As first seen in GI Money magazine
Charlie Daniels was born in 1936, what was rural Wilmington, North Carolina. His musical influences came early into his Southern childhood: Pentecostal gospel, local bluegrass bands, rhythm & blues and country music reached his home from Nashville’s 50,000-watt mega-broadcasters WLAC and WSM. After graduating from high school, already playing guitar, fiddle and mandolin, he formed a rock ‘n’ roll band.
Daniels moved to middle Tennessee to find work as a session guitarist in Nashville. Among his more notable sessions were Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, New Morning, and Self Portrait. Daniels produced the Youngbloods albums Elephant Mountain and Ride the Wind, toured Europe with Leonard Cohen and performed on records with artists as diverse as Al Kooper and Marty Robbins.
When Daniels started recording on his own in 1973, he had a hit with the hippie song “Uneasy Rider.” His rebel anthems “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It” in 1975’s Fire On the Mountain went to Double Platinum status. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” became a Platinum single, topped country and pop charts, won a Grammy Award, earned three Country Music Association trophies, became a cornerstone of the Urban Cowboy movie soundtrack and propelled Daniel’s Million Mile Reflections album to Triple Platinum sales levels.
His annual Volunteer Jam concerts served as a prototype for many of today’s annual day-long music marathons. They’ve always featured a variety of current stars and heritage artists. The jams are considered by historians as his most impressive contribution to Southern music.
Daniels was inducted as a full-fledged member into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008. He fundraises for many charitable organizations, actively tours and records. Daniels has performed USO shows for decades.
What is your latest album project?
Off the Grid – Doin’ It Dylan: 10 Bob Dylan tunes that we tried very hard to do in our own style. I feel we were successful at it!
Does Bob Dylan play any of your work?
Ha ha! No. I haven’t heard that he does. But I did hear that he does one of our songs during sound-check: Old Rock ‘n’ Roller.
Do you consider yourself a country or country-rock star?
I don’t consider myself to be a star. But as for the other, all of the above! I don’t put any parameters on what I play.
Do you think it would be tough for you coming up now, as radio stations and record stores wouldn’t know what slot to put you in? Isn’t that what was the problem for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, that “they” didn’t know what to do with them?
It’s kinda our problem! They don’t know how to label us. We play all kinds of American styles: bluegrass, country, rock, even jazz. We’re American!
Tell me about the Copperweld-Charlie Daniels Scholarship for Heroes.
It’s my concept. Together with Lipscomb University, we’ve helped about 200 students. It’s to make sure that the men and women of the armed forces, with an emphasis on the wounded, have the opportunity to go to college. For most people in the armed forces, the military is not going to be their lifelong career. They find themselves having to jump-start their careers in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s. After a catastrophic injury, they have to know that it’s not the end of their dreams, they have to have another dream. We help them to find another dream. We can no longer depend on the government, they’ve proven that. It’s going to have to be the private sector that pitches in. The private sector will have to do it.
Are you close with anyone who has been in combat situations?
Oh, yeah. My ranch manager is a Vietnam vet. Nobody comes back unscathed. My ranch manager was a Corpsman. He’s in better mental shape than so many who came back, but he’s really strong minded.
Your career-long keyboardist and friend, “Taz” DiGregorio, died in 2011. What advice do you have for servicemen, vets and their families for going on after the death of a loved one?
Every case, every situation is different. There is no one piece of advice that works for everybody. Accept it, first of all. Hopefully, you have God, Jesus Christ in your life. It’s the hardest thing to do, to accept it. For a while, I would almost look over to stage right, expecting to see him there. I didn’t replace our keyboardist for a while. We played for 5 weeks without a keyboardist.
There’s a lot more to the business than playing on stage. Do you interview or screen for certain traits when auditioning musicians?
First of all, they have to be able to play what we do. Just because they can play one kind of style good, we do lots of styles. We have long hours, long days: they have to get along with the group. They see us more in the summer than their families do. I don’t have a lot of rules, but you gotta follow them. I don’t want you to argue with me. They have to be a good person.
You’ve changed some of your lyrics in live shows as your faith grew. Did you ever get any pushback about that? What advice do you have for people who find themselves having to defend their faith in the workplace?
I just say, my faith is gonna be here. You don’t like it, you don’t like me. I say, go ahead and do it – you’re gonna come up on top. With the lyrics, they were always tongue in cheek. I didn’t always walk the walk. It’s ongoing. Some choices you didn’t know were wrong. I’m not a prude, but I find some things I see, like tv shows, aren’t right for me.