One of the best things about being Arts & Entertainment editor is the people I get to interview, whether it’s authors, filmmakers, artists or musicians, there’s something really cool about chatting with people about what they’re passionate about.
So when I heard that country music legend Charlie Daniels died Monday at age 83 from a hemorrhagic stroke, the news hit hard – I’d had the opportunity to interview Daniels a handful of times over the last few years, and he was one of my favorites to chat with – and I had just spoken with him May 20.
I first interviewed Daniels in 2016, a few days after he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I still was pretty fresh to this whole A&E editor thing, so it was intimidating to see his name pop up on my phone when he called.
He couldn’t have been nicer.
I’d known about Daniels from the time my parents took my brothers and me to see him at a fiddle festival back home in Connecticut in the late 1970s-early ’80s. We also loved Daniels’ hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” as kids because of the bad word at the end.
So it was really something to have him on the other end of the phone talking about how honored he was to have been chosen for the hall of fame and how he was still reeling from the whole thing.
“You never know when your name’s going to be brought up or not. So you just don’t know; it’s completely unexpected when it happens,” he said, adding that the way he found out about the honor was unusual. “I actually didn’t get a call. I was lured down to the Country Music Association offices under false pretenses. I thought I was supposed to go down there and take a publicity picture. And when I got down there, Sarah Trahern, president of CMA, walked up to me very casually and conversationally said, ‘I know you think you’re here to take a picture, but you’re actually here to be told you’re going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.’ And my first inclination was, ‘Did she really say that or did I just imagine she said it?’ And when I realized she did say it, it was a very emotional moment for me, and it’s been emotional ever since. We finally got it done (Oct. 16), and I’m still pretty much zinging from it, you know. It’s still just an incredible thing to have happen to me.”
Daniels was also named Country Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year in 1979; The Charlie Daniels Band won CMA Instrumental Group of the Year awards in 1979 and 1980, marking a total of four CMA Awards throughout his career. Daniels became a Grand Ole Opry cast member in 2008 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
“There are few artists that touched so many different generations in our business than Charlie Daniels did,” Trahern, CMA chief executive officer, said in a news release put out Monday by the CMA. “Our community has lost an innovator and advocate of country music. Both Charlie and Hazel had become dear friends of mine over the last several years, and I was privileged to be able to celebrate Charlie’s induction into the Opry as well as tell him that he was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. I will always remember the look of sudden shock and delight on his face as he realized he would be in the Hall of Fame Rotunda for the ages.”
Along with having record sales in excess of 13.5 million albums in his career, Daniels was also known for his charity work. According to the CMA release, he helped fund cancer and muscular dystrophy research; and helped physically and mentally challenged people, children, farmers and the armed forces. His charity Christmas concert benefiting children became a Nashville holiday institution. In recognition of his “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers,” Daniels was honored as a BMI Icon in 2005.
The last time I spoke to Daniels was May 20, soon after Cy Scarborough, founder of the Bar D Chuckwagon, died. The two were close friends who initially bonded not over music, but over a shared love for snowmobiling. (Daniels and his wife, Hazel, are part-time area residents.) After talking about Scarborough for a little while, Daniels and I chatted for a few minutes about lack of rain here and the threat of wildfire, and how he was holding up during the pandemic. The Danielses had been quarantined at their house in Tennessee for the past 10 weeks: “We’re taking it serious,” he said. “Very strange, very strange times.”
The last show he and the band played was March 14 in Hunstville, Alabama, and they were supposed to be in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the next night, but because of the coronavirus pandemic, places started shutting down and concert dates started falling like dominoes. He said he and the band hoped to get back to performing at the end of this month or maybe August and finish out the year.
“We’re moving a lot of dates into next year,” he said. “It’s one of those times where you’ve got to roll with the punches. I’m 83 years old, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go, I’ve never seen anything like this. But one of the things that, from my estimation, is that what’s happening is so new that nobody knows what to do and we had nothing for it; nothing whatsoever. We had nothing to inhibit it, we had nothing to stop it, and the only thing to do was just take everybody off the street until we could figure out something to do.
“I enjoyed talking to you. God bless.”
And when I heard the news of Daniels’ passing, I thought a lot about something he said a few years back when I interviewed him about his memoir, “Never Look at the Empty Seats.” He was coming into Durango for a book-signing, and I’d asked him about what he thought his legacy would be.
“I don’t think a person deserves to be remembered for anything more or less than the way they were. We tend to forgive people an awful lot after they pass away,” Daniels said. “So whatever people perceive me to be: Some people will tell you I’m a fiddle player; some people will tell you I’m an entertainer; some people will tell you I’m a guitar player; some people will tell you I’m a songwriter or an author. I’ve had a multifaceted career – so I could be remembered in different ways by different people. But if I had to boil it down to one word as far as my career was concerned, I would like to be remembered (as) an entertainer.”