Music Row Celebrates Charlie Daniels’ 50-Year Career

Bandleader Still Thriving as an Independent Act

A beaming and grateful Charlie Daniels basked in the adulation of friends, fans and business associates at a party held Wednesday (March 19) at BMI’s Nashville headquarters to celebrate the bandleader’s 50th anniversary in the music business.

“I have had a wonderful time in the last 50 years,” Daniels told the crowd, “and I’m ready to do another 50.” The North Carolina native began performing professionally in 1958 in a band called the Rockets.

Jody Williams, BMI’s vice president of writer-publisher relations, led a parade of well-wishers who came forward to stand beside Daniels and recite some of his more notable achievements. Also accompanying the guest of honor were his wife, Hazel, and son, Charlie Jr.

Williams noted that “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” probably Daniels’ best-known work, has been broadcast more than 4 million times. “Charlie helped create the Southern rock genre,” Williams continued. “The West Coast had Jerry Garcia [of the Grateful Dead]. We have Charlie Daniels. … Charlie’s a bridge from the past to present.”

Williams cited the long series of Volunteer Jam concerts Daniels has presided over since launching them in 1974, noting that they brought together artists of all musical stripes, including such luminaries as B.B. King, Don Henley, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe, Ted Nugent, Little Richard, James Brown and Willie Nelson.

A representative from the William Morris Agency pointed out that during the 21 years the company has booked Daniels’ personal appearances, he has played 3,000 concerts for a combined audience of 5 million people and, in the process, grossed $60 million.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen sent his congratulations, and Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, delivered his in person. Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, Tennessee’s adjutant general, praised Daniels for his longstanding support of the military. “If there’s a patriot in our state,” he said, “it’s Charlie.”

Publicist Cathy Gurley, who represents the Spirit of America tour of stateside military installations, read a letter from President and Mrs. George W. Bush in praise of the Charlie Daniels Band’s continued involvement in the program.

Williams presented Daniels a watch from the widow of Toy Caldwell, a founder of the Marshall Tucker Band and Daniels’ long-time friend. It carried the inscription, “To Charlie in loving memory of Toy. I love you. Abbie Caldwell.”

David Corlew, Daniels’ manager and friend of 35 years, reminded the guests that Daniels initiated the now-common practice of making his albums available through an exclusive source when he signed such a deal 11 years ago with Wal-Mart. (Ricky Van Shelton made a similar agreement with Wal-Mart the same year.) Garth Brooks and the Eagles later followed suit. Corlew said Daniels sold 100,000 albums in nine months via that association.

Altogether, Corlew stated, Daniels has sold more than 800,000 albums as an independent artist. Copies of Deuces, the Charlie Daniels Band’s latest album, were on display for guests to pick up on their way out.

Reporters packed a BMI conference room before the party started to have a few words with Daniels. Unlike most artists, he arrived early for the press conference and walked around the room to greet each reporter individually.

Asked how he would advise younger artists who aspire to be around as long as he’s been, Daniels said, “First of all, you make sure it’s what you want to do … and you’ve got to be where there is a music business.”

Raised in rural North Carolina, Daniels said he was 15 years old before he saw a picture on a TV screen. His link to the outside world, he explained, was through radio, and he remembered the first show he listened to was the Grand Ole Opry. He made his first visit to the Opry in 1954, first played on the program with Earl Scruggs’ band and finally became a member this year. “I’m still in awe of that great institution,” he said.

Daniels contrasted the music business today and what it was like when he came into it. He pointed out that he was in his 40s when he signed with Epic Records and began having his greatest chart successes. He said his first contract with Epic called for six albums, but that today’s artists have to score hits immediately to stay on a label.

Being a bandleader means trusting your players’ musicianship and instincts, Daniels said. “I don’t tell people what to play,” he explained. “I want you to do what you do.” The biggest changes in the music business he’s noted over the years, he said, have been in recording technology and travel. “The roads have improved a lot,” he said. “You can get there faster.”

Daniels said his greatest cause for satisfaction is that he’s kept more than 25 people “gainfully employed” over the past 25 or 30 years. As to who’s hot and who’s not on the charts these days, he confessed, “I can’t even tell you one song out of the Top 10 in any field of music.”

View photos from the tribute to Charlie Daniels.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to