Music columnist Don Rhodes remembers Charlie Daniels’ many trips down to Augusta.
Even before taking the stage in October of 2017 for the 33rd annual Jack O’Lantern Festival in North Augusta, Charlie Daniels knew he would have a great turn-out of loyal fans.
After all, he already had been coming down to Augusta from his base in Tennessee for almost 45 years beginning with a Bell Auditorium show in 1973.
As it turned out, his local fans packed Georgia Avenue for the free Friday night concert just a day before Daniels’ 81st birthday, joining many others hearing him for the first time. City officials estimated the crowd at about 12,000.
It came on the heels of Daniels’ releasing his official biography, “Never Look at the Empty Seats” and the release of his new album “Memories, Memoirs and Miles – Songs Of A Lifetime.”
Many of those who attended that show probably remembered Daniels’ energetic performance of his classic hits like “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” “Long Haired Country Boy,” “In America” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” when they learned of his death Monday at age 83 from medical complications.
One year after the North Augusta festival, Daniels was back in the area for a final time to perform in mid-November of 2018 at the Miller Theater.
In a pre-show interview, Daniels explained his popularity with Southern fans telling Chronicle music columnist Ed Turner, “We speak the same language.”
Daniels grew up in the 1950s in the coastal town of Wilmington, N.C., and was early influenced by listening to the traditional country sounds of the Grand Ole Opry radio show broadcast over WSM-AM radio station in Nashville, Tenn.
“I enjoy listening to it and playing it,” Daniels told this columnist in 1981. “I go out to the Opry often for no other reason than to hear Roy Acuff. I love to go out and sing with him. He’s the superstar of my childhood.”
Minnie Pearl later remarked, “He never calls me anything but ‘Miss Minnie,’ and he always calls Roy, ‘Mr. Acuff.’ He’s a dear, dear bear;” referring to Daniels’ large physical frame.
Daniels would talk with this writer about loving the music of bluegrass artists like Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and bluegrass/country fiddlers like Art Wooten, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, Tommy Jackson, Benny Martin, Howdy Forrester, Johnny Gimble, Vassar Clements and Buddy Spicher.
“The first music I ever played in a band was bluegrass music,” he related. “The band was made of kids I went to high school with. We tried to get a name as close to Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys as we could. So we called ourselves the Misty Mountain Boys.”
Daniels played fiddle for three years with the bluegrass band, but he played guitar working on recording sessions in Nashville in the late 1960s.
That included for three of Bob Dylan’s albums (“Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait” and “New Morning”) and former Beatle Ringo Starr’s “Beaucoup of Blues” album.
Native Augustan Pete Drake, who produced Starr’s album, had played steel guitar on Dylan’s albums where he had come to know Daniels. That’s Drake’s whining steel guitar, once displayed at the Augusta Museum of History, that you hear at the beginning of “Lay, Lady, Lay.”
The first big local splash Daniels made was opening for the rock band Canned Heat (“Going Up the Country”) at Bell Auditorium in July of 1973.
His only familiar hit then was “Uneasy Rider” about a hippie encounter with some rough rednecks in Jackson, Miss., at the Dew Drop Inn.
When I talked on the phone with Daniels in November of 1980, he and his band had won a Grammy Award the previous February for Best Country Vocal Performance By A Group for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.”
That was followed in June by the release of the country-theme movie “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta which featured Daniels playing fiddle on that Grammy winning song.
He told me on the phone, “The name of Georgia just fit. It just seemed right. It wouldn’t seem right to say, ‘The devil went up to New Hampshire.’ “
That monster hit single was followed by a rousing patriotic song called “In America.”
The lyrics boasted, “This lady may have stumbled but she ain’t never fell. And if the Russians don’t believe that, they can all go straight to hell. We’re gonna put her feet back on the path of righteousness and then, God bless America again.”
In February of 1986, Daniels opened for the country superstar band Alabama in the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.
Thirty years later in June of 2016, he again was opening for Alabama on their “Southern Drawl” tour in the renamed James Brown Arena.
Ironically it was Brown himself performing on Daniels’ annual “Volunteer Jam” benefit concert in 1983 that led Oklahoma-based Churchill Records to create the “Churchill/Augusta Sound Records” label for Brown and the release of Brown’s 52nd studio album “Bring It On.”
Whenever he was on tour or at home in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., Daniels loved to play golf.
For several consecutive years at Nashville’s summer Country Music International Fan Fair gathering, I would drop off a copy of The Chronicle’s massive Masters tournament edition to Daniels’ booth where he signed autographs for his fans.
“He was just asking if I had seen the copy this year,” one booth staffer told me.
During that phone conversation in 1981, Daniels had just come off playing at a golf course in Fayetteville, Ark.
He spoke of his energetic performances saying, “I use my fiddle about a third of the time I’m on a stage. I don’t just play it. I attack the fiddle.
“My approach to playing just came to me. I think the more you understand about your instrument the better. I believe people like fiddle music because it is such a happy sound.”
From his early bluegrass days in coastal North Carolina until his death this week in Tennessee, Daniels loved making those happy sounds and his listeners loved him.