Charlie Daniels, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame best known for "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," died Monday morning after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke. He was 83.
Daniels' death was confirmed by his publicist, Don Murry Grubbs, to The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. He is survived by his wife, Hazel, and son Charlie Daniels, Jr.
By the time the Charlie Daniels Band topped the charts with “Devil” in 1979, the instrumentalist, singer and songwriter had long established a remarkable, multifaceted career in Music City. As a session musician, he played on three of Bob Dylan’s albums — including the revolutionary “Nashville Skyline” — as well as recordings for Ringo Starr, Leonard Cohen, Tammy Wynette and other luminaries.
He was a fixture of the touring circuit for the next 40 years. A Grammy-winning singer, entertainer, songwriter and fiddle virtuoso, he migrated from an earlier countercultural stance epitomized on "Long Haired Country Boy" to become an advocate for patriotism and the military.
Born Oct. 28, 1936, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Charles Edward Daniels grew up inspired by church music and local bluegrass bands. He listened to Nashville’s WSM and WLAC, which streamed country and R&B music from Music City all the way through Daniels’ radio speaker in North Carolina.
Daniels merged those sounds in the mid-1950s to create rock band The Jaguars, which most notably recorded instrumental single “Jaguar,” in Fort Worth, Texas, for national distribution via Epic Records. In Texas, he’d connect with producer Bob Johnston, who — years later — Daniels would credit with helping him find his way as a songwriter and sought-after session player in Nashville.
In 1964, Daniels and Johnston co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” a single cut by Elvis Presley that proved the first victory in decades of songwriting success to come.
“(Elvis) recorded it, and it was by far … the biggest thing that had ever happened to me in my life,” Daniels once said.
With Johnston’s help, Daniels carved his name in the late 1960s and early ‘70s as a marquee Nashville player, working with the likes of Starr, Cohen and, most notably, Dylan.
The life of a session sideman wouldn't stick, though. He'd cut a self-titled debut album in 1970, forming the Charlie Daniels Band — or CDB, as it was known for decades at concert theaters, state fairs and race tracks — in 1971.
A bearded embodiment of fast-fiddlin' Southern life, Daniels cut a handful of solo efforts in the early 1970s, none more notable than "Fire on the Mountain” — the Platinum-selling release that spilled into mainstream country success. Daniels would proceed to sell more than 13.5 million records, per the RIAA, logging nine Gold, Platinum or multi-Platinum releases.
"His music fused the immediacy of Southern Rock with the classic country storytelling that he heard as a child," Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said Monday. "He brought new audiences to country music, pointing people to the sources even as he explored the edges."
Backed by "The South's Gonna Do It Again," Trudy" and the rest of his growing catalog, Daniels would forge a reputation among his peers as a scorching live player.
"We would follow him into battle," friend and Nashville musician Larry Gatlin shared Monday. "We would not follow him on stage. We couldn’t. No one else could either. ‘Nuff said."
Upon its release in 1979, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” didn’t just top the country chart, it became a huge pop crossover hit – climbing up to No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart behind The Knack’s “My Sharona” and Earth Wind and Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone.”
The song won Daniels' only Grammy Award in 1979, for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. A year later, he played himself in the 1980 John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy”, which was closely identified with the rise of country music generated by that film. Some of his other hits were “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye," “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues” and “Uneasy Rider."
In the 1990s Daniels softened some of his lyrics from his earlier days when he often was embroiled in controversy.
In “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Daniels originally called the devil a “son of a bitch,” but changed it to “son of a gun.”
In his 1980 hit “Long Haired Country Boy,” he used to sing about being “stoned in the morning” and “drunk in the afternoon.” Daniels changed it to “I get up in the morning. I get down in the afternoon.”
“I guess I’ve mellowed in my old age,” Daniels said in 1998.
Otherwise, though, he rarely backed down from in-your-face lyrics.
His “Simple Man” in 1990 suggested lynching drug dealers and using child abusers as alligator bait. His “In America” in 1980 told the country’s enemies to “go straight to hell.”
Such tough talk earned him guest spots on “Politically Incorrect,” the G. Gordon Liddy radio show and on C-Span taking comments from viewers.
Daniels joined the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
A staunch supporter of U.S. troops and veterans, Daniels spent much of his career traveling overseas to play for service members in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2014, he co-founded the Journey Home Project. The non-profit has now raised more than $1 million for veterans and veterans-related programs and charities. The following year saw the opening of the Charlie and Hazel Daniels Veterans and Military Family Center at Middle Tennessee State University.
For the last four years, hardly a day went by without Daniels sharing this message on his Twitter account: “22 VETERANS COMMIT SUICIDE EVERY DAY!!”
On the platform, the man who sang 1980's confrontational "In America" solidified his reputation as one of the most outspoken figures in country music. In daily posts, he would decry abortion as “murder,” ask fans to “pray for the blue,” and declare that “Benghazi ain’t going away.”
On July 4, just days before his death, Daniels tweeted: “We’re sitting on the upstairs porch looking at the northern horizon and watching America light up, fireworks going off all over the place. 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.”
But in his twilight years, Daniels also continued to relate to the countercultural heroes he once played with. In 2014, he covered “The Times They Are a-Changin,” “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” and others on a full album of acoustic Dylan covers.
"All these things, they're just all part of my life," he told The Tennessean in 2014. "It all adds up. And whatever differences you may have, there are 12 notes of music in the world where you can find common ground."
In 1994, Daniels returned to the gospel music that influenced him as a child, releasing his first Christian album, “The Door.” The record would yield Daniels his first of three Grammy Award nominations for Southern gospel recordings. He’d earn his last Grammy Award nomination in 2005, for Country Instrumental Performance on “I’ll Fly Away.”
At age 70, he joined the ranks of country music stalwarts enshrined as a Grand Ole Opry member. He’d regularly perform on the 94-year-old country music radio tradition until his death.
“To be able to be a member and to have my name linked with my heroes is some pretty heady stuff for a guy that loves music and loves the Grand Ole Opry as much as I do,” Daniels once said.
Beyond the Opry, Daniels was a fixture of touring circuit until COVID-19 brought the industry to a halt this year.
"We play over one hundred cities every year and they’re all special in their own way, but when you get a chance to bring it all back home, especially when so many of your friends are joining you, it don’t get much better than that," Daniels said in 2019.
In 2016, Daniels earned a top honor for any Nashville musician: A place alongside the all-time greats in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Entering at nearly 80 years old, he joined Randy Travis and Fred Foster for the year’s Hall of Fame class.
He was “weak” and speechless when hearing the news he would be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Daniels told The Tennessean in 2016.
“I’m so glad it went this way,” Daniels said. “This is the cherry on top of the icing. It doesn’t go any further. That’s where the cake stops.”