Charlie Daniels Fiddling into the Future

Americana, People, Traditions
on August 13, 2008

Many Americans dream of the day they will be able to retire. Not Charlie Daniels.

The outspoken, hard-rocking, fiddle-sawing front man of the Charlie Daniels Band marks his 50th anniversary in the music business this year, and he has no plans to exit the stage.

"I feel very privileged and blessed to do what I do for a living because I love it," says Daniels, 71, who performs about 100 shows each year. "For 23 hours every day, I don't have a clue "but during the hour I'm onstage, I feel like I'm exactly where God meant for me to be."

On rare days off, Daniels appears completely at ease riding horses and checking on his Corriente cattle herd at Twin Pines Ranch in Lebanon, Tenn. (pop. 23,043), his home since the 1970s. Still, people close to him can't imagine him ever permanently hanging up his fiddle.

"I wouldn't want him to quit," says Hazel Daniels, his wife of 44 years. "I think he would fall apart if he didn't have his musical career. This is what he thrives on." According to Steve Hauser, vice president of the William Morris Agency, who has worked with Charlie for more than 30 years, Daniels is as much of a musical dynamo as ever. "His show has always been so dynamic and energetic," Hauser says. "His energy is the same. His voice hasn't crumbled. His musicianship hasn't fallen. He puts new songs in his set and mixes things up. He just gets better and better."

A musical mix
For Charlie Daniels, the road to becoming a musical icon began with a humble, rural upbringing in Wilmington, N.C. His young imagination was fired by the sounds broadcast by his hometown's single radio station, which played a mix of classical, Pentecostal gospel, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, and country.

"Radio stations weren't so formatted back then," Daniels says. "They'd play gospel on Sunday morning and classical on Sunday afternoons. Weekday mornings they'd play something for the ladies cleaning up the house, then they'd play a country show when the farmers came in for lunch. When the kids got home from school, it was pop music."

Playing along with the radio, and eventually in his own bluegrass band, young Charlie mastered the guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle. After high school graduation in 1955, he hit the road with a rock band called the Jaguars and recorded an instrumental single, "Jaguar," produced by Bob Johnston, who went on to produce many successful acts, including Simon and Garfunkel, and Johnny Cash.

In 1964, Daniels and Johnston co-wrote "It Hurts Me," which was recorded by Elvis Presley. Then, encouraged by Johnston, Daniels began work as a session guitarist in Nashville, Tenn., eventually playing on records for a diverse group of country and rock artists, including Marty Robbins and Ringo Starr.

His big break came when Bob Dylan asked him to play on three albums, including his groundbreaking Nashville Skyline.

In 1970, Daniels formed the Charlie Daniels Band and recorded his first solo album. The act quickly became an integral part of the '70s Southern rock movement, which included the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Marshall Tucker Band, among others.

'The Devil' opens the door
According to Daniels, he had no master plan. His musical recipe "a little bluegrass, a hint of jazz, a tint of the blues, a nod to country and a backbone of guitar-driven rock "was simply what he knew how to do.

"Since I was exposed to every kind of music early on, by the time I started doing original music, I thought, well, let's just throw it all in!" he says.

His formula "or lack of one "worked well, and in 1976, Epic Records signed him to its rock roster for a reported $3 million contract, the largest ever awarded to a Nashville musical act at the time. Then, in 1979, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" hit No. 1 on the pop and country charts and made Charlie Daniels a household name. The song earned Grammy, CMA and ACM awards for Daniels and led to his appearance in the blockbuster 1980 movie Urban Cowboy. Over the years, a slew of fellow country and rock singers, as well as rappers, heavy metal bands and even the Muppets have covered Daniels' signature song, a radio staple to this day.

Daniels' long-lived hit "about a fiddling contest that becomes an epic battle between good and evil "is just one of the reasons he's been cited over the years as an influence by other acts, from Garth Brooks to KISS. Several of his musical devotees, including Gretchen Wilson, Dolly Parton and Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, joined him for his recent Deuces CD.

Another explanation for his enduring fame: Daniels' 50-album discography crisscrosses the genres of rock, country, gospel, Christian, blues and pop. Still another reason reaches beyond the music, as fans continue to respond to Daniels's homespun values, unshakeable faith and outspoken patriotism.

"Charlie speaks from the heart," says manager David Corlew, who has worked with Daniels for 35 years. "He feels very strongly about his beliefs. If something bothers him, he wants to say something about it."

Daniels put his opinions on the record in his 1993 book, Ain't No Rag: Freedom, Family and the Flag. He regularly posts essays, sharing his personal views on his Christian faith or addressing controversial topics such as racism and gun control, on his website's "Soapbox." To Daniels, speaking out is his patriotic duty.

"I really, really, really love this country," he says. "That's not a clich?? with me. It's a deeply held conviction that this is the greatest country in the world and America deserves more credit than some people are giving it."

Saluting the soldiers
One way Daniels gives back to his country is by supporting the military. Of all his charity work, organizations that benefit men and women in uniform, such as The Wounded Warrior Project, which assists disabled veterans, get the majority of his attention. Every year, the Charlie Daniels Band schedules at least six Spirit of America shows, free performances for military troops and their families. While on tour, he gives away tickets to nearby military bases at nearly every stop, and he frequently travels overseas to perform for servicemen in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea.

"I'm a child of World War II," Daniels says. "Back then, everybody honored the vets or any person in uniform. It's part of who I am, so it comes natural to me."

Recently, it's been Daniels' turn to be honored. In the last year, he has received several prestigious awards, including The Country Radio Broadcasters Career Achievement Award, and in January, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.

"My dad isn't speechless very often, but when Martina McBride walked out on stage and invited him to join, he was choked up and at a loss for words," says Daniels' only child, Charlie Daniels Jr.

"This was a lifelong dream for him. He was flabbergasted."

After reaching his 50-year career milestone, Daniels has been asked repeatedly to reflect on his success. True to form, he answers enthusiastically, as if he's hearing the question for the first time.

"Usually any kind of success is not really measured in leaps and bounds," he says. "You don't accomplish it all at one time, but little by little. My goal when I started was longevity in this business. I didn't want to just stay a little while and go. I wanted to do what I do for a long time."