Charlie Daniels on His Memoir, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Plane Crash & How Bob Dylan Changed His Career

Erick Anderson
Charlie Daniels

The writing of one’s life story in book form can be an arduous task. However, for the legendary Charlie Daniels, putting his new memoir Never Look At The Empty Seats to paper was more of a gradual effort than most books you will see on the shelves.

“I’ve been writing this book for about twenty years,” he admitted to Billboard. “I just started writing down my memories. As I went along, I started putting it into book form. I just kept writing, and interesting things would keep happening. I could never find a place to end it until I was told that I was going to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. I thought what a great place to stop it, so that’s what I did. It starts with my earliest remembrances, being born and bred in North Carolina, up through the night of the Country Music Hall of Fame induction,” he remarked of the event from October 2016 that caps off the book. 

The book begins with his birth on Oct. 28, 1936, and readers might be interested to know a bit of trivia from that day. His actual name is not “Daniels,” but “Daniel.”

“There’s no 's' in it,” he said with a laugh. “The bureaucratic flub-ups started the very first day of my life. Of course, back in 1936, they wrote everything out in long hand with a pen, and they put an ‘s’ on my name. I’m the only person in my family with an 's' on my name.”    

His early years were marked with frequent moves across the South as his father would be forced to relocate for his job. “My dad’s job was wherever there was southern yellow pine. Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. I would go to as many as three schools in a year's time – I did that more than once. I finally got to finish school in a place called Goldston, North Carolina. Moving could be very traumatic. I’d make a new set of friends, and then I would have to leave. But, I guess I got pretty good at it.”

The book also documents Daniels’ earliest musical endeavors. Long before becoming the front man and namesake of the Charlie Daniels Band, the singer’s first experience in a musical group was in a much less sophisticated setting -- as a teenager with The Misty Mountain Boys.

“We were into bluegrass music, and when I first started playing, that’s what we attempted to play. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were at WPTF [radio] in Raleigh, and they had a show on every day. They were our heroes. We couldn’t call ourselves the Foggy Mountain Boys, so we settled on the Misty Mountain Boys,” he recalled, stating that his first live performance with the group was a long way from the Volunteer Jam he became synonymous with in the 1970s. 

“It was a place called the Gulf Community Building. You might get the impression that it was a big hall, but it was actually a 30 x 40 building that had some chairs and electricity. There was no stage or lighting ... definitely nothing fancy. We decided on our own -- not asking anybody about anything -- that we were going to do a benefit for a gentleman that we knew. We went out and got some old movie posters, turned them over on the blank side, and wrote that the Misty Mountain Boys were going to be appearing at the Gulf Community Building on such and such date. I think we had about 30 people that night -- including our parents.”

Daniels would tour across the United States before settling down with his wife Hazel in Nashville in the mid-1960s. He became a session player, and one day in particular at the studio earned him one of his biggest fans -- Bob Dylan.

“He was coming to town to do Nashville Skyline, and they had booked 15 recording sessions to do the entire album. The finest studio musicians in Nashville were there. The guitarist that they had booked for the session had a commitment on that very first day, so Bob Johnston asked me to fill in. At the end of the session, I was packing up and getting ready to leave because the other guitar player was coming in. Bob Dylan asked Bob Johnston where I was going, and he told him I was leaving because he had another guitar player.” 

According to Daniels, Dylan changed the game plan for the session, providing a huge career boost for the band. “Bob Dylan responded with nine words that would change my life -- 'I don’t want another guitar player. I want him.' I had played as hard as I could, and tried to interpret his music as best as I could. I did three albums with Bob Dylan. And it was a life-changing thing. Dylan was always kind enough to put his musicians on the back of the album in the liner notes. He is the kind of artist that people want to learn about, so it made people aware of me, and gave me a certain legitimacy. Nobody knew who I was. All of a sudden, I was on a Bob Dylan album, and it made such a difference in my career.”   

Daniels became a major recording artist himself with the release of 1973’s “Uneasy Rider,” which led to further hits such as “In America,” “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” and the 1979 CMA Single of the Year, “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” The book details many of the high points of his career, and a few of the lows, such as his memories of the evening of Oct. 20, 1977 – forty years ago today – when he received news about the plane crash that took the lives of Lynyrd Skynyrd members Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, along with back-up singer Cassie Gaines and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick -- all of whom Daniels was close friends with. 

“It was a strange night. We had a sold-out show in St. Louis, and it was the first night of a tour, and everything was just wonderful. Somebody -- I don’t even know if I knew the person or not -- walked in and told me that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane had crashed, and some people had been killed. To be honest, I thought it was just some rock n' roll rumor, and I didn’t believe it. So, I had it checked out. I found out it was true about 30 seconds before we went on stage, but they hadn’t released the names of those killed yet. So, we went out on stage night that night knowing he had some friends that were killed, but not knowing who they were. We just took it out on the music, and did our thing, and worked through it. It was definitely a sad night.”

If anyone knows about the importance of having a great crew around him, it’s Charlie Daniels. Many people in his organization have been with the singer for years -- including manager David Corlew and publicist Paula Szeigis. He says that it takes each and every person to make the career wheel turn, and he’s grateful.

“My philosophy about hiring someone is if they can’t do the job, you don’t want them to start with. But, once you find the right person -- who is capable and willing and works hard for you -- get out of their way and leave them alone. If they need guidance, or a decision that can only be made by me, they can come talk to me, and I’ll be glad to make it. But, otherwise, go do your job. We give them a lot of leeway, which is the way I choose to work. I got my job to do, and they do too. Everybody’s job is the most important job in the outfit at one time or another. Sometimes, it’s the drivers -- they’re on the road all night long with everyone’s life in their hands. Once we get to the gig, it becomes the road crew. They’ve got all that equipment to load in, and sound check. I’m only important when I come to work at night. When I walk on stage and entertain people, that’s what I’m there for. But, I don’t drive. I don’t set the equipment up. We don’t have any unimportant jobs in the organization. I respect the people who work with me. I’ve got a good bunch, and I’m very lucky to have them.”

Daniels also details his trips to play for the troops in the pages of Never Look At The Empty Seats, with one 2006 trip to Baghdad being especially meaningful. “It was one of the greatest honors of my life. We got to play for the ones that were stationed at the FOB, and never saw anybody. Most of the entertainers that came over didn’t go there, but we flew out in a Blackhawk helicopter, and played in Baghdad and different places, and it was such an honor. They are the best we’ve got. There are no finer Americans than the ones you see in uniform.”

The Grand Ole Opry member also details his spiritual side in the book, explaining that it took him many years to come to terms with. “It was the hardest chapter for me to write. I wanted to get it perfect. I wanted to be able to tell the world about my spiritual journey. I was confused for a lot of years. I had salvation confused with living a perfect life. Nobody ever sat me down and explained that to me. I could never find a church or a doctrine that I completely and totally identified with. I decided I was going to sit down and read the Bible and draw my own conclusions. There’s been a lot of things that I have learned, but it’s all been scriptural. I went by my interpretation of the Bible, and by people who I respect. I arrived at some pretty profound decisions.”

Never Look At The Empty Seats will be released on Tuesday, Oct. 24.