He played his “fiddle hot,” loyally followed his ideals, pandered to none, and was both patriot and protester in the land of the free. Charles “Charlie” Daniels, 83, died the morning of July 6 from a hemorrhagic stroke. A multi-instrumentalist, he was skilled on the mandolin, guitar, banjo, and fiddle. As a lauded Nashville session musician, with gospel, country, and bluegrass roots, creator of well-known solo works, and writer of well-reviewed books, Daniels will never be forgotten.
In 1955, the young musician hit the road after graduating high school, finding his way to the country music scene in Nashville. His early years in the country music capital were akin to taking friendly fire. As he once said, “It was a tough move for a while. And it took a while to get anything going.”
But he finally did, and, boy, did his brand and style come along at the right time.
When Fame Came
Daniels soon became a go-to guy in the music industry. He played back-up for the Marshall Tucker Band and fiddle for Hank Williams Jr. But he finally emerged front and center with his 1975 Billboard hit Uneasy Rider, a play on the movie Easy Rider. Daniels’ catchy tune highlights the burgeoning rift between traditional Southern living and the 1960s counterculture of weed and civil uprising. The song’s story is relayed by a long-haired, dope-smoking hippie who ends up in a small Southern bar filled with good ol’ boys.
A slew of hits followed, including The South’s Gonna Do It Again, a much-misunderstood chart-topper, which was simply about Southern rock and country music rising from the ashes. He set the record straight in 1975: “I’m damn proud of the South, but I sure as hell am not proud of the Ku Klux Klan … I wrote the song about the land I love and my brothers. It was not written to promote hate groups.”
He also released a song that seemed to some in the country music world to be anti-American: Still in Saigon. This brought attention to the returning Vietnam soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
But his primary hit, which crossed over from country into rock, The Devil Went Down to Georgia, was a Christian song about the challenge good people face daily with evil. Lyrics spin a tale of the Devil, behind in stealing souls, who attempts to bribe a young man into falling for a swift payday. But Good triumphs; the Devil, soundly beat, slinks away; Johnny keeps the golden fiddle. And Daniels now had an even broader audience for his beliefs and values.
For a man as successful as Daniels, he did have one professional regret. When asked if there was a musician he hadn’t worked with, he said, “BB King, hands down. I’d love to get up and jam with BB.” Perhaps that earthly wish is now coming true.
Politics and Rock
Daniels expressed his political views early on in his storytelling lyrics. But in 1976, he publicly supported mild-mannered Southerner Jimmy Carter for president — playing at the 1977 inauguration for the 39th president of the United States. By 1979, his respect for the peanut farmer from Georgia soured as the Iran hostage crisis went unresolved. With American lives in jeopardy, Daniels penned the lyrics to the song America to send a unifying message: “We’ll all stick together, and you can take that to the bank. That’s the cowboys, and the hippies, and the rebels and the yanks.”
He supported George W. Bush’s policies after the Towers fell on 9/11, yet in 2004 Daniels gave presidential candidate John Kerry a tip of the hat. Having not served in the military, Daniels deferred commenting against Kerry, his service record, or the Swift Boat veterans weighing in on Kerry’s leadership skills.
A Good Man
By all accounts, Daniels was a good man. A loving husband, an involved father, a friend and protector. Throughout his career, he earned several Grammy Awards, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, was invited into the Grand Ole Opry, and received countless accolades from industry peers and friends alike.
But Daniels’ most passionate work was for U.S. veterans — and most recently the move to house the homeless and treat the after-effects of war. His was a platform to serve the underserved.
Hazel, Charlie’s wife, and son Charles Daniels Jr. survive — as well as millions of friends and fans. And, much like the fiddling hero Johnny, the Devil, at Daniels’ passing, knew that he’d been beat — again. Daniels now has a golden fiddle at his feet, and it’s probable even the Devil himself mourns his loss, the “best that’s ever been.”
Read more from Sarah Cowgill.