Charlie Daniels is one of the best known band leaders in the rowdy, hard-stomping Southern rock style. Throughout his 35-year career, Daniels has resisted labels and rebelled against everything ordinary and middle-of-the-road. His unusual blend of styles from bluegrass to boogie has found its way where country never trod before, into big-city arenas in every part of the nation. Newsweek contributor Barbara Graustark described Daniels as “more like a fiddle-playing grizzly bear than a rock star,” a riveting singer and instrumentalist who “cooks up a stew of Southern-fried country and hard-edged rock.”
One of Daniels’s central themes is a Southern rock favorite—pride in home, country, and region. Songs such as “In America,” “The South’s Gonna Do It,” and “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” pay homage to the strength and courage of rural folk, especially the Dixie longhairs who supported Daniels early in his career. While his sentiments are sometimes simple, however, Daniels’s music is an energetic, complicated fusion of styles—bluegrass fiddle may compete with a rock beat, or a single number may veer from Texas swing to pure jazz. “Our music represents wide-open spaces and a free-wheelin’ attitude,” Daniels told Stereo Review. “Maybe the people who don’t get a chance to live like that a whole lot—especially the people in big cities like Chicago and New York—can live that kind of life vicariously, for a few minutes anyway, by comin’ to one of our concerts.”
Many country pickers master their instruments at very young ages. Daniels is the exception to that rule. He never touched a guitar or a fiddle until he was in his teens. Daniels was born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1937. As a child he moved frequently, following his father, who purchased and cut timber. Attending as many as three schools a year, Daniels had little enthusiasm for education. He discovered his life’s passion at 15, when he bought his first guitar. He taught himself to play by listening to early Elvis Presley and tunes he heard on a black station, WLAC. At seventeen he began listening to Nashville’s WSM, where he heard the riotous bluegrass of Bill Monroe.
His interest in bluegrass led Daniels to try his talents on the fiddle. “I like to run my parents crazy when I first started playin’ fiddle,” he told Stereo Review. “One of the guys I went to school with said it sounded like somebody stepped on a cat every time I started playin’.” The young, would-be performer did not lose faith, though. He kept practicing until he had mastered both the fiddle and the guitar. Then he founded a band
For the Record…
Born in 1937 in Wilmington, NC; son of a lumberjack; married Hazel Alexander (a hairstylist), 1964; children: Charlie, Jr.
Singer, songwriter, bandleader, fiddle and guitar player, 1958—. Played with group the Jaguars, 1958-67. Country songwriter, 1963—, and session musician in Nashville, 1966-71. Formed the Charlie Daniels Band in 1971; signed with Kama Sutra Records and released first album, Te John Grease and Wolf man, c. 1972. Has toured extensively in the United States and Canada; host of the yearly Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam, Nashville.
Awards: Instrumentalist of the year, instrumental group of the year, and single of the year, all from the Country Music Association, all 1980; Grammy Award, 1980, for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Addresses: Record company —Epic (Sony Music Distribution), Sony Music Entertainment, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101.
called the Jaguars and set out to perform in “every honky-tonk between Raleigh and Texas, or at least quite a few of ’em.”
During a gig in Fort Worth, Texas, Daniels met producer Bob Johnston. Together Daniels and Johnston wrote a song, “It Hurts Me,” that found its way onto the B side of one of Elvis Presley’s singles. In 1963 Johnston produced Daniels’s first album, an Epic release that did not sell well. Johnston had some clout in Nashville, however, and he was able to find Daniels work in the lucrative session music business. With his flair for jazz and rock, Daniels earned credits on some of the most unconventional country recordings of the late 1960s, including Ringo Starr’s Beaucoups of Blues and Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
“I never was a real hot-shot session musician,” Daniels remembered in Stereo Review, “and I never really had that many friends in the studios in Nashville. I like to have fun when I play, and I didn’t really have that much fun playin’. I never really had a handle on playin’ the Nashville type of sound, and I never was really accepted that much by those guys. I guess I was a little too rowdy for them, or at least my music was.” In a daring move, Daniels gave up his niche as a session musician to return to live performance. He formed a new band, the Charlie Daniels Band, and hit the road for as many as 250 live shows each year.
Between 1971 and 1980 Daniels and his band released ten albums for the Kama Sutra and Epic labels. The act was not long in earning its first top ten hits, making the country charts in 1973 with “Uneasy Rider” and in 1975 with “The South’s Gonna Do It.” One of the Charlie Daniels Band’s biggest fans during the period was the governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. When Carter decided to run for president, Daniels hosted not one but three fundraising concerts for the candidate. Interestingly enough, Carter’s arrival in the White House coincided with Daniels’s rise to the pinnacle of fame in the ranks of country music.
Daniels’s tenth album, Million Mile Reflections, went double platinum in 1980, with more than two million units sold. The work also yielded Daniels’s biggest hit, a rip-roaring fiddle explosion called “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The song, which featured a now-classic duel between the devil and a proud Georgia fiddler, won both the Grammy Award and the Country Music Association award for best country single of the year. That same year Daniels won two other prestigious CMA awards, best instrumentalist and best instrumental group. The Charlie Daniels Band has been a favorite country act ever since.
Charlie Daniels and his associates continue to pursue their own joyful brand of music, never mindful of the fashionable trends other artists follow. “I don’t see why everything has to be pigeonholed, categorized, and computerized,” Daniels told Stereo Review. “I don’t think about what kind of music we play. I think about what quality of music we play. Our music has definitely got some country influence on it, but it’s definitely not what’s known as traditional country music. We just play the music and let other people put titles on it. Some reviewer from up the way called it ‘Southern twang, Northern bang, and city gang.’ I thought that was pretty apt. But if people want to call me a hillbilly, hell, that’s all right. If they want to call me a rock-‘n’-roller, I don’t care about that, either. It don’t make no difference.”
In recent years Daniels has gained added notoriety for his annual Volunteer Jams, concerts that regularly turn staid Nashville inside out. With his six-foot-one-inch, 250-pound frame and woolly beard, Daniels remains a noticeable figure among country-rock superstars—middle age and the rigors of touring have done little to blunt his enthusiasm for his audiences. “I can’t see myself as nothin’ but a lucky, blessed musician,” Daniels told People magazine. “Someone once asked me how happy I was on a scale of one to 10. I had to say ‘11.’”
Honey in the Rock, Kama Sutra.
Fire on the Mountain, Kama Sutra.
Nighthder, Kama Sutra, reissued, Epic.
Charlie Daniels, Capitol.
Saddle Tramp, Epic.
High Lonesome, Epic.
Uneasy Rider, Epic.
The Essential Charlie Daniels, Kama Sutra.
Million Mile Reflections, Epic.
A Decade of Hits, Epic.
Full Moon, Epic.
Midnight Wind, Epic.
Volunteer Jam VII, Epic.
Me and the Boys, Epic, 1985.
Powder Keg, Epic, 1987.
Homesick Heroes, Epic, 1988.
Simple Man, Epic, 1990.
Renegade, Epic, 1991.
Brown, Charles T., Music U.S.A.: America’s Country and Western Tradition, Prentice-Hall, 1986.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Down Beat, May 1985.
Newsweek, September 15, 1980.
People, October 29, 1979.
Stereo Review, January 1980.
Time, May 10, 1982.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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