“People ask me all the time, ‘Where do you like to play?’ I say, anywhere I can get grits for breakfast. I don’t think that’s a problem in Montgomery,” Charlie Daniels told me with a laugh four years ago.
I’m sure they’ve got grits in heaven, too.
Allen Sanders, general manager at the Montgomery Performing Arts Centre, said he’d worked on and off with Daniels for about 15 years.
“He was a gentle, soft spoken, authentic genuine man,” Sanders said. “He was always very gracious for the shows we did together. We almost always spent about 20-30 minutes together before a show discussing current issues from politics, religion, and current events. We in the music community lost a great man and heaven gained a great soul.”
Daniels is survived by his wife, Hazel, and son Charlie Daniels Jr.
“I love my family. I love being with them,” Daniels told me last year. “I love being on the road. I love getting on the stage and entertaining people. Time just gets gone. You’re just having fun.”
Talking with Charlie
I’ll never forget the first time I spoke with Daniels.
It was 2016, just ahead of his 80th birthday, and I was on the road to a camping trip. He called and had a way of making me feel like an old friend. As cars slowly drove past me on that country road, we spoke for about 15 minutes while my family was in a store getting supplies.
Daniels was truly one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve ever had the chance to interview. It was like talking to a grandpa – a really cool, funny one. Among other things, we spoke about having similar birthdays. His was Oct. 28, and mine is two days later. The Wilmington, North Carolina native recalled going to Halloween carnivals every year around his birthday.
Daniels was coming to Montgomery to play at MPAC during the 2016 Buckmasters Expo, just ahead of his being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“This Hall of Fame thing just came out of the blue,” he told me.
So did the exhibit they created for him at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville. Another museum that exhibited him had lost its lease, and Daniels had all the stuff from it. Daniels said he let the Hall of Fame folks sort through it and take whatever they wanted.
“You know, Shannon, one of the interesting things after having gone through a museum situation before is watching somebody else besides you put the pieces of your life together in the order that they see them and in the importance that they see them,” Daniels said.
We had a chance to speak on the phone a couple more times ahead of area shows. One thing that struck me is that he always called me by my name. He worked it into the conversation, like he was talking to a longtime friend. This was a man who had to speak to countless journalists on a regular basis for decades. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying he made interviews into a personal experience.
“It’s a blessing of God that I can do something for a living that I love so much and be recognized for it. It really is,” Daniels told me.
He was an amazing musician, who wasn’t afraid to admit he had a flaw in his art. But he used it. In fact, his whole iconic fiddle playing style was built around it.
“Well, it comes from learning how to do it wrong, basically,” Daniels said. “I didn’t have anybody teaching me when I started playing fiddle. I just picked it up and started trying to learn to play it. A long laborious process, as you might imagine. I held the bow wrong, for one thing. I hold it… it’s hard to explain without actually standing there to show you. I hold it wrong. I hold the fiddle wrong. I put too much pressure on the bow. But it actually, the way I do it, makes me sound a little bit different. If you’re listening to our stuff, my fiddle’s got a little bit of a grinding sorta sound to it. That comes from actually making a mistake. From actually doing it wrong. But it works for me. I have kids that ask me about it. I say, ‘Don’t look at me. Don’t pay any attention to the way I do it, because I do it wrong. It’ll work for me, but it may not work for you.’ As I said, it’s a result of learning it the wrong way, but it works for me.”
His sound is the music of America, a land he loved dearly. When people would ask Daniels what kind of music he liked to play, country or Southern rock, he’d tell them “all of the above.”
“When I came along — I was born in 1936 — I was born in rural parts,” Daniels said. “I lived in rural parts of the South. The radio stations were few and far between. I mean, there was not nearly as many as there is now, and they had to service the whole community. They played everything. They were not formatted for one kind of music. They had to do the news, and all the different kinds of music. They’d start off with country music, then they’d play something for the ladies who were home keeping house, and then when the kids came in from school, they’d play whatever the popular music of the day was. I remember back when it was big bands. It went through the metamorphosis of R&B and rock and roll, Elvis and Carl Perkins and all. So I heard so many kinds of music when I was coming up that I guess when I got ready to write original music that some of those styles kept creeping in. I’ve written all kinds of stuff. I’ve recorded all kinds of stuff. We do jazz and rock and country and bluegrass and gospel, just some of all that kind of music. So I just say it’s American music.”
When I asked Daniels last year if there was anything he still wanted to accomplish, he said, “I want to catch a 10 pound large mouth bass, and I want to kill an 8-point buck. I haven’t done that yet.”
Music and fame
Daniels was both a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a Dove award winner, and a Grand Ole Opry member since 2008. He had a multi-platinum career that spanned more than 60 years, and was especially known for his Grammy-winning hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It’s the tale of a boy named Johnny who takes on the devil in a fiddle playing contest, betting his soul against a golden fiddle.
“It’s not faddy. It’s not trendy, or anything,” Daniels said in 2019 during his song’s 40th anniversary. “It’s just means the same thing all the time, and I think kids just kind of grew up with it. They just kind of keep it with them as they go along.”
The song was from the Charlie Daniels Band’s 1979 album Million Mile Reflections.
“My gosh, that’s been a long time ago,” Daniels said. “I think our minds are preconditioned to accept the number 40 as meaning some kind of change.”
Speaking out online Monday, Montgomery native country star Jamey Johnson offered thanks to Daniels for teaching everyone the difference between a violin and a fiddle.
“I hope you enjoy your new one made of gold,” Johnson said.
Daniels was certainly no one-hit wonder. When he performed in concert, he always did his other big hits, like “Long Haired Country Boy” and “Legend of Wooley Swamp,” but said he also loved to throw in other album cuts at his concerts – ones he liked that may not have received a lot of attention.
Andy Whatley of the Montgomery band Whatley and Co. opened for the Charlie Daniels Band in 2019, on what would be the Daniels’ last performance in Montgomery.
“It’s always sad to lose a hero such as Charlie Daniels, so gifted so talented,” Whatley said. “I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to share the stage with him last year. He was extremely genuine and nice as anyone could be. We will miss him greatly. So glad he left us with so much music.”
In 2018, longtime Montgomery bluesman Stanford Barnes opened for Daniels at a show in Dothan. Barnes – who has played with the likes of Clarence Carter, John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo, B.B. King, Johnnie Taylor and Wilson Pickett – was inducted into the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. But it was his first time playing with Daniels.
Recalling the show, Barnes said, “(Daniels) applauded me for pleasing the crowd the way we did.”
“I love the blues,” Daniels said in an interview just prior to the 2018 show.
So much so that Daniels had his own version he’d just released online in June with his side project band Beau Weevils – “Geechi Geechi Ya Ya Blues (Quarantine Edition).” The music video includes special guests: Colin Raye, Larry Gatlin, Crystal Gayle, Ray Stephens, The Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Owen, Lorrie Morgan, Rhonda Vincent, TG Sheppard and T. Graham Brown.
Daniels wrote every day, passing on wisdom on his website and working on books like his “Never Look at the Empty Seats: A Memoir” and “Let’s All make the Day Count – The Everyday Wisdom of Charlie Daniels.”
Stars praise Charlie
Other stars poured out their love for Daniels on social media as well.
Travis Tritt wrote that Daniels was the first legendary artist to take him under his wing and encourage him.
“He was always there for me when I needed him,” said Tritt. “I have so many great memories of touring, performing, writing and recording with Charlie, but my favorite memories are of simply talking with the man when it was just the two of us alone.”
“We have so many memories together, and I am so blessed to have known him,” said Brad Paisley.
Jason Aldean said he was heartbroken over Daniels’ death, and the Oak Ridge Boys posed that it was hard to process this immeasurable loss.
“What a hero. A true patriot, Christian, and country music icon,” wrote Luke Bryan.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser reporter Shannon Heupel at firstname.lastname@example.org.