Travels With Charlie: Remembering Charlie Daniels

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(Photo by Erick Anderson)

“You gotta be from the South to know about boogers,” Charlie Daniels cracked. 

When Daniels strapped his guitar on five years ago at a show in Manassas, Virginia,  he derived great suspense as a storyteller, recalling the mysterious holes in the ground that attract bugs, skeeters and boogers in “The Legend of Wooley Swamp.”

The singer, fiddler, jam band leader and great Tenessean passed away this week. But inside I can still hear him espousing wisdom and observations of a long well-lived life. Take the subject of rednecks. Daniels pined onstage that the media doesn’t know what a redneck is. Daniels told the audience he’s not talking about someone riding in a truck throwing cans out the window. “That’s not a redneck—that’s an idiot, I’m talking about someone who gets up before sunrise and is out working in the sun all day.”  

He recasts the outlaw image in recalling that it’s been forty years since Fire On The Mountain propelled his band to fame and begins “Long Haired Country Boy,” an anti-establishment song that resonates all these years later. It seems like a long ways away from the era of some of his biggest songs like “Saddle Tramp,” “The South’s Gonna Do It” and before Daniels became a Guitar Hero star with the legendary fiddle tale “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”

Daniels built his career on endless touring, playing in places for little money to build word of mouth and some personal selling. He looked reverently upon a time when you could personally stop at a radio station and bring your album in to a program director. If they liked it, they would play it because they thought their listeners would like it and there weren’t consultants to tell them otherwise.

In his later life, fans patiently  gather for a meet and greet with Daniels, their line moving in parallel, choreographed to the moment he stepped into the venue. The smiles on people’s faces emerged as they slowly come out, some carrying autographed pictures and others with timeworn copies of “Million Mile Reflections” and “Saddle Tramp” under their arms.

When Daniels reached the stage  “Tennessee Waltz” plays over the P.A. Daniels is gripped by boundless energy and the stamina of a man much younger. Daniels plays fiddle with a vengeance, so much so that he routinely goes through several bows, characteristically slipping a damaged bow down behind his back as a stagehand comes from behind to replace them in a baton-like transfer.

“We’ve traveled just about every interstate in this country,” the fiddle-playing, southern rock jam band leader told me one morning from his bus a few years ago. “I still love playing live. What keeps me out here is that set of music I play every night.” I toldDaniels that I think at one point he was playing almost every night and threw out a figure of 300 shows a year. He responds that he never kept up with the numbers but told me I’m probably in the ballpark. He estimated that in 2015 they would do 150-175 nights a year including charity events like a Christmas concert at the Ryman  and ten stops at the Grand Ole Opry, where he was inducted as a member in 2008.

Daniels struck an air of mystery under the brim of his hat, only occasionally looking up. But he’s a conversationalist, telling us a star took a special liking to him when he first went to Nashville and breaks into a tribute eerily reminiscent of the singer of “Folsom Prison Blues,” one Johnny Cash. The night’s best jam recalls the Southern rock architecture of the Allman Brothers and the legacy of past jams with Southern compatriots such as the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Daniels recounted how his band used to play the Opry at will, if they were in town or if the show called on them. But he never was a member and as he said, his name was not in the book next to Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams—people he admired in his youth and cut his teeth on. And then it happened in 2008 when he was handed a statuette by Marty Stuart and his wife Connie Smith. Going to the Opry, I wondered is it like a new experience or more like going back home?

Daniels described walking out on the stage where there’s a five foot circle of wood that was cut out of the floor of the Ryman Auditorium. “Every country music artist has stood there,” he said,his voice rising with emotion, “and when you look out you say ‘This is the mother church of country music. This is what started it all.’”

All this for someone who was a boy in Leland, North Carolina hearing a clear channel signal from 600 miles away every Saturday night. Daniels tried his best to stay up late to make it through the Opry and Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree that followed. On Monday morning, everyone would be talking about what song Roy Acuff played and what kind of joke Minnie Pearl told.

It was part of this wonderment that struck me when Daniels was finishing up his set in Manassas. As he came to the end of the show and was about to finish with “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” he took a moment to thank the audience and began looking up, his eyes circling around the cylindrical opera-house style theater, taking it all in. 

“I don’t think we’ve ever played here,” he told us. “It’s beautiful.”

If you want to know how Nashville has changed over the years, Charlie Daniels could tell you.  He says you just have to look at the back cover of Nashville Skyline, the 1968 record by Bob Dylan on which Daniels played as a session man. Daniels points out that there was only one skyscraper at the time, the Life & Casualty building. Today you can’t see the taller buildings in the photo anymore because they’re covered today by what’s been built since.

“The city’s changed. The industry’s changed. The business has changed,” Daniels observed. “The system of selling music has changed. What hasn’t changed is playing live. It’s the thing that keeps me going.”

Daniels was just another guitarist with a dream when he moved to Nashville in the mid-Sixties. Bob Dylan was in town recording with producer Bob Johnston, who brought Daniels to Nashville. When another guitarist was absent from the first session, Daniels filled in for him that day. When Daniels started leaving thinking he was finished, Dylan asked producer Bob Johnston, “Where’s he going?”

Dylan liked him so much he stayed for the entire album, one that was revolutionary at the time as Dylan transformed his counter-culture image, trading verses with Johnny Cash on “Girl From The North Country,” and re-inventing himself again in an unlikely venue. A few years later, Daniels released his first solo album and it seems he’s been on the road ever since.

I mentioned to Daniels something he once told me and how he described Dylan as a gentleman. I ask if this recollection was correct and Daniels said yes, absolutely. He remembers the anticipation of meeting Dylan who had been called a genius and was the most dissected, written-about figure of his era. “So much had been written about him, I didn’t know what he was going to be like,” Daniels recalled, saying his songs didn’t tell you what his personality would. But he was just like everyone else and had a great sense of humor.” 

Daniels said Nashville Skyline was a fun album to make. “it was all about the music and because it represented such a departure.” And just like that it was finished in a flash.

When Daniels was finished with his tribute album of Dylan songs, he called him.  He hadn’t heard what he thought about the project and wanted to send him a copy.  “He was very conversational, very nice and not in a hurry trying to say hello goodbye,” Daniels says. “He was talking about his grandchildren and his life. I really sincerely like the man. But like I said if you listen to his songs, you get no clue what he is like.”

With all his days on the road, I wondered if he still sees new things when he travels.

“Not unless they’ve built something new since the last time we were there,” he laughed. Technology is something that’s changed too. Thanks to his son who he admits dragged him kicking and screaming with every new device, the man who grew up with dial tones became a prolific tweeter, marveling that he can have instant communication with someone in China or Australia from his handheld iPad. Daniels was as likely to spout off on sports, his political opinions on the and current events as much as journal the blessings of friends, band mates and families. He often quoted scripture such as he did with the verse from Psalms 27-4, the same passage he quoted backstage the night of his induction into the Grand Ole Opry: “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

When Daniels stopped in Manassas, he was only a few miles from the site of Manassas Battlefield Park where the Battles of Bull Run were fought. In our earlier conversation, I had asked about Daniels’ view of the Confederate flag and the controversy over it being a racist symbol. He quickly shot that down, saying that it was a battle flag and doesn’t symbolize anything other than a time and era—and a section of the country. “It’s a flag they used to carry into battle,” he says point blank. “It represented the Confederacy of the South and nothing more, nothing less. It’s just like the Washington Redskins. To me that’s silly. I haven’t heard any Indians going around and complaining about that. It’s just a name. Why make more out of it than it is? It’s just a piece of history. Whether people like it or not it existed.”

Daniels came back that year to play a benefit for veterans  in D.C.  His disdain for the leadership of the country was evident on Twitter. A photo of the White House has the caption “a little too close for comfort” and of the town he tweets: “Washington D C city of empty coffers, empty promises and empty suits.

Daniels’ disdain for President Obama was in full public view. He never let go of the Benghazi incident and it still appeared on his Twitter feed after he passed. In the last weeks of Daniels’ life, many of the Confederate statues were torn down.The world is always evolving but it feels like things have really changed in such a short time.  

And now, we’re no longer left with Daniels and his larger than life personality who travelled the globe in support of the military and was a great philanthropist. For me, my memories of Charlie Daniels are the warmth I felt the times we spoke and the wisdom he imparted like a daily devotional every time he tweeted his signature line: “let’s make the day count.” And when he signed off on Twitter each night, it was like your friend was hanging up the telephone until you spoke tomorrow.

I will forever remember being in Central Park at the Schaefer Music Festival jumping up and down it seemed against the metal chairs as Daniels tore apart the venue with “The South’s Gonna Do It.” Others like my friend Dean Falcone who recognized Daniels as a terrific studio musician, have their memories. 

“I had a band in the late 80’s called Dean & the Dragsters and we pretty much did mid  50’s – early 60’s,” he wrote on Facebook. “We were playing at the North Haven Holiday Inn and about midway through a set someone came up and said Charlie Daniels is here (he and his band were staying there) and would like to come up and play. I know we played “That’s All Right Mama” and a few others, then he asked if it would be okay if he brought his band up. I believe he bought the whole room a round of drinks. Man, could he play. Did I mention what a gentleman he was?”

His friend Steve Montano confirms the memory. “Dean, absolutely right! Very nice man great player great band. Never forget that night he played with us. What a treat that was! After he played my guitar he signed it too!”

Doug Gray, the lead sing of the Marshall Tucker Band and a friend for over fifty years, traveled a lot of miles with Daniels. Like many, he was at a loss this week.

We are missing a man that already has the hands of his great God holding him, Gray reflected. l have no words.”


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