burning desire to be a professional musician. He was 14 or 15 when he picked up a few chords from a friend who had a Stella guitar. Next, he tried his hand playing the fiddle. That led one of his pals to tell him it sounded like somebody stepped on a cat. He would not be dissuaded. In fact, he had only had one other job outside of music: separating metal in a junk yard.
When asked what was the best piece of advice his father ever gave him, he said, “My dad told me, ‘Do some kind of work you like because you’re working more than you’re not working.’ What he meant was do something you like because if you’re not working, you’re going to be thinking about it, you’re going to be either looking forward to it or dreading it or whatever, so find something you like to do. And I did. I followed my star, and he followed his. Of course, he was in the timber business, and I followed mine playing music,” said Mr. Daniels, who recorded over 40 albums.
As a teenager and young man his musical influences were mostly bluegrass musicians, the likes of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley, and Ralph Stanley and then Elvis Presley. Incidentally, Mr. Daniels co-wrote “It Hurts Me” which Presley recorded in 1964. It would take the North Carolinian a while to figure out his own style before forging his unique place in the world of Southern country rock.
A big break along the way came in 1969 when record producer Bob Johnston called Mr. Daniels and asked him to play guitar on a song Bob Dylan was recording for his “Nashville Skyline” album.
He shared the story with me that when Dylan spotted him fixing to leave the studio after the song had been polished off, the singer asked the producer why the guitarist was leaving. Told that was the only song they planned to use him on, Dylan protested and said, “I don't want another guitar player. I want him.” Mr. Daniels would play on two more albums for Dylan in Nashville.
The rising musician saw things take off in 1974 when he launched his Southern rock anthem, “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.” And in 1979, he let loose his monster hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which gained him the Grammy for best country vocal performance.
But 15 years earlier, he truly struck gold as he mined the heart of a 20-year-old Oklahoma girl. It was to be a love affair that endured for a lifetime. It was obvious to me the day I visited with Hazel and Charlie Daniels in their two-story log cabin as they snuggled side by side on the couch in their den and shared memories.
The couple met in Hazel’s hometown of Tulsa where she was a hairdresser. At the time, Mr. Daniels didn’t even own a vehicle. “I didn’t have anything,” he told me. “We came to town (Nashville) with a $20 bill and a clutch out of the car and a 2-year-old baby.”
The couple made Wilson County their nest for 50 years. The past 40 years were lived and loved at Twin Pines, a working ranch. “There are two pine trees up on our hill, so we named it Twin Pines,” said Mrs. Daniels.
The family had relocated from Nashville to Wilson County when their son, Charles Jr., was 4, living first in Mt. Juliet near Lakeview Elementary School and moving to the ranch in 1979.
In their fabulous ranch-style den I observed numerous bookshelves as Mr. Daniels was a prodigious reader. The den also featured a massive stone fireplace, an arched ceiling, a wagon-wheel chandelier, western sculptures and paintings of cowboys, Indians and horses.
About his home place, Mr. Daniels said, “I love the privacy. When I turn off the gate down there, this is where my private life starts. This is our little world up here. I can stay at home and not go off the place for days at a time. I’ve got a pond I fish in with a little dock on it down there. I’ve got a putting green and a driving pad out in the back here that I hit golf balls off of and practice putting. I’ve got a shooting range in the back that I can target shoot. I’ve just got the stuff that I enjoy doing. In winter time I like to keep a fire going in the fireplace when it’s cold out here.”
The musical journey
Getting back to his early days as a recording artist, Mr. Daniels notched his first chart single, “Uneasy Rider,” which went to No. 9 on the Billboard pop charts, in 1973. He said it took him five albums before he figured out his vocal style.
“It dawned on me, ‘You’ve been playing beer joints for 13 years,’ and the more you sound like the record when you’re playing a copy band the better off you are, which is what I had been doing. I was being somebody else, and when we did ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ I finally said, ‘I’m just going to open my mouth and whatever come out, comes out,’” he said.
“When I reached 1974, I did an album, ‘Fire on the Mountain,’ and I made a conscious effort to just be me. Just to open my mouth and sing and whatever came out would be a natural thing. Basically, my place is on stage. It’s not in the recording studio. … My whole premise for being in the music business is the stage. That is what I’m best at and what I enjoy doing the most.”
He was 38 years old when he made that first hit album. “I never looked good in a pair of tight jeans. I had nothing to go on except talent and entertainment,” he confessed. “The music. That was it.”
As for his masterpiece, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the rousing and rocking tale of a boy with a fiddle who got into a duel with Satan, Mr. Daniels found his inspiration in Stephen Vincent Benet’s poem, “The Mountain Whippoorwill,” which he remembered from childhood.
“It was a long poem about a kid that played a fiddle in a contest, and he played about the stuff he heard in the mountains: the mountain whippoorwill, the waterfalls,” he explained. “Where the phrase ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia’ came from, I don’t know. It just came into my head. I sat down with the band, and we started putting the drum beat and bass licks and guitar licks to it, and I sat down and wrote the lyrics, and we went in the studio and recorded it. I had a good feeling about it. … That song was a hit in places where they don’t even speak English, and it was our entrée into the international scene.”
(By the way, he played seven fiddle parts on the Grammy-winning tune.)
The cowboy connection
About his yen to be a cowboy, Mr. Daniels related how he relished watching the Western matinee stars of the 1940s on the silver screen, good guys such as Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Sunset Carson and Lash LaRue.
“I got into it back then, and I’ve always had a great respect and fascination with the cowboy way of life,” he told me. That lifestyle was reflected in his onstage wardrobe that included a bull rider hat, big belt buckle, jeans and boots.
Meanwhile back on the ranch, he truly was a cowboy.
Thurman Mullins, his ranch foreman and right-hand man for 40 years, told me, “Our main thing is roping horses, working cow horses and cutting bloodlines. Charlie received a lifetime achievement award from the American Paint Horse Association for contributions to raising paint horses. We’ve got as good a blood as anywhere on this place.”
Describing Mr. Daniels’ character, Mullins said, “He is the best and has more patience and faith with mankind and people than anybody I’ve ever known. A guy asked me, ‘What is the trick to Charlie?’ The trick to Charlie’s success is that Charlie looks everybody in the eye. He doesn’t look up to or down to nobody. The only one he looks up to is the Lord. He has a real deep Christian faith as does his wife. He’s a patriot and a family man. They’re just genuine people.”
The real deal, Mr. Daniels was for telling it like it is. He never held back his strong opinions of what was going on in the world, especially in the United States.
“I think every American ought to speak out, and I’ve got a forum for it. In my opinion there are two things that hurt America,” he said. “People do not delve deep into situations enough to be knowledgeable about it, and they don’t speak their minds. They let other people make their minds up for them.”
He had special words for those who have been politicians for decades: “I think we need desperately term limits. I think eight years is long enough for anybody. Our Constitution was not meant for career politicians. … Washington is totally out of touch with America.”
A strong patriot, whose actions spoke louder than words, Mr. Daniels made more than one trip with his band to entertain American soldiers in places like Iraq and Kuwait.
Speaking about the U.S., he said, “I know for a fact there is no place, even with our flaws, that comes up to what America is. It is just such a wonderful place that I just hate to see it get ruined by a bunch of people who don’t know what they are doing or don’t care what they are doing.”
Among the charitable organizations he supported, Mr. Daniels and his manager, David Corlew, founded The Journey Home Project in 2014 to aid veterans. And the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at Middle Tennessee State University has helped numerous student-veterans, former military members and their families make the transition from military service to college and a post-graduation career.
This man of faith said the most important message the U.S.A. needed to hear was this: “America needs God. We’ve gotten so far away from what our founders were intending this country to be. We’ve gotten so far away from the things that made this country great.
“It all gets right down to it. It means a return to the almighty God, a return to his teachings and his way of treating other people the way you want to be treated. Those sort of things are what we are lacking, and until we head back in that sort of direction, we’re gonna be in trouble.”
When asked to ponder what his legacy might be, he answered, “I have always felt that a person should be remembered for what they were and what they were in the eyes of the people who knew them the best. I have a lot of facets to my character and to my life. I’m a Christian, a husband, a father, grandfather, employer, musician, entertainer. I’m a lot of different things, but I guess what people will remember me for most would be the music.”
In his later years Mr. Daniels, via his iPad, would send Tweets to his fans. He typically signed off at the end of the day with “Guess I’ll hang it up for the night. Goodnight, planet Earth. God bless.”
There’s no doubt about it. God blessed Charlie Daniels as he, in turn, blessed the lives of countless others.
Charles Edward Daniels
Oct. 28, 1936 – July 6, 2020
May he rest in peace.