WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - When your records have sold millions of copies, you have more than three dozen awards for songs and accomplishments, you've entertained fans around the world for more than five decades, you were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry and enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame, you have plenty of material to write a memoir of your life. Charlie Daniels put down his fiddle and guitar long enough to write Never Look at the Empty Seats, a look back at his life and career from the day of his birth in Wilmington.
"I actually wrote on this thing for about twenty years or so," Daniels told me during a phone interview. "I would write on it for a time and then put it up, and then some months later I'd pick it up and start again. Then I got to the point where it was looking like a biography, so I started editing, leaving the interesting stuff in and take the uninteresting stuff out."
Daniels was born on October 28, 1936 in Wilmington, attending William Hooper Elementary School. The family moved several times because of his father's job in the timber industry. Daniels finished his schooling in Goldston, North Carolina, spending many summers working on his grandfather's tobacco farm in Bladen County. In the book, Daniels mentions picking up a guitar at his friend Russell Palmer's house and forming his first band called The Misty Mountain Boys. But his first professional band, The Rockets, came after Daniels graduated high school and began working at a creosote company in Wilmington. The four-piece band started playing at clubs in nearby Jacksonville, giving the young musician his first taste of playing music for money.
Daniels left Wilmington in 1958 for Washington, DC, and eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1967, which he calls "one of the best moves I've ever made". By then Daniels and his wife Hazel had a son, Charles, Jr.. Daniels was performing in clubs and doing work as a studio musician, where he got the chance to play with Bob Dylan. He talks about that influence on his career at 7:30 of the podcast.
"I went in to play one Dylan cut because the guitar player couldn't make the session," Daniels remembers. "Dylan liked what I was doing, he kept me around and I went on to do three albums with him, Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning. It was such a shot in the arm. Bob Dylan is the kind of guy that people actually read the liner notes on the back of albums. He was always kind enough to list the names of the musicians. Having your name on a Bob Dylan album gave you a kind of legitimacy that was hard to come by."
Soon Daniels began recording his own material, and released his first record in 1970 called Charlie Daniels. He had some success early on with the song Uneasy Rider, which cracked the Billboard charts. That led to playing larger venues. Daniels' stock soared in 1979, when the Charlie Daniels Band released The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It peaked at #3 on the charts, and became Daniels' signature tune known around the world. The band still closes its' shows the song 37 years later. He talks about it at 9:30 of the podcast, how it came about as the band was recording songs for the Million Mile Reflections record in Nashville.
Not long after the song began gaining popularity, Daniels suffered a major injury that could have derailed his career. Daniels got caught in an auger helping to dig postholes on his ranch, and the equipment broke several bones in his right arm. A surgeon repaired the damage, and after rehabilitation The Charlie Daniels Band was back in business. Daniels says that incident strengthened his faith.
"I've had so many things happen in my life that makes me know there is a God, and he does care about us," Daniels says. "His son, Jesus Christ, is my Lord and Savior. I have always been a Believer, but I have tried the last many years to grow closer to God, because the closer you get the better you are."
Daniels says he would return to Wilmington every once in a while to see family. Officials at UNC Wilmington had invited him several times to deliver a commencement address, and in 1996 Daniels was able to make it work with his touring schedule. Some UNCW students raised objections to Daniels' appearance, citing his lack of a college degree. He talks about it at 12:15 of the podcast.
You can click here to see an archive edition of the February 11, 1996 issue of The Seahawk that includes Daniels' response to the criticism, and the poem he wrote to a pair of students. You can click here to see a subsequent edition calling Daniels' address "a success". Daniels' entire speech is posted on the band's Facebook page here.
There was also a little pushback in 2001, when Daniels was enshrined onto Wilmington's Walk of Fame. Several protestors showed up at the ceremony, opposing material posted on Daniels' website. That didn't bother Daniels, who talks about it at 15:45 of the podcast.
"I had hillbilly cousins coming in from all over the place," he says with a chuckle.
Daniels has gone around the world with his band, and in 2005 he went on an overseas tour to entertain U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. While he had played at military installations before, this was Daniels' first trip into an active war zone. Daniels talks about that at 17:00 of the podcast, and addresses the Journey Home Project he formed in 2014, which helps service members returning home and entering civilian life.
"The need is glaring," he says about the lack of services available for the returning military men and women. "The need for medical care, for mental health care. Such mundane things as cars, or furniture, or education or whatever. We try to help out when we can."
Daniels is planning to tour again in early 2018, and has a March 23 date at The Tarheel in Jacksonville, NC. His memoir is available in bookstores, along with a CD called Memories, Memoirs and Miles, Songs of a Lifetime. It includes his most famous songs, and some of his earliest works including Uneasy Rider and Jaguar.