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Charlie Daniels: Renaissance Hillbilly

Renaissance Hillbilly
A Look Inside the Mind of Charlie Daniels
by Michael Buffalo Smith
October 2000

Not unlike the great state of Texas, Charlie Daniels is a little bit Western and a little bit Southern. His signature "bull rider" hat, his lifestyle on his Tennessee ranch, his love of horses, cowboy lore and the heroes of championship rodeo, Western movies, and Louis L'Amour novels identify him as a Westerner. A Southerner by birth and the son of a hard working lumberjack, Charlie’s music:  rock, country, bluegrass, blues and gospel, is quintessentially Southern. In fact, even his bent for all things Western is Southern because his attire, his lifestyle and his interests are historically related to the Southern working class, fused with the "lone cowboy" individualism of the American West.

It hasn't been so much a style of music but more the values consistently reflected in several styles that has connected Charlie Daniels with millions of fans. For decades he has refused to label his music as anything other than "CDB music," music that helped elect an American president and been popularized on a variety of radio formats.

My first encounter with Charlie Daniels, other than a friendly smile or handshake on a couple of occasions throughout the years, took place at his Lebanon, Tennessee business office. Driving mile after mile along a rural, back country road, I had no idea what to expect. For some reason or another the sight of the office, a two-story log structure with smoke billowing out from a stone chimney, didn’t surprise me at all. After all, Daniels has performed for presidents and various dignitaries but when the man is home, he really wants to feel at home.

The decor inside the office building  is pure Charlie. The chairs are cowhide, there are cowboy and Indian relics all around and a beautiful Mexican rug adorns the floor. The front of his desk is ornately carved with Charlie’s initials. All around are mementos from his Marshall Tucker Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd friends and there was a press release lying on the desk touting an upcoming tour.

Meeting Charlie Daniels one-on-one without his famous hat is kind of like talking to Liberace in jeans. It took some getting used to but this man is so down home sweet and eloquent he puts you at ease right off the bat.

Charlie Daniels was  born on a blustery fall day, October 28, 1936, in Wilmington, North Carolina. His dad’s work caused Charlie to change schools and cities more often than most. One year he landed in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a city that would one day gain acclaim as the home of The Marshall Tucker Band, Marshall Chapman, and Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle.

“My dad got transferred,” says Charlie. “He worked for a plant that had a branch in Wilmington, N.C. and another in Spartanburg County, near Pauline. So, the year that I was in the seventh grade, I went to school there at Jenkins Junior High. We didn’t stay there long. We moved there and then we moved to Wilmington before the school year was over.”

In 1977, Charlie spoke to Guitar Player magazine about his musical influences. 

“I was influenced by everybody who used to be on Top 40 radio: people like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley. I love some of the off-the-wall old country stuff like Eddy Arnold back when he was kind of country, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and some old gospel music. When I’m at home I’ll pull out any Marshall Tucker LP, or The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East or their Eat a Peach, Brothers and Sisters, either of the two Duane Allman Anthologies or Dickey Betts’ album Highway Call. Or Phases and Stages by Willie Nelson."

Daniels says that he has loved music his whole life. He had grown up in a family that loved music but because no one in the family really played an instrument, Charlie never had any way to learn to play.

“I had moved and was living in a little town called Gulf, N.C. A friend of mine named Russell Palmer had this Stellar guitar -- one of those old cheap guitars -- and he had learned a couple of chords. So, one day he got it out and I asked him to teach me those two chords.”

Charlie Daniels was hooked. He began to learn everything he could, musically. Soon, he was playing mandolin and fiddle and his friend Russell started playing banjo. Before they knew what had happened, they had their own bluegrass band.

“There was a steel guitar player who came to town. He had a steel, but he didn’t have an amplifier. So, I went down to the local music store and signed for him an amp. He never finishing paying for it so I ended up with this amplifier. I thought, why should I have this and not a have a guitar, so I went out and bought a Gibson electric. About the time Elvis came along, I really started getting interested in rock and roll music.”

In 1957, Charlie moved back to Wilmington, playing semi-professionally for square dances and such. It was during these formative years that Daniels played R&B with a group called The Rockets who recorded an instrumental single in Fort Worth, Texas called “Jaguar.” After changing their name to The Jaguars, the group landed a recording session for Epic Records in 1959 with Bob Johnson, who would later become Columbia Records' leading folk and country producer.

In 1964, Daniels co-wrote “It Hurts Me” which was recorded by Elvis Presley as the flip-side to “Kissin’ Cousins.” Shortly thereafter, he moved to the Washington, D.C. area and played clubs for about ten years. 

Then, in 1967, opportunity knocked.     

“My friend Bob Johnston called and said “why don’t you come to Nashville and see what you can get going. I moved here and have been here ever since. My first work was as a studio session player, during which time I got to play on records by Marty Robbins, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and so many others.”

Daniels played on several Bob Dylan albums:  Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning and Dylan. He also became part of Leonard Cohen's touring band in the late '60s and produced the Youngbloods' Elephant Memory album around the same time. In 1970 he appeared on Ringo Starr's record Beaucoups of Blues.

While I was producing The Youngbloods, one of the companies I was producing for heard some of my stuff and wanted to sign me as an artist,” recalls Daniels.  “So, I put a band together and started recording and playing.”

Daniels cut an album for Capitol Records in the early '70s which was virtually ignored. In 1972, he formed the Charlie Daniels Band, using the southern rock of the Allman Brothers as a blueprint. The band was comprised of Daniels (lead guitar, vocals, fiddle), lead guitarist Don Murray, bassist Charlie Hayward, drummer James W. Marshall and keyboardist Joel DiGregorio. 

In 1972, Buddah released Charlie's second LP,  Te John, Grease & Wolfman, featuring long time band mate Joel "Taz" DiGregorio. Taz takes lead vocal duties on one song, "Billy Joe Young," and his piano work is a highlight of this historical Southern Rock document. Daniels rocks hard on "Great Big Bunches of Love" and on his cover of the Jerry Lee Lewis chestnut, "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee." 

“It wasn’t until our third album that we had our first single, “Uneasy Rider,” says Daniels. “But it was our fifth album, Fire on the Mountain, that really got us started.”

In 1974, they released Fire on the Mountain, which became a gold record within months of its release. Thanks to the Top 40 country hit "Texas," the album would eventually go platinum.

Fire On the Mountain carried two other hit singles for the Daniels Band, “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do it Again,” but it wasn’t just the hit singles that made the record a major hit. Album tracks like “Cabio Diablo” and “Orange Blossom Special” made it a sure fire success. Even today, collectors seek out copies of the original vinyl LP that contained a bonus EP from the first-ever Volunteer Jam which featured Toy Caldwell, Artimus Pyle, Richard Betts and a host of other top-notch musicians.

Saddle Tramp, released in 1976, was nearly as successful, going gold.

“We had other albums out but none of them did that well until Million Mile Reflections came out in 1979.”

The single from that album, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” went  triple platinum and made Charlie Daniels an international star. The song was named the Country Music Association's Single of the Year and helped its accompanying album, Million Mile Reflections, become a multi-platinum success. Daniels wasn't able to follow "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" with another blockbuster single on the country charts, ironically, but he had several rock crossover successes in the years following the success of Million Mile Reflections Full Moon (1980) went platinum and 1982's Windows went gold. Although he continued to sell respectably throughout the '80s, he didn't have another big hit until 1989's Simple Man, which went gold.

When you hear a classic Charlie Daniels Band performance like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," you hear music that knows no clear genre. Is it a folk tale? Southern boogie? A country fiddle tune? An electric rock anthem? The answer is yes to all of that and more. And the same goes for "In America," "Uneasy Rider," "The South 's Gonna Do It," "Long Haired Country Boy," "Still in Saigon," "The Legend of Wooley Swamp" and the rest of a catalog that spans more than 35 years of record making and represents more than 18 million in sales.

In 1993 Charlie signed with Liberty Records and released his patriotic tribute, "America, I Believe in You." The following year, Daniels released his first gospel album, The Door. For his efforts, Daniels received a Dove Award and a Grammy nomination. His follow-up to that album, Steel Witness, was another inspirational project.

In 1974, Daniels had heard the debut album by Spartanburg’s Marshall Tucker Band, and soon made fast friends with the group. So much so that Charlie would go on to perform on all of their albums from the second record on. He performed on all of the Capricorn records that  Paul Hornsby produced. For some time The Charlie Daniels Band toured alongside The Marshall Tucker Band, carrying the southern banner throughout the world.

Reminiscing about the Marshall Tucker Band reunion and S.C. Hall of Fame induction ceremony which Daniels hosted at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Carolina back in 1995, Daniels becomes introspective.

“It was a very emotional evening,” says Charlie. “ But I get teared up every time I talk about Tommy and Toy. And their dad, I just don’t see how that man’s lived through all the tragedy. He lost three sons, Tim and Tommy died tragically and, of course, Toy died unexpectedly - and he lost his wife just a little while before Toy passed away. He’s a strong man.”

Recalling the early jams of the 1970s, Daniels recounts his many fond memories of the many shows his band performed with Marshall Tucker.

“Playing with the MTB was great,” says Charlie. “ It was a natural show. We used to end the night up with three drummers on the stage doing something everybody knew. We probably did more dates with Marshall Tucker than any other band that I know of.”

The year 1974 also saw the beginnings of the almost-annual Volunteer Jam, hosted by Charlie in Nashville and featuring friends from The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band and others. Later jams would star such diverse talents as Willie Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, James Brown, Ted Nugent, Roy Acuff, Amy Grant, Alabama and, in 1986, a reunion of The Allman Brothers Band. 

By the Spring of 1999, Southern Rock fans throughout the country were gearing up for the first ever Volunteer Jam Tour, featuring Charlie and his band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Hank Williams, Jr. and Molly Hatchet.

Concert promoter Jim Koplik, who has logged many hours promoting shows by The Allmans, Marshall Tucker and Charlie, was slated to handle The  Volunteer Jam Tour promotion. Like most people, Koplik has nothing but nice things to say about Charlie. He says that Charlie’s heart is as big as his talent.

“Charlie Daniels is absolutely the nicest person in rock and roll,” says Koplik. “ I do a lot of interview shows and I always get people asking who was your favorite artist, the nicest artist, the meanest artist. I always get asked those questions. And when anybody says, “Who’s the nicest artist, it’s always Charlie Daniels. One memory I have is when we were working for the Yukon Children’s Cancer Fund, Charlie was coming in to do a concert and I asked Charlie if he would mind taking some time out to run over to the hospital and see these kids. I never thought a big star like Charlie Daniels would ever do something like that. Of course he did it, it was a pleasure to do it, he couldn’t wait to do it. He ended up spending five hours at the hospital.”

Daniels has freely donated his time to numerous charitable causes and events in Nashville and was one of the performers who donated their time at 1997’s fundraising event to erect a monument to bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe.

Daniels was named the Academy of Country Music's Pioneer Award recipient in 1998.  Superstar Garth Brooks presented the honor to a shocked Daniels before saying, "How's this for a surprise big man?" Country-rockers Marty Stuart and Travis Tritt staged a musical tribute while former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford delivered pre-taped tributes to help honor the 61-year-old performer with the prestigious award. "His love of music is only surpassed by his love of people, especially American people," said Ford.

Daniels was the 35th individual honored by the ACM for outstanding and unprecedented achievements in the field of country music. 

“Charlie was always really powerful,” recalls Allman Brothers Band drummer Butch Trucks. “I never got to know him really well but he was always a stand up guy.”

“Charlie’s a wonderful guy,” says Gregg Allman. “He sent me this quadruple-X sized Beaver Stetson hat, it must have been like a really expensive cowboy hat. I mean, you could use this hat for a parachute (laughs), I’ve still got the damn thing.”    

“I hold him in high praise,” says former Marshall Tucker Band guitarist, George McCorkle. “He has been doing it for a long time and he is still doing it. Even living up here, I don’t see Charlie that often because he’s out working all the time. Me and his son see each other a lot. He is the President of Charlie’s Wooley Swamp Publishing company.” 

Jimmy Hall, former lead vocalist of the Wet Willie band, now a successful solo artist living in Nashville, fondly recalls the good times onstage with Daniels at the Volunteer Jams.

“I remember first seeing him in Tennessee. I was very impressed. He had elements of both The Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker, and I like that territory. Two drummers, two guitar players. He forged his own way playing country, rock and roll and rhythm and blues. He’s always been a gentleman and a fine friend. We were managed by the same guy for a while. We toured with him in 1981 and ‘82 with my solo group and, of course, Wet Willie played with him a lot. I’m happy to say we’re still friends and I want to say that Charlie did a great thing with the Volunteer Jams. I participated in most of those. The last one I participated in was, I think, October a year ago here in town. It’s a great way for musicians and friends to just get together and have a great time.”

During the summer tour, the renewed friendship between The Charlie Daniels Band and The Marshall Tucker Band has approached the same levels it did during the 1970s, according to Doug Gray. Comments made by both parties to this writer certainly show that these two bands are destined to make records together again.

“During the tour, I had a touch of laryngitis,” says Marshall Tucker’s Gray. “I asked different members of each group to help us out, and not to let the MTB fans down. Charlie was the first one to say, I’ll be there. Charlie is exactly what everybody thinks he is -- a number one guy.”

I asked Charlie to describe what he would consider the peak of his career thus far.

“I hope I haven’t had it yet,” he laughs. “No, there have been so many. First hit record, first hit album, first gold record, first platinum - just being a part of something I enjoy doing. I just thank the Lord I can make a living and enjoy this as much as I do. There are peaks and valleys, good times and bad times and everything in between, but the main thing is to be focused on what you’re doing and to at least have an idea of which direction you want to head in and just keep on going and let the Lord take care of the rest of it. That’s the ideal thing to do -- it’s hard -- but it’s the ideal.”

Like most other musicians, Charlie likes to listen to a wide variety of other artists when time permits.

“You know who I listen to, probably more than any other artist? Stevie Ray Vaughan. I love Stevie Ray. I love the blues, obviously you do, too. I listen to music a lot when I go in to exercise during the day. I ride on one of those exercise bikes for about a half hour a day. It all depends on what I pick up off the bus. Sometimes it may be Stevie Ray and other times it may be Beethoven or Mozart, or a jazz album. It all depends on what kind of mood I’m in.”

During his long and expansive career, Charlie Daniels has had the opportunity to  perform live and on record with what could be called a “who’s who” of music.

“I got to play with Bob Dylan and with a couple of The Beatles. Roy Acuff was one of my heroes, I got to play with him. Marty Robbins...so many greats.”


Charlie rocks with Bonnie Bramlett.


Besides being a multi-talented performer, Daniels is also a writer.

“I wrote a book of short stories several years ago, and I started a biography, but I’ve only finished two chapters. The problem is, I don’t have time to work on it. I’ve always got an album to write or something that takes priority over getting the book done. I will eventually, God willing, get it done one of these days. I might be a hundred years old, but I’ll get it, Lord willing. It’s a lot longer process than writing a three-minute song, I can tell you that.”

In February of 1996, Charlie was invited to speak to the graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Two of the writers for the school paper made national headlines by protesting the choice of Daniels over what they considered a more “cultured” choice - a great writer or poet like, say, Maya Angelou. Charlie wrote them back in a personal letter and even wrote a special poem, worded in an eloquent, almost Shakespearean style. In the letter, Daniels cited a few of his qualifications.


Charlie visiting the troops in Iraq.

“I’ve stood at the 38th Parallel and looked across into the hostile eyes of the North Korean border guards. I’ve been catapulted from the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Adriatic Sea and ridden across the frozen wastes of Greenland on an Eskimo dog sled. I’ve taken a hammer and chisel to the Berlin Wall and performed with Symphony Orchestras...”

Daniels just wanted to prove a point. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.

“I’ve probably done things that nobody in that graduating class will ever do,” he says. “The thing about it is, they’re finished with formal education -- they’re about to go out into my world now. Out where I’ve been operating for 40 years. In my experience, when you talk to a graduating class you’re supposed to prepare them for the real world, not stand up there and read poetry to ‘em. So I just decided I’d sit down and write them a little poem and take ‘em to task.”

Charlie Daniels has a proven recipe for success. "Believe in what you do. Believe in what you say. The Good Lord will do the rest." That philosophy has served him well, both personally and professionally. In addition to selling over 13 million albums, Charlie and his wife, Hazel, have been happily married for over 30 years.

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