Charlie Daniels - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            With his signature bullrider hat, bushy whiskers and six foot four inch frame, fiddler-guitarist-singer Charlie Daniels in one of the most distinctive figures in American music. The versatile, hard-charging Daniels, who has had his songs recorded by Elvis Presley and worked closely with Bob Dylan, always had one foot stuck deep in rock & roll and the other firmly planted in country. This winning combination made him a multi-platinum success and international sensation, thanks to his scorching, smash hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." He also contributed one of the most forceful songs about the Vietnam War experience with his extraordinarily intense,  vet-cherished "Still in Saigon." The virtuoso musician and staunch populist embodies the soul of Southern rock, a fact highlighted by his associations with Lynyrd Skynryd and the Marshall Tucker Band. A rugged, all-American individualist, Daniels' epitomizes rock & roll's fierce rebel pride like no other.


            Born Charles Edwards Daniels on October 29, 1936 in Wilmington, North Carolina, Daniels's lumberjack father fooled around the harmonica but the family displayed no other musical inclination. Nonetheless, Daniels was an accomplished, largely self-taught guitarist by age fifteen and soon went on to master both the mandolin and fiddle. Soon he gained a spot in the Misty Mountain Boys, a local bluegrass group which played a circuit of square dances and school parties. Following the eruptive influence of Elvis Presley, Daniels went rock & roll crazy and switched to Jacksonville, North Carolina-based rock & roll band The Rockets. At the time Daniels was working a day job at a creosote factory but almost immediately quit (legend tells that he gave up the gig to save a black co-worker from being laid off) and re-located, with The Rockets, to Washington DC. The nation's capitol was, at the time, a thriving center for country and rock & roll bands, and The Rockets stayed there for several years. In between tours that took them as far west as California, The Rockets first recorded in 1959, cutting a hot instrumental, “Jaguar,” produced by a Forth Worth-based record man, Bob Johnston, who forged a lasting alliance with Daniels. The single became a regional hit and was even picked up by Epic Records, whose national distribution provided a real shot in the arm, raising the band’s profile so much that they changed their name to The Jaguars.


            That initial promise was never really fulfilled and although "It Hurts Me," co-written by Daniels and Johnston, was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1963, playing southern style rock & roll in Beatles-Land was not exactly a golden ticket. Daniels relocated to Nashville, worked as studio musician and, after landing a job playing for Bob Dylan on the groundbreaking Nashville Skyline (Columbia-1969) sessions, appeared on Dylan’s next two releases, Self Portrait and New Morning (both Columbia-1970). Daniels was tapped again for 1973's Dylan (Columbia). With this impressive resume, Daniels was in demand, recording with Al Kooper, Marty Robbins, Ringo Starr, Tanya Tucker, Earl Scruggs and the Winter Brothers Band. He also served as producer for two albums by The Youngbloods but still found time to make his own distinctive music.


            Daniels had already released his own debut, Charlie Daniels (Capitol-1970), but was yet to make his mark outside of the studio. He next moved to the bubblegum label, Buddah Records, whose subsidiary Kama Sutra released the well-received Te John, Grease & Wolfman (1972) and the follow-up, Honey in the Rock (1973), which included his hippie-slanted, "talking blues" single, "Uneasy Rider," which in turn became Daniels's first Top Ten pop hit. But it was Fire on the Mountain (Kama Sutra-1975), with classic cuts like "Texas" and "The South's Gonna Do It," that really resonated and the album quickly went Gold (eventually reaching the Double Platinum sales plateau in 1992, a feat of remarkable longevity).


            He returned to Epic for the Saddle Tramp album (1976), with its Top 25 hit "Wichita Jail." When Daniels's Million Mile Reflections (Epic-1979) hit the airwaves everything changed. The choice of scorching fiddle number "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" was beyond prescient – it ascended to number three on the pop chart, number one on the country chart and sold like mad in Europe, becoming an overseas standard on par with "Orange Blossom Special.” It also earned Daniels a shelf full of awards: Nashville's Country Music Association’s Single of the Year, Instrumental Group of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year as well as the Grammy’s Best Performance by a Group or Duo. When the song turned up on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack (Daniels and his band were also featured in the film), sales went through the roof. By 1986, Million Mile Reflections was certified double platinum in a period when moving 100,000 units was considered a solid showing for any country artist. Daniels was a sensation, riding the golden crest of a national craze that Urban Cowboy instilled. Daniels made the most of it, guesting on countless television shows, selling out every appearance and even selling his own brand of chewing tobacco.


            His next album, Full Moon (Epic-1980), went platinum almost immediately and the single, "In America," made the Top 20 on both the country and pop charts. Redneck anthem "Long Haired Country Boy" landed in the Top 30. More awards included the Country Music Association's Instrumental Group of the Year and Founding Presidents Award, and the Academy of Country Music's award for Touring Band of the Year. Daniels rolled through the 1980s in high style, with Gold status sales for Windows (Epic-1981) and another platinum smash, Decade of Hits (Epic-1983). Playboy magazine named the Daniels band "Country Group of the Year" in '82, and the 1985 single, "Drinkin' My Baby Goodbye," haunted the charts for five months, much of it spent in the Top Ten.


            Daniels's fiery, populist, rocked up country remained popular but when he began issuing old timey gospel albums in the 1990s, he racked up a slew of Gospel Music Association and Christian Country Music Association awards.  He also enjoyed the honor of the Academy of Country Music's prestigious "Pioneer Award" in 1998. The best was yet to come – on January 19th, 2008, Daniels was made a regular cast member of the Grand Ole Opry, fulfilling a lifelong aspiration for which he was deeply grateful. "It is an honor that I can't begin to articulate," Daniels said. "There is no way I can express what it means to me." He may be one of rock & roll's certifiable key insiders, but Daniels's country heart is where it all began and he shrewdly used both passions to build an altogether extraordinary career.


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