Singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Charlie Daniels, whose fusion of traditional country and Southern rock made him a popular cross-genre artist during the ‘70s and ‘80s, died Monday of a hemorrhagic stroke in Hermitage, Tenn. He was 83.
After establishing himself on the Nashville studio scene with session and touring work behind such performers as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, Daniels attracted attention as a singer and bandleader in his own right with several singles for Kama Sutra and Epic Records – “Uneasy Rider,” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” “Long Haired Country Boy” – that expressed kinship with the redneck rockers in the country audience.
Country historian Bill C. Malone identified his appeal in his book “Country U.S.A.”: “This big, gruff, tobacco-chewing, outspoken musician embodied Southern good-old-boy traits almost to the point of caricature. He was nationalistic, hedonistic, macho…and lovable. He also made compelling music.”
Even before he scored a major national hit, Daniels was something of an icon among country rockers, mainly thanks to his headlining appearances at the annual, star-studded Volunteer Jam concerts, launched in Nashville in 1974; the event ran through 1996 and was officially revived in 2015.
He is best remembered for “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” his folk tale, set in a talking blues style, about a fiddling contest with Old Nick. The single climbed to No. 1 on the country chart and crossed over to No. 3 on the pop side in 1979, shifting 1 million copies.
The song, which received wide exposure on the multi-platinum soundtrack of the 1980 feature “Urban Cowboy,” captured a Grammy Award for best country vocal performance. It thrust Daniels’ album “Million Mile Reflections” to No. 5 on the pop album chart.
In the aftermath of “Devil,” Daniels scored further pop hits with the patriotic “In America” (No. 11, 1980) and a musing look back at the Vietnam War, “Still in Saigon” (No. 22, 1982). Those singles lofted his albums “Full Moon’ (1980) and “Windows” (1982) to No. 5 and No. 7 on the country albums charts, with the former collection reaching No. 11 on the pop side. His last top-20 country single, “Simple Man,” peaked at No. 12 in 1989.
In later years, Daniels continued to play for the faithful, but often was a lightning rod for controversy as he became an unabashed mouthpiece for right-wing political views. His later singles – “America I Believe in You,” “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” “My Beautiful America,” “The Pledge of Allegiance” – reflected an increasing tendency to wave the flag.
The musician was an especially devoted activist on behalf of America’s military, founding the veterans’ assistance non-profit the Journey Home Project with his manager David Corlew (and contributing $300,000 for the charity from the 2015 Volunteer Jam) and making regular appearances before U.S. troops — sometimes in combat zones like Iraq.
“I’ve played for them in bases in this country, overseas, on ships at sea, in Greenland, and Cuba, all over the place,” he told Forbes magazine in 2019. “And the main reason is to let them know somebody cares.”
Daniels, who joined the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
He was born Oct. 28, 1936, in Wilmington, N.C. Adept on fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin, he broke in playing bluegrass music with an act called the Misty Mountain Boys, and later branched into playing rock ‘n’ roll.
A major professional break came in 1964, when “It Hurts Me,” a song he co-authored with his friend Bob Johnston, was recorded by Elvis Presley for the flip side to his No. 12 single “Kissin’ Cousins,” the title song for his then-current movie.
Daniels remained close to Johnston, who became a staff producer for Columbia Records in Nashville. After the musician moved to Music City in 1967, Johnston employed him as a session player on three Bob Dylan albums, the singer-songwriter’s 1969 country debut “Nashville Skyline” and the 1970 releases “Self Portrait” and “New Morning.”
Daniels also played fiddle behind Leonard Cohen, another of Johnston’s production charges, at the Canadian singer-songwriter’s chaotic 1970 appearance at the Isle of Wight Festival. He branched into production in 1969 with work on the Youngbloods’ “Elephant Mountain.”
He began his solo career on Capitol Records in 1971, but his releases there and on Kama Sutra Records between 1972-74 failed to click in a major way. In ’74 he began a long-term association with Epic Records, and the label successfully marketed him to Southern rock fans, who knew Daniels for his side work with the Marshall Tucker Band. The institution of Volunteer Jam helped make the Charlie Daniels Band one of country’s top touring attractions of the ‘70s.
Daniels scored less regularly on the country and pop singles charts following his peak years of 1979-82, but “Simple Man” hit a final peak of No. 2 on the country albums list in 1989.
He branched into the gospel market with “The Door” on Sparrow Records in 1994, and established his own imprint, Blue Hat Records, in 1997. In the new millennium he worked for such indie labels as Audium, Koch and Megaforce.
In keeping with the tenor of his latter-day political and patriotic pronouncements — which he aired on Twitter and in the “Soap Box” section of his official web site — Daniels published his self-explanatory “Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family, and the Flag” in 2003.
His memoir “Never Look at the Empty Seats” appeared in 2017; “Let’s All Make the Day Count:The Everyday Wisdom of Charlie Daniels” was published in 2018.
He is survived by his wife Hazel and son Charlie Jr.