When President Carter was still Jimmy Who in the mid-’70s, a burly country-rocking nomad helped keep his political fantasies alive with three fund-raising gigs. Carter never forgot. “Without Charlie Daniels,” the President has reminisced, “I might not be President today.”
Singer/guitarist/fiddler Daniels may play for the re-election campaign, but don’t count on the Carter camp to cash in on Daniels’ recent No. 1 hit. It’s called The Devil Went Down to Georgia (he was lookin’ for a soul to steal). And no, the irresistible tune is not about deprogramming the President’s evangelist sister but a strictly apolitical shuffle about a fiddler who bets—and beats—Satan with his bow. The hit may have no impact on Carter’s constituency, but it has mercifully ended, for Daniels, 43, nearly a decade of stoic barnstorming as the Charlie Who on the Southern rock circuit.
With The Devil burning the charts, Daniels’ 10th LP, Million Mile Reflections, topped a million in sales. Even sweeter, the ever-Stetsoned Daniels, a Nashvillian when not on the road, walked off with the only hat trick at the Country Music Awards this month: best single (Devil), best instrumental group (The Charlie Daniels Band) and best solo instrumentalist (upsetting perennials Chet Atkins and Roy Clark).
“It’s like being 5 years old,” whooped Daniels, “and getting the Lone Ranger for Christmas.” During his long, cold wait, it was mainly a loyal cult of “longhaired country boys” that was drawn to his driving, crisp fusion music and his imposing, maverick profile. Yet at 6’2″ and 265 pounds, Daniels is not one to hold back his eclectic homebrewed opinions to ingratiate himself to anyone. Politicians debating SALT “are just interested in the proliferation of themselves,” he observes, and of preachers decrying progressive gospel rockers, he snaps: “The Bible says ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ It don’t say, ‘Make sure the choirmaster’s got a degree from Vanderbilt.’ ”
Daniels does continue to respect the President. “He’s still a good man,” he says. “I just wish Congress would find it out.” But his annual Volunteer Jam, an all-star Southern rock concert in Nashville, is for raising hell, not consciousness and cause-money. Charlie’s one campaign these days is the altering of buildings and transportation to accommodate the handicapped.
A Western folklore buff who visits author pal Louie L’Amour in L.A., Daniels has a pioneer’s instinct. “A man’s got a right to protect his family, and anyone on my property at night’s gonna get dog bit or shot,” he explains. He doesn’t pick brawls, but last year a New Yorker who badgered him repeatedly about his “silly” hat got to Daniels and drew a lesson in frontier justice. “Weren’t no fracas,” Daniels shrugs. “I just slammed him around a little and turned him loose. But I felt terrible. It was a sin. I should have turned away. Hell, people have been telling me I look silly all my life.”
It began in Wilmington, N.C., and Daniels attended as many as three schools a year while his father, a timber purchaser, pursued the Southern white pine. Charlie picked up guitar at 15 and was playing in bands before he was 20. On one Midwest tour he met and married Hazel Alexander in 1964. Two years later he tried to crack the competitive Nashville sessions scene and got established, to say the least, as lead guitar behind Dylan on the 1969 Nashville Skyline LP.
Daniels formed his own six-man band in 1971. Playing up to 250 nights a year, the band has prided itself on near flawless attendance. But, during the Three Mile Island accident, a Harrisburg, Pa. gig was canceled. “It took radiation,” he says, “to stop rock’n’roll.” As for more common industrial hazards of rock, Daniels reports: “I have the opportunity but not the inclination for groupies. I’ve got too much going for me at home.”
Hazel and son Charlie, 14, count “head and shoulders above everything else” back home in their log cabin on 75 rolling acres outside Music City. Daniels is no more kin to the “Perrier and lime for lunch bunch” than he is to his rhinestoned colleagues. “I take what I want from different levels and let the rest go.” A 100-plus golfer, he also collects wine: “Sometimes,” he says, “I’ll order red with stuffed flounder just to show some French-accented s.o.b. waiter that I’ll do what I damn well please.” He occasionally drinks Jack Daniels like he was collecting royalties (they’re not related).
“I can’t see myself as nothin’ but a lucky, blessed musician,” Daniels says humbly. “Someone once asked me how happy I was on a scale of one to 10.1 had to say ’11.’ ”