C&I talks with the legendary Charlie Daniels about his 60-plus-year career and performing at one of his all-time-favorite events, Cheyenne Frontier Days.
With timeless classics like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “Uneasy Rider,” singer-songwriter and cattle-ranching enthusiast Charlie Daniels has been an icon for many of the more than 60 years he’s been on the country music scene.
Daniels’ accomplishments include more than 30 albums; a Grammy Award; inductions into the Grand Ole Opry, Musicians Hall of Fame, Cheyenne Frontier Days Hall of Fame, and Country Music Hall of Fame; and his recent acclaimed memoir, Never Look at the Empty Seats along with the companion album, Memories, Memoirs and Miles – Songs of a Lifetime.
At 81, Daniels isn’t slowing down. He’s determined to check more achievements off his bucket list — one being another performance at his favorite rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days.
Recently, we caught up with the superstar to talk country music, his upcoming performance at Cheyenne Frontier Days, and what else he hopes to accomplish.
Cowboys & Indians: After being in the business for about 60 years and having so many accomplishments, what are some of the standout moments?
Charlie Daniels: I’ve had so many. [Being inducted into] the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry were two of the biggest ones, definitely. The night I was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry was just like a dream to me because I’d been listening to the Grand Ole Opry all my life. The first radio show I ever consciously remember listening to was the Grand Ole Opry. It was such an honor. I told the people, “The Bible says God will give you the desires of your heart, and you can see that coming true on this stage tonight” because it was such a desire in my heart to be a member of the Opry and to have it happen was almost like a dream.
And then the hall of fame — it was pretty much the same way. It just came out of the blue. I had no idea that they were even considering me, and I got called down to the Country Music Association office one night under false pretenses and the president told me, “You’re going to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” and it was like being hit by a lightning bolt without the electricity, if you will. It was incredible.
C&I: Speaking of the Country Music Hall of Fame, what was it like to have your career and some of your personal life put on display in the form of your well-deserved honorary exhibit, Million Mile Reflections?
Daniels: It was wild. You know what the great thing about that is? What we did, we just had the people, the curators from the museum come out to the house and just gave them carte blanche. “Here’s a bunch of stuff. There’s a bunch of stuff. Here’s the office, the attic, the basement” — all the places that we kept the memorabilia stored in. We just let them take whatever they wanted. And to see how somebody else kind of views your life — what they look at as the important parts of your life and how they see it portrayed and the things that they choose to portray it with — is really interesting. They did an excellent job. I was very pleased with the exhibit. I thought it was very well-done.
C&I: Did you have a favorite part of the exhibit?
Daniels: Actually, it was all right together. There was a guitar in there that Gibson gave me for my 80th birthday and it was made in the custom shop; it is one of a kind. And it’s just covered in artwork and that sort of thing. That was one of my favorite things. I have a hard time picking a favorite. I was so honored to be part of the hall of fame. Whatever they would’ve done would have been fine with me, but then they did an excellent job with it at the same time, so it was a wonderful thrill to see that.
C&I: You just celebrated your 10th anniversary as a Grand Ole Opry member. What was that like?
Daniels: Actually, to be truthful with you about it, it was like, “Are you serious? We’ve really been here for 10 years?” It just didn’t seem possible that we had been on the Grand Ole Opry 10 years — it didn’t seem like that long. You know, of course, that’s kind of a condition of age. As you get older, time just goes by in a hurry. So somebody will say something about something that happened. I say, “Well, gosh, that was what, two years ago?” “No, it was five years ago” — so I’m kind of used to that feeling.
C&I: Do you have a favorite memory from performing there?
Daniels: I was inducted at the Ryman Auditorium. It was during the time of the year they moved the Grand Ole Opry to the Ryman for a couple of months a year, and it happened to be during that time. That was special to me, because all my early memories of listening to the Grand Ole Opry were from the Ryman Auditorium and, of course, they had moved to the new Opry House many years before. To me, being inducted on that stage, which had been a lifelong [dream] — it definitely extended the honor.
C&I: You have a new CD coming out, Memories, Memoirs & Miles: Songs of a Lifetime…
Daniels: That is a companion piece to my biography, Never Look at the Empty Seats. ... It’s like a walk down memory lane, where the music that I have done in my 60 years — it’s got the very first record I ever did, an instrumental song called “Jaguar” from back in 1959. It’s kind of a collage of the music that I have played, not necessarily just the band, but that I have done over that period of time.
C&I: Never Look at the Empty Seats was released last year. What was it like for you to put yourself out there in such a vulnerable way?
Daniels: Well, I have been out there in a pretty vulnerable way for a long time. I’ve been doing things like we’re doing now, interviews and stuff. Other than a few personal facts and some details of things and maybe a little more detailed description of how I got started and that sort of thing, I think people pretty much knew a lot about me already. The things they didn’t know was how I feel about my faith and my extended family and how it was growing up. As far as the music part, it was pretty well-known facts.
You know, I think the parts that they did not know, as I said, was the personal side of my life to some extent — we bring in quite a bit of that. But I didn’t mind. I mean I’m not proud of everything I’ve done. ... I talk about some of it in the book, but it’s all part of growing up to start with and part of beating your head against the wall and learning the lessons later on. So it was not a big exposé or anything. I don’t think people were really surprised that much about what they found in the book.
C&I: Is there a part of the book that’s most important to you?
Daniels: Yes, the chapter on my faith. That was the hardest chapter for me to write because I knew what I wanted to say, but I wanted to make sure that I got the point across to everybody ... saying my own faith journey ... That was the most painstaking part of the writing.
C&I: What do you hope your fans will get out of the companion CD, and how does it complements your memoir?
Daniels: It goes along [with it]. Some of the songs that are on the CD I talk about in the book. There were some songs that were very important to my career that I talk about and situations I did that led to those songs. I talk about that first record, a song called “Jaguar” — that’s the first record I ever recorded. That was in 1959 and I talk about what was going on in 1959 and the circumstances that led up to that point when I did cut the record, which were pretty unique circumstances. I mean it kind of winds in and out, talking about different songs I wrote and the different circumstances I wrote them under.
C&I: Is there a song from your career that you’re most proud of?
Daniels: Well, I’ve got songs that were the most successful for me that I certainly am thankful to the good Lord that I did have. Some of my favorite songs are fairly obscure. Some lyrics I’ve written that I feel really good about [but] maybe were not the most commercially successful, were really special to me. Like “Carolina (I Remember You),” which is a recitation and song that I wrote about growing up in North Carolina in 1936 — about growing up during the time of the Second World War. ...
C&I: Fans and other artists really admire that you have stayed true to yourself in your music. How have you maintained that independent mindset?
Daniels: Well, it’s what I am. I’ve got my fingers burned a couple of times trying to be something else. I have never had a hit record that a record company got very much involved in, in any other way besides promoting it. I’ve never had a record that somebody said, “You’ve got to do this.” That kind of stuff didn’t work with me. I feel I know who I am better than anybody else does. I take direction really well, but I don’t take dictation. I don’t like being dictated to. So I mean that’s just kind of the way I am. My persona and the way I feel about things just kind of come natural to me, to be honest with you.
C&I: You’re slated to play Cheyenne Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo, in a couple of weeks toward the end of July. What’s your personal connection to this rodeo?
Daniels: We started the Friday night series. The first time they ever had a Friday night concert was us back in 1979 and we played it. I don’t know how many times we’ve played it — we’ve played a bunch. But, as I have to admit, I am eventually getting down to the last years of my career for one reason or another. It may be 10, it may be five, it may be one, I don’t know. As long as the good Lord’s willing for me to do it, I’m going to keep on doing it. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but there are certain places that I want to play again. And I told my manager early in the year, “I want to do Cheyenne again.” So he immediately set about making it happen. It was one of the places on — I guess you’d call it my bucket list — that I really wanted to visit. It’s one of my favorites, one of my favorite places, and I thoroughly enjoy going there.
C&I: You live that lifestyle of ranching, too. ...
Daniels: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we raise Horned Herefords and quarter horses.
C&I: What excites you most about playing at Cheyenne Frontier Days?
Daniels: It’s the rodeo. I mean, it’s got to be the best rodeo in the world. It’s just so Western. Some of the events there they don’t do at other rodeos. It’s the whole ambiance the town takes on during that time of year. The whole town turns into one gigantic rodeo background. Everything that’s going on is about the rodeo. And I’m sure the businessmen take off work, let people off work. It's a huge big holiday that goes on in Cheyenne, Wyoming, every year, and it’s great to be there and be a part of it.
C&I: Any special plans for the performance?
Daniels: I don’t have anything planned. I mean, you never know. If somebody happens to be there, somebody may drop by and I may invite them on stage, but I don’t have anybody at this particular time.
C&I: Are you planning anything special in terms of playing?
Daniels: I got a song called “Wyoming on My Mind” that I only do when I come to Wyoming. I’ll probably do it, but other than that, it’s pretty much the same set that we do everywhere else. I mean it’s what we play. People would be disappointed if we didn’t play “Devil Went Down to Georgia” or “Long-Haired Country Boy” and “In America.” With the exception of “Wyoming on My Mind,” we’ll probably do the same set we do every night.
C&I: What can we expect in terms of touring this coming year, other than Cheyenne Frontier Days?
Daniels: Oh, we’re all over the place. We’re everywhere. ... As I speak to you, I’m close to Columbus, Ohio. We’ll be working here tonight. Tomorrow night is in — well, we’ve got the night off tomorrow and then the next concert we do is in Iowa. So we’re all over the board. We’re everywhere. We’re coast to coast, border to border.
C&I: Is there anything else that you want to accomplish in your career that you haven’t done yet?
Daniels: As far as playing the places we’re playing, we’ll play Red Rocks in Denver again. I mean it’s a few places, you know, that are special to me and I want to see again before I hang it up, which I’m not saying I am hanging it up. I have made no plans whatsoever in that direction. But there are just some places I’d like to go again, and Cheyenne happened to be one of them. You know my ultimate goal is every record platinum, every show sold out. I haven’t reached that yet, so I’m still working on that.
C&I: What’s something that fans might not know about you?
Daniels: I drink English Breakfast tea in the morning instead of coffee. ... I drank coffee for years and I started drinking English Breakfast tea and I have it every morning. I order it. It’s Amelia’s Irish — well, actually Irish Breakfast tea. It is Irish Breakfast tea and I’ve been drinking it for years. I get up [and] my wife makes a pot of coffee [and] I make a pot of tea.
Speed Round with Charlie Daniels
Favorite place in the West: I got a place in the mountains of Colorado.
First song you look for on the jukebox: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Go-to bar drink: Whatever I’m in the mood for.
Staple in your wardrobe — My hat, my boots, my big belt buckle.
If you weren’t a singer, you’d be a ...: Maybe be a deejay and play records?
Other artists you’d recommend to your fans: Travis Tritt, Zac Brown, Justin Moore.
Favorite Western movie or TV show: Lonesome Dove.
Favorite Western book: I’m a big Louis L’Amour fan, but I’d have to go back and say Lonesome Dove, too.
For more information on Charlie Daniels, visit his website.
For more information on Cheyenne Frontier Days, visit their website.
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