The Country Music Hall of Famer was 83.
Charlie Daniels, the country music and Southern rock icon best known for such signature hits as “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” and “Long-Haired Country Boy,” died Monday morning at Summit Medical Center in Hermitage, Tennessee, at age 83. According to his publicist, doctors determined the cause of death was a hemorrhagic stroke.
During a performing and recording career that spanned six decades, Daniels excelled in several musical genres as singer, songwriter, instrumentalist — on fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin — and influential mentor. A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, he began his career playing bluegrass music with a group called The Misty Mountain Boys. He moved to Nashville in the 1960s and quickly established as a producer, session musician, and songwriter. No less a notable than Elvis Presley recorded a tune Daniels co-wrote, “It Hurts Me,” which was released on the flip side of Presley’s 1954 hit single “Kissin’ Cousins.”
During a 2014 interview with Cowboys & Indians to promote his album Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan, Daniels said he enjoyed a major career boost in the late 1960s and early ‘70s after working as a session musician for Bob Dylan in Nashville.
“I did three albums with him – Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning,” Daniels said. “And it was one of the biggest things that had ever happened to me at the time. Because he would always put the names of the studio musicians who worked with him on the back of the album covers.
“And at the time, he was billed as a prophet and a poet laureate, that kind of thing. I don’t know if he wanted to be. I don’t know if that was his choice. But people did look at him that way anyway. And they wanted to know everything about Bob Dylan. They’d look at the back of his albums to see who played on them. So if you played on a Dylan album, there was a certain amount of recognition you got from it And it helped me out career-wise. Definitely.”
The critically acclaimed Off the Grid album served as a tribute to Dylan, with Daniels and his band performing their distinctive versions of such familiar Dylan songs as “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall,” “Just Like a Woman” and “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
“Our intention in this whole thing was to do it differently than how Bob did it,” Daniels said. “So we actually were very picky about the songs we did, because we wanted to do songs without copying Bob’s arrangements. And my guys are just great about creating stuff. Like my guitar player came up with that riff in ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’ Everybody just kind of added onto that, and away we went. That’s how we do it, that’s how we create music.”
Better still, he could see from the age range in his concert audiences that he wasn’t simply performing for fellow senior citizens.
“I did a song back in 1973 called ‘Uneasy Rider,’” Daniels said. “And if I ever had a song that was frozen in time, that’s it. It depicted the social situation of that day, the hippie-versus-redneck thing. And I am always surprised when somebody who wasn’t around in those days – who wouldn’t remember those days, who weren’t even born yet when it came out – asks for it. I mean, how could they relate to the song? What does it mean to them? But I get requests for it from younger people all the time.
“We are in our third generation of people now,” Daniels continued. “People who came and saw us during their younger years are now bringing their grandchildren. You know, we have a special section of our fan club we call The Century Club. And the way to get into the Century Club is, you have to come to a hundred shows over the years. And they get a belt buckle when they become a member. And you would not believe how many of those things I’ve passed out. I don’t know even know – I’ve lost count on it.
“We’ve been around since 1971 as The Charlie Daniels Band. That’s a lot of years, you know? But to have people come with you and stay that long – that’s the great thing about it. I just thank God I make a living doing something I love so very much.”
In 2016, Daniels released his most recent studio album, Night Hawk, in which he put an acoustic spin on cowboy songs both well-known and relatively obscure.
“Most of our concepts about cowboys, and all things western, are mostly derived from movies and TV,” Daniels said while announcing the album’s release. “Well, the truth of the matter is, the real cowboys are not glow-in-the-dark characters who go around fighting rustlers and cleaning out saloons with their fists. The actual working cowboy is a hard-working, different breed who spend endless hours in the saddle. And as Louis L’Amour said, they ‘ride for the brand.’ Night Hawk is a tribute to the working cowboy and his way of life.”
Daniels spoke with C&I again two years ago to discuss Never Look at the Empty Seats: A Memoir, his entertainingly blunt-spoken autobiography, in which he repeatedly emphasized how important it is for any performer, either an up-and-comer or an established star, to leave your troubles and worries back in your dressing room before you go out on stage, to make sure you give people the show they deserve. Not surprisingly, Daniels practiced what he preached.
“An awful lot of it is attitude,” he told C&I in 2018. “If you develop an attitude that when 8 o’clock comes at night, or whatever time you play, it’s your time to shine. That regardless of what else is going on, you put it all aside. That you’re gonna spend a couple hours or however long you’re gonna be in the public eye, or however long you’re gonna be doing meet-and-greets, or whatever you’re gonna be doing. That there are a couple of hours in every day that don’t really belong to you — they belong to the people who are paying your living, who have made your life a dream. And you owe that to them.
“If you’re too sick to go on and do a good job, to actually be able to entertain these people who have meant so much to your life, then you’re too sick to play. You should not go on. If you’re gonna go on stage, you need to go on and do your best to give these people a show, because they’re the ones that make everything possible for you. So, yeah, if it’s bad enough to where you can’t do your job, you shouldn’t go on. You’re too sick to go on. But if you’re not, then go out there and do it. Put yourself aside, regardless of what’s happened that day. You owe those people who bought those tickets, so get out there and give ’em a show.”
And now it’s time to give Charlie Daniels one last round of grateful cheers and hearty applause.