Charlie Daniels, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame who sang “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” recorded with Bob Dylan and was a vocal supporter of U.S. veterans, died Monday morning after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 83.
By the time the Charlie Daniels Band topped the charts with “Devil” in 1979, the instrumentalist, singer and songwriter had long established a remarkable, multifaceted career in Nashville. As a session musician, he played on three of Bob Dylan’s albums — including the revolutionary “Nashville Skyline” — as well as recordings for Ringo Starr and Leonard Cohen.
He was a fixture of the touring circuit for the next 40 years, became a tireless advocate for servicemen and women, and entered the information age as one of country music’s most outspoken conservative voices.
“His music fused the immediacy of Southern rock with the classic country storytelling that he heard as a child,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Monday. “He brought new audiences to country music, pointing people to the sources even as he explored the edges.”
He is survived by his wife, Hazel; son, Charles William Daniels; and Alaya Nowling and Evan Tubb, whom Daniels considered his grandchildren.
‘We would follow him into battle’
Born Oct. 28, 1936, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Charles Edward Daniels grew up inspired by church music and local bluegrass bands. He listened to Nashville’s WSM and WLAC, which streamed country and R&B music from all the way from Music City to Daniels’ radio speaker in North Carolina.
Daniels merged those sounds in the mid-1950s to create rock band The Jaguars, which most notably recorded instrumental single “Jaguar,” in Fort Worth, Texas, for national distribution via Epic Records. In Texas, he’d connect with producer Bob Johnston, who — years later — Daniels would credit with helping him find his way as a songwriter and sought-after session player in Nashville.
In 1964, Daniels and Johnston co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” a single cut by Elvis Presley that proved the first victory in decades of songwriting success to come.
“(Elvis) recorded it, and it was by far … the biggest thing that had ever happened to me in my life,” Daniels once said.
Three years passed before Daniels and his distinct country-rock influence would pull into Music City. Living in Newport, Kentucky, with his wife, Hazel, and 2-year-old son, Charles William Daniels, the seasoned stage player headed South with ideas of substituting beer joint stages for session work in Nashville.
And Daniels rolled into Nashville — literally, as he told The Tennessean in 2014 — beginning a five-decade stay in Middle Tennessee.
“I came to Nashville in 1967, with the clutch out of my car and a ($20) dollar bill,” Daniels told The Tennessean in 2014. “I didn’t fit the Nashville type very well. I’d come out of 12 years of playing bang-slang, balls-to-the-wall music in clubs, and I played too loud and too bluesy.”
With Johnston’s help, Daniels carved his name in the late 1960s and early ’70s as a marquee Nashville player, working with the likes of Starr, Cohen and, most notably, Bob Dylan.
In 1969, Johnston called Daniels to pinch hit for an absent guitarist during a Dylan session at Columbia’s historic Studio A. After the session, Daniels heard nine words from Dylan that would change his life.
“I don’t want another guitar player,” Daniels, in a 2019 interview with The Tennessean, recalled hearing. He recited each syllable delivered with an excitement untouched by five decades: “I want him.”
He’d finish the Dylan sessions — what would be “Nashville Skyline,” an album considered one of the most influential out of Music City in the late 1960s — and returned for two more albums with the freewheelin’ Midwesterner, “Self Portrait” and “New Morning.”
“Dammit, it was just fun,” Daniels said in 2019. “It was a very pleasant experience.”
The life of a session sideman wouldn’t stick, though. He’d cut a self-titled debut album in 1970, forming the Charlie Daniels Band — or CDB, as it was known for decades at concert theaters, state fairs and race tracks — in 1971.
A bearded embodiment of fast-fiddlin’ Southern life, Daniels cut a handful of solo efforts in the early 1970s, none more notable than “Fire on the Mountain” — the Platinum-selling release that spilled into mainstream country and Southern rock success. Daniels would proceed to sell more than 13.5 million records, per the RIAA, logging nine Gold, Platinum or multi-Platinum releases.
On “Fire …” Daniels released singles “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” the latter a swinging concoction of blues, country and rock that would be a rallying cry for Daniels’ Southern ethos.
“There are few artists that touched so many different generations in our business than Charlie Daniels did,” Sarah Trahern, Country Music Association CEO, said in a statement. “Today, our community has lost an innovator and advocate of country music.”
In 1974, alongside longtime manager David Corlew, he launched the first “Volunteer Jam,” a regular all-star concert in Tennessee that continued for nearly 50 years. Billy Joel, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, Roy Acuff, Garth Brooks, the Allman Brothers Band and The Marshall Tucker Band are among the alumni of the series, which held its most recent edition in 2018.
Backed by “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” “Trudy” and the rest of his growing catalog, Daniels would forge a reputation among his peers as a scorching live player who bridged his steadfast country-rock to bluegrass and blues music.
“We would follow him into battle,” friend and Nashville musician Larry Gatlin shared Monday. “We would not follow him on stage. We couldn’t. No one else could either. ‘Nuff said.”
‘Devil Went Down To Georgia’
Upon its release in 1979, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” didn’t just top the country chart, it became a huge pop crossover hit — climbing up to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart behind The Knack’s “My Sharona” and Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone.”
The song won Daniels’ only Grammy Award in 1979, for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group, and it gained even greater ubiquity one year later, when Daniels and his band performed it in the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy.”
“Devil’s” crossover success was exceptional, but it also wasn’t an accident. Over the record’s breakneck tempo, Daniels sings of “Johnny,” a hotshot musician who gambles his soul against the devil in a fiddling duel.
The setup allowed Daniels and his band to pit bluegrass fiddle up against fiery rock riffs, and it proved to be a winning combination.
The duel plays out over Daniel’s dizzying solos, and ultimately “Johnny” prevails, proclaiming, “I done told you once, you son of a b—-, I’m the best there’s ever been.”
As he played “Devil” at nearly every concert for the next 40 years, Daniels made it a habit to challenge himself.
“I get a chance to play it better tonight than I did last night and better tomorrow night than I did tonight,” Daniels said in 2016. “I haven’t played it perfect yet. I am in love with walking on stage and entertaining people with songs I have written. It’s one of the few times in my life that I feel like I know what I’m doing.”
‘It all adds up’
Still, Daniels undoubtedly had many other passions. A staunch supporter of U.S. troops and veterans, he spent much of his career traveling overseas to play for service members in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2014, he co-founded the Journey Home Project, a non-profit that has now raised more than $1 million for veterans and veterans-related programs and charities. The following year saw the opening of the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
For the last four years, hardly a day went by without Daniels sharing this message on his Twitter account: “22 VETERANS COMMIT SUICIDE EVERY DAY!!”
On the platform, the man who sang 1980’s confrontational “In America” solidified his reputation as one of the most outspoken figures in country music. In daily posts, he would decry abortion as “murder,” ask fans to “pray for the blue,” and declare that “Benghazi ain’t going away.”
“We’re sitting on the upstairs porch looking at the northern horizon and watching America light up, fireworks going off all over the place,” he tweeted on July 4. “You may tear down statues and burn buildings but you can’t kill the spirit of patriots and when they’ve had enough this madness will end.”
But in his twilight years, Daniels also continued to relate to the counter-cultural heroes he once played with. In 2014, he covered “The Times They Are a-Changin,” “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and others on a full album of acoustic Dylan covers.
“All these things, they’re just all part of my life,” he told The Tennessean in 2014. “It all adds up. And whatever differences you may have, there are 12 notes of music in the world where you can find common ground.”
Late career honors
In 1994, Daniels returned to the gospel music that influenced him as a child, releasing his first Christian album, “The Door.” The record would yield Daniels his first of three Grammy Award nominations for Southern gospel recordings. He’d earn his last Grammy Award nomination in 2005, for Country Instrumental Performance on “I’ll Fly Away.”
Daniels and Corlew launched Blue Hat Records in 1997, a label home for late career releases the likes of “Road Dogs” and Dylan tribute collection, “Off The Grid.”
At age 70, he joined the ranks of country music stalwarts enshrined as a Grand Ole Opry member. He’d regularly perform on the 94-year-old country music radio tradition until his death.
“To be able to be a member and to have my name linked with my heroes is some pretty heady stuff for a guy that loves music and loves the Grand Ole Opry as much as I do,” Daniels once said.
Beyond the Opry, Daniels was a fixture of touring circuit until COVID-19 brought the industry to a halt this year.
“We play over one hundred cities every year and they’re all special in their own way, but when you get a chance to bring it all back home, especially when so many of your friends are joining you, it don’t get much better than that,” Daniels said in 2019.
In 2016, Daniels earned a top honor for any Nashville musician: A place alongside the all-time greats in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Entering at nearly 80 years old, he joined Randy Travis and Fred Foster for the year’s Hall of Fame class.
He was “weak” and speechless when hearing the news he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Daniels told The Tennessean in 2016.
“I’m so glad it went this way,” he said. “This is the cherry on top of the icing. It doesn’t go any further. That’s where the cake stops.”