Cover Story: Daniels' Boon

Country visionary Charlie Daniels stands at the brink of his sixth decade of work and influence

May 27, 1999 at 2:06 pm

Charlie Daniels' story is as big as the man himself. In his 63 years, Daniels has worked with some of the most renowned names in the music business, created and sustained the longest-running concert event, and literally changed the face of musical history, being an instrumental force in softening the ground for today's AltCountry revolution.

From his groundbreakingly successful Country Rock albums of the '70s right up to his latest album Tailgate Party, Charlie Daniels is a chapter in the big book of musical accomplishment all by himself.

Daniels was born in 1936 in North Carolina. His graduation from high school in 1955 came at an almost cosmically predestined point in history, as he formed a number of Rock & Roll bands inspired by the "subversive" influence of Elvis Presley. Finally settling with a band that would hold his attention for eight years, Daniels and his Rock combo, The Jaguars, scored a regional hit in 1959 with a song called "Jaguar," and he never looked back.

In the early '60s, Daniels and his songwriting partner Bob Johnston (who produced "Jaguar") relocated to Nashville, even though Daniels himself felt particularly out of place in the Country music capital. In one of the most amazing ironies in music, Daniels and Johnston wrote a song called "It Hurts Me," which Elvis Presley's scouts secured for him. The song eventually wound up as the B-side to "Kissin' Cousins," and Daniels had himself a bona fide hit song, covered by the singer who had inspired him.

"It was a tremendous thing to me," Daniels remembers.

"Of course, the money was always welcome. But it was also a milestone in saying, 'Hey, this is going to work. I can do something that can be marketed at a national level.' You need one of those every once in awhile."

Once he had established his songwriting credential, it was a short step to do the same with his performance résumé, and Daniels very quickly became a hot session property. When Bob Dylan began assembling talent for his Country music triptych (Nashville Morning, Self Portrait, and New Morning), Daniels was a lock for the fiddle player's position. He played on all three albums alongside equally gifted pickers like Norbert Putnam, Kenny Buttrey and David Bromberg. Daniels also played on Ringo Starr's grand Country experiment, Beaucoups of Blues, and toured with Leonard Cohen. Curious to explore the producer's role as well, Daniels moved behind the console to produce a pair of albums for the Youngbloods, Elephant Mountain and Ride the Wind.

In 1971, Daniels made the momentous decision to form a band of his own to play his Country compositions. Christened the Charlie Daniels Band, the group attempted to marry the rootsy Rock of the '60s to the Country sound that was quickly coming to the fore. After a couple of game tries, Daniels found the formula with Honey in the Rock, and a talking Blues/Bluegrass narrative called "Uneasy Rider," which made its way up the Country and Pop charts simultaneously. 1974's Fire on the Mountain offered up a pair of Daniels' classics, "Long Haired Country Boy" and "South's Gonna Do It," and the album went on to achieve double platinum status, signaling a long and amazing run for the CDB.

The inadvertent birth of the Volunteer Jam also happened in 1974, when Daniels organized an impromptu jam session to record a couple of live tracks for Fire on the Mountain. Assembling a conveniently scheduled core of members from widely respected Southern bands like the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, Daniels accidentally launched the longest-running concert series in music history. Although the concert was often forced from its annual status by scheduling conflicts, there have been 17 Volunteer Jams since 1974, and this year's marks the debut of the Jam as a tour rather than a single concert event. Most importantly, the Jam has always been a forum to expose his audience to new kinds of music each year.

"I don't like a steady diet of anything," Daniels says. "I love rice and gravy, but I don't want it every day. I always felt that other people are basically the same way. You take a band that's been around as long as we have, and you aren't going to come to see the same show every year for 20 years. So we try to do something a little different every year."

A decade of fascinating developments began as Daniels' long string of phenomenal successes with Epic came to an end in the early '90s, when he signed with Liberty Records. He also branched out into Gospel, recording a pair of Christian albums — The Door and Steel Witness — both of which were nominated for Grammys. The first acoustic Volunteer Jam was in 1996, and in 1997, Daniels, tiring of the label mentality, formed his own label, Blue Hat Records, and released Blues Hat, following that up with his first children's album, By the Light of the Moon. Last year saw the release of Fiddle Fire, a retrospective album of sorts as Daniels reworked a number of songs from his voluminous catalog with the fiddle taking center stage.

"Fiddle Fire was just another one of my little ideas," he says of the project. "I wanted to do all the old fiddle tunes over again. I'd wanted to do that for a long time, and we finally got around to doing it. I've got all kinds of little ideas. I'm thinking about doing a Jazz album, maybe a Bluegrass album. There's no telling what I might do."

This year finds Daniels once again looking back for material, as he tributes some of the greatest Southern Rock bands of the ages on his latest release, Tailgate Party. Covering artists as disparate as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hootie & the Blowfish, the Allmans, the Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie and Grinderswitch, Daniels has shown just how many rocking rooms there are in Country music's house.

Daniels has been mulling over the possibilities of Tailgate Party for quite awhile, and with Blue Hat was finally able to bring it to life.

"This is an album I've wanted to do for a long time," he says of the Party. "I hadn't planned on doing it, it was just a concept I had for many years that kept broadening as we went along. First, I wanted to do an album of obvious tribute material — Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, that sort of thing. The idea started to expand chronologically to include some of the newer people like Hootie & the Blowfish and Georgia Satellites, and geographically expanded to take in Texas so we could add ZZ Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan. So it became bands from the South, music from the South, from yesterday and today. Bands that I like. We just finally got around to doing it."

The whole concept of Tailgate Party would probably have been tabled by a major label, which is why Daniels formed Blue Hat.

"I don't fit, and I can't play the game here, or anywhere for that matter," he says honestly. "When I go into a studio, I've got to do what I want to do. I've always done that, that's where I've always had my success. It's hard to record for a major record label now and have that freedom. When we started, we thought we'd just lease the records to labels, and my manager said, 'Let's just start a label. Let's just set up distribution and see what happens.' It's a full-fledged record label, and we're going to be releasing other artists. It's not necessarily in the mainstream of things, it's the little projects like Tailgate Party and Fiddle Fire that would not so much excite a major record label because there's not hit singles on it. But it's something that Classic Rock radio seems to enjoy, and our fans love this Tailgate Party album. I do what I want to basically not worry about what record companies think about it, because we are the record company."

Having recently celebrated his 63rd birthday, Daniels shows no signs of letting up. He's already hit the road with the first Volunteer Jam nationwide tour, he's currently in the studio with country sensation Rhett Atkins to produce his new album (Daniels' first production job since the Youngbloods back in '69-'70), and he's gearing up to record an album of all new material sometime this year. And in between all of his other endeavors, Daniels is working on his autobiography.

"I've been writing an autobiography for several years," says Daniels of his book project. "I just literally have not had time to work on it. I don't know anything about writing, as far as how to go about it. I've never been a note-taker, or someone to make outlines. All I know to do is sit down and start typing. Every time I get to a certain point, and I start reviewing, I think of something I left out, or another story I wanted to tell, or another phase of my life that I didn't go into. It's a very time consuming thing, but I think I can get it finished the first part of next year. I call it Never Look at the Empty Seats. The point being — and it's pretty obvious by the title — accentuate the positive. Do what you can do at the time you can do it. You can't think about yesterday and you can't think about tomorrow when you're trying to do something important today. Don't worry about the ones that didn't come, entertain the ones in front of you."

As if that wasn't enough, Daniels has designs on developing new talent as well, possibly through his own Blue Hat label. "I want to find a talented person, whether it's Country music or Pop Rock, who's still got some stars in their eyes, who still has some illusions, and just dying to do something and willing to work for it," says Daniels about his as yet unknown prospect.

"I've got some ideas that I want to do that nobody's doing right now. I think music, especially Country music, has gotten bogged down. It's gotten too much into image and not enough into the music. I think it's time to move on and do some different things."

It's incredible that Daniels can think in terms of doing something different, with a career path that is strewn with variety. He's been nominated for and won Grammys, CMA awards, BMI awards, and countless other national and regional honors. He's written a book of short stories (The Devil Went Down to Georgia), recorded eight albums that went platinum (over half of them multiplatinum), and has performed at a presidential inauguration (Jimmy Carter's in 1976). He's even working on a Classical piece that may see performance with a symphony this year or next.

At an age when most men are settling into a sedentary routine as retirement approaches, Charlie Daniels is getting ready once again to shake up the foundations of the music he loves. One would expect no less from the long-haired country boy who helped to create the modern concept of Country and Rock.