Inside Charlie Daniels' Improbable Ride Into the Country Music Hall of Fame

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis and Fred Foster photographed on March 29, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn., after it was announced they will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

"The Devil Went Down To Georgia" helps the new inductee bridge country music and southern rock.

When Charlie Daniels stopped on March 31, 1967, to put gas in the tank of his vehicle on his way out of Nashville, he noticed a lot of activity at a barn-like structure on the corner of 16th & Division.

“They were making preparations for a big to-do across the street at the Country Music Hall of Fame,” says Daniels. “It was the grand opening, I come to find out.”

Daniels wasn’t yet a resident — he had visited Music City to take care of some last-minute details before moving his family the next month. Little did he know that some of the people on the black-tie function’s guest list that night — including Eddy Arnold, Webb Pierce and “Rocky Top” songwriters Boudleaux and Felice Bryant — would become permanent neighbors, of a sort. In October, Daniels’ bronze plaque will hang alongside theirs in the Rotunda of the current Hall of Fame and Museum, located one mile away from Daniels’ first encounter with the Hall.

“It’s awesome,” says Daniels of his impending membership. “It’s one of the greatest honors of my life.”

The Hall of Fame held only 10 members when it first opened, including Arnold, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb. With the addition of Daniels and his classmates, Randy Travis and Monument Records founder Fred Foster, the ranks have now swollen to 123.

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A good number of those members — including George Strait, Merle Haggard and George Jones — have hit lists that number 50 or more top 10 singles. Daniels’ chart numbers are less impressive: three top 10 country singles, including the No. 1 “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” But he also registered five singles in the top 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, creating a dual existence that points to the less quantifiable, and more enduring, influence he has exacted on country.

“I remember Kix Brooks coming to a luncheon and then saying, ‘Charlie Daniels isn’t in the Hall of Fame?’ ” says museum editor Michael McCall. Brooks “just couldn’t believe it, because [Charlie has] had such a big influence on two generations of country singers now after him. That’s a lot like Bill Monroe, who didn’t necessarily have a lot of hits, or Flatt & Scruggs, who are just so influential.”

While Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs pioneered in bluegrass, Daniels was a founding father in Southern rock, a loose-knit group of regional compadres who infused elements of rock, country, soul and sometimes jazz to create a hybrid genre. Since the 1990s, it has been difficult to listen to a country station for more than 15-20 minutes without picking up some level of influence from Southern rockers, particularly Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band.

But it’s Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. who formed the earliest bridges between the two communities. Williams, working from his base as a country artist, injected Southern rock into his music beginning with the 1975 album Hank Williams Jr. and Friends. Daniels, operating mostly as a rock act in the 1970s, welcomed country talent into his fold through the Volunteer Jam, a multi-act show that became an annual tradition in Nashville for a good 20 years.

As a fiddle player, Daniels might seem an obvious fit for country, but his initial successes were invariably in other fields. He played in a handful of rock and R&B bands in his native North Carolina, earning regional attention with an instrumental called “Jaguar” during a seven-year stint with a band not-so-ironically named The Jaguars. Daniels co-wrote that title and an Elvis Presley B-side, “It Hurts Me,” with producer Bob Johnston, who was key to Daniels’ fateful arrival in Nashville.

Johnston became a player in the structure at Columbia Records, and he was convinced that Daniels belonged in Nashville, though his playing style didn’t necessarily fit with the prevailing sound of the A-Team of session players. Johnston displayed his belief in Daniels by hiring him for a Bob Dylan session in 1969 when another guitarist couldn’t make the gig. When the other player arrived for the day’s next session, Daniels headed for the door, only to get called back.

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“Bob Dylan said nine words that changed my life,” recalls Daniels. “He said, ‘I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.’ That most certainly changed my outlook, my belief in myself — I mean, just everything.”

Daniels proceeded to play with the likes of George Harrison, Marty Robbins and Ringo Starr after that and formed his own group. The Charlie Daniels Band made an impression during the 1970s — particularly with the name-dropping Southern-rock anthem “South’s Gonna Do It Again” — across several genres, including FM rock and top 40.

“We were not a mainstay on country radio, by any means,” allows Daniels. “But we were not unknown on country radio.”

The tide turned with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a last-minute addition to the album Million Mile Reflections that amounted to a showdown between good and evil. Daniels overdubbed seven different fiddle parts to get the sound of Satan, and that signature hit — probably more than any other single part of his career — cemented Daniels’ stature in country.

As a Grand Ole Opry member since 2008, Daniels is brethren to 1986 Opry addition Travis, who joins Daniels in this year’s Hall class. He has less obvious ties to 2016’s other inductee. Foster’s daughter was married to late CDB piano player Joel “Taz” DiGregorio, and Daniels believes he met Williams Jr. for the first time at Foster’s Monument Studio. Quite appropriately, that facility is now Southern Ground, owned by Zac Brown, whose band and its free-form approach make it the most obvious current heir to Daniels’ stylistic vision.

“My hat’s off to people like Zac and Chris Stapleton that have got the guts and the tenacity to believe in themselves enough to do it their way,” says Daniels.

Which is pretty much the way Daniels did it. There was no template for Southern rock when he moved to Nashville, no precedent for blending it with country, and certainly no thought that 50 years after he moved to town, he would be heralded for influencing two generations of country artists. He didn’t harbor any notions that he would be part of the Hall of Fame when he gassed up his vehicle in 1967. And it hasn’t been a preoccupation in recent years either.

“That’s a thing that you don’t even dream about,” he says. “There’s no way you can lobby for it. The voting membership is kept a secret, so you don’t have anything to do with it. You either do or you don’t.”