Country music legend Charlie Daniels loved being onstage. With his bow flying over the strings of his fiddle, he would move from one band member to another and play alongside them as they were featured on a particular song.
Then he would move back to the mic and sing a few lines, his Southern twang taking the song to a new level. Charlie’s pastor, Allen Jackson, loved to watch him perform.
“The more intense the music, the more widely he stood,” Jackson told those gathered for Charlie’s memorial service at World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, on July 10. “I’d watch his feet, and I’d know, it’s about to get good now.”
It got especially good one Easter Sunday in April, when Charlie performed “He’s Alive!” at World Outreach Church. His feet were wide apart as the music crescendoed. It was a rare performance without his cowboy hat; his white hair and beard on full display. But nobody who knew the Grammy Award-winning singer could have been surprised at the performance.
“Charlie loved Jesus,” country singer Travis Tritt told the July 10 audience. “And to my knowledge, he was never judgmental or preachy about his beliefs. If you believed differently than he did, that was OK, but he wasn’t ashamed to tell you at any given time how much he loved the Lord, and I always respected him so much for that.”
The 83-year-old’s death on the morning of July 6 from a hemorrhagic stroke caught everyone by surprise— his wife of 56 years, Hazel, whom he first said “I love you” to at the top of a Ferris wheel in Tulsa, Oklahoma; his son, Charlie Jr., whom he called one of the greatest blessings of his life; his band members, otherwise known as his family; and the music world at large. Condolences poured in from fans and musicians across the country, including a letter from President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump.
HOPE OF HEAVEN
Franklin Graham expressed his thoughts on Facebook.
“I was surprised to learn that Charlie Daniels, a great American patriot and friend, passed away this morning. But he didn’t pass away as someone with no hope—Charlie had given his life to Jesus Christ years ago and he had the hope of Heaven!”
Charlie received Christ as a youth, but at one point in his career, he strayed so far away from the Lord no one would have known he was a Christian.
“I never had a ‘Damascus Road’ experience,” he told Decision once. “My return to Christ was gradual. It was as if the Lord Jesus was saying to me, ‘Charlie, you aren’t doing right. You need to get straightened up.’ There was always that tugging of the Spirit.”
The Charlie Daniels Band performed at several BGEA events through the years, starting with the 1996 Billy Graham Crusade in Charlotte, North Carolina, and ending with Franklin’s Decision America Tour stop in Nashville in 2016.
“It’s just incredible to sit on that stage and watch all those people who accept the Lord coming down,” Charlie said in 2014. “It’s almost like liquid draining down a big bowl, watching these people coming down from every direction, from all sides of the stadium, to confirm their acceptance of the Lord.”
LONG-HAIRED COUNTRY BOY
During his more than five decades onstage, the “Long-Haired Country Boy” mixed rock, blues, country, bluegrass, folk and gospel. He won his first Grammy in 1979 for the hit song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
But he never forgot his rural North Carolina roots. He was born in 1936 in the coastal town of Wilmington, where he cropped tobacco in the summers and had his first official job as a water boy in a tobacco warehouse. And learned to speak Southern, which added to his charm during interviews and gave voice to his writing, which was surprisingly poetic.
“My very first memories are of snowflakes as big as goose feathers, a moon the color of new-made country butter, and a night sky like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night,’” he wrote in his 2016 memoir “Never Look at the Empty Seats.” “I remember waking up with the smell of breakfast cooking and how the early morning sunshine would make frost diamonds on the winter-brown broom grass in the field next to the house. …
“The first songs I learned to sing were the gospel song ‘Kneel at the Cross’ and ‘You Are My Sunshine.’”
GOD AND COUNTRY
His home town held tight to God and country, and it was there he learned the spirit of patriotism that runs through many of his songs and led to his support of veterans. He could still remember his family gathered around a floor model radio at his grandparents’ home when news of Pearl Harbor broke when he was just 5.
“I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was,” he said in a 2018 interview with country radio host Storme Warren. “I didn’t know where Hawaii was … but I could tell that something very serious was going on.”
Wilmington sprang into action, with people signing up for the military and recycling anything that could be used for the war effort.
“It was a port city where boats would come through and load up with war goods and take them across the ocean,” he said.
Charlie picked up a guitar for the first time when he was 14. He learned three chords and before long had formed a little bluegrass band. One of his first gigs as a musician was playing before mostly marines at a restaurant in Jacksonville, North Carolina, home of Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base.
In 1966, his band spent five weeks entertaining troops in Thule, Greenland. In 1967, he moved to Nashville, where he played on studio albums for Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Pete Seeger before launching his band. In later years, the band entertained troops in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I say this every night on stage,” he told Warren. “‘The only thing that protects America is the grace of God and the United States military.’”
THE WAY TO THE FATHER
Charlie believed strongly in free speech, and his conservative views were sometimes unpopular. But his fans were all in. When he breathed his last, at Summit Medical Center in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville, the hospital staff lined the hallways in a Patriot Honor Walk as his body was taken out of the building. The Mt. Juliet police department escorted the hearse to the funeral home, as residents lined the streets to say goodbye to the beloved musician.
“A mighty tree has fallen,” Pastor Allen Jackson said at the memorial service, referring to Zechariah 11:2.
One of Charlie and Hazel’s favorite Scripture passages included John 14:6: “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Charlie knew the Way to the Father, Jackson said.
“If you haven’t yet made a decision to acknowledge Jesus of Nazareth as Christ, Charlie would want me to encourage you to take that step,” he said. “Honor Him as King. Serve Him as Lord. Today would be a marvelous day to begin a new part of your journey. None of us are going to escape our journey under the sun without taking the path that Charlie has preceded us in. It seems like just one more time that Charlie has shown us the way.”
The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Photo: Tommy Berry/©2016 BGEA