Country music legend Charlie Daniels died at age 83 on Monday (July 6) from hemorrhagic stroke, his publicist confirmed. Daniels was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Grand Ole Opry.
After spending the stretch from the mid-1970s to the early ’80s as one of country’s most accomplished hitmakers — including a pair of top 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 songs chart, and a No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart — Daniels persisted as one of country’s signature icons, for his sung-spoken vocals, lightning-quick fiddle work and lyrical storytelling. He was also one of the genre’s most outspoken (and often controversial) political figures, even hosting a regularly updated “Soap Box” section on his personal website, where he preached about his personal beliefs.
Daniels was born and raised in North Carolina, and became proficient early in life at a multitude of instruments, including the guitar, banjo and fiddle. He found early success in the ’60s as a writer and session musician, co-penning songs recorded by Elvis Presley and performing guitar and bass on multiple Bob Dylan albums, beginning with 1969’s country-flavored Nashville Skyline. While continuing to work with artists like the Marshall Tucker Band and Hank Williams, Jr. in the early ’70s, he also launched a solo career, beginning with his self-titled debut LP in 1970.
Solo success came gradually for Daniels, kicking off in earnest with 1973’s “Uneasy Rider” — a five-minute spoken-word story song that became a surprise crossover hit, climbing to No. 9 on the Hot 100. Album success shortly followed for Daniels (now recording with his eponymous band) as 1974’s Fire on the Mountain and 1976’s Saddle Tramp both made the top 40 of the Billboard 200. Daniels also gained renown as organizer of the Volunteer Jam, an annual Nashville all-star, multi-genre concert headlined by the Charlie Daniels Band, which lasted until the late ’80s, with sporadic revivals since. Only two weeks ago, Daniels had announced that this September’s Jam, whose lineup included Chris Janson, The Allman Betts Band, and Charley Pride, would move to February due to the coronavirus.
The Charlie Daniels Band’s biggest success came at the end of the ’70s, with the release of the Billboard 200-topping Million Mile Reflections in 1979, led by what would become Daniels’ signature hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A high-drama barn-burner, “Georgia” told the tale of a cocky country boy who out-duels the devil on the fiddle, with plenty of Daniels’ own string work to back it up. The song peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100, won a Grammy for best country vocal performance, and has been covered and parodied countless times in the four decades since. The band’s ’70s hits spanned southern rock and country, placing CDB squarely in the popular musical pocket also occupied by acts like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Daniels’ crossover moment continued into the early ’80s, thanks in large part to his appearance in the 1980 hit movie Urban Cowboy, in which his band plays before and during the film’s climactic mechanical bull-riding contest. They hit the top 40 three more times in ’80 and ’81, with “In America” (No. 11), “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” (No. 31) and “Still in Saigon” (No. 22), but as country receded from the top 40 in the mid-decade, they never hit the Hot 100 again. They remained a country radio fixture in the late decade however, scoring a pair of Country Airplay top 10 hits with “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” (1986, No. 8) and “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues” (1988, No. 8).
Though chart success was scant for Daniels from the ’90s on, as he also branched out to record Gospel- and Christian-rooted albums, he remained a mainstream presence at award shows, on TV, in commercials, and in the music of a later generation of country acolytes. (Gretchen Wilson’s mid-’00s smash “Redneck Woman” boasts that she knows “all the words to every Charlie Daniels song,” and Daniels even appeared in the music video for her later single “All Jacked Up.”) In 2008, he was inducted to the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2016 he became an official member of the Country Hall of Fame.
In later years, Daniels became known for his politics nearly as much as music. Despite largely coming to prominence as a counter-cultural figure in the ’70s — breakout hit “Uneasy Rider” features the long-haired Daniels running afoul of a “redneck” crowd, and Daniels even performed at Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 inauguration — he would drift conservative as his career progressed, writing an open letter in support of President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy in 2003 and expressing at least conditional support for Donald Trump throughout his presidency. (He stopped short of a full Trump endorsement, though, claiming in 2018 that he “never endorsed political candidates.”)
He was more unequivocal as a gun rights activist, filming commercials for the NRA, and he both defended the use of the confederate flag and spoke against the removal of confederate statues. The latter stance that continued right up until this 4th of July, where he tweeted, “You may tear down statues and burn buildings but you can’t kill the spirit of patriots and when they’ve had enough this madness will end.”
Daniels ended his life as one of the 20th century’s most identifiable and enduring country artists — both inside and outside of Nashville — and his death made an instant impact upon the community. “It’s true that meeting your heroes is dangerous because more often than not, they disappoint you. Charlie was the exception,” country star Trace Adkins tweeted. “I could write a book about the positive influence he had on my life, but today I’ll just say that I miss him already.”