A touring musician for more than 50 years, Charlie Daniels knows the highway by heart. Yet he's always blocked off his calendar for Christmas.
"There's no telling where I am going to be on other holidays, but I'm definitely going to be home for Christmastime -- and usually Thanksgiving, too, but definitely Christmas," Daniels says. "So it's a time when I come home. I know I'm going to be there with family and friends. It's a special time for me."
Daniels has collected highlights from previous holiday albums for Hallelujah It's Christmas Time Again, available exclusively at Old Country Buffet, HomeTown Buffet, Ryan's and Fire Mountain restaurants. All proceeds will benefit the Armed Services YMCA for Operation Outdoors, a camp program that assists the children of military personnel during deployment.
In this interview with CMT Insider reporter Rachel Harbour, Daniels discusses his approach to making holiday music, his childhood memories of Christmas and the time he got busted for dressing up as Santa.
CMT: The album title is Hallelujah It's Christmas Time Again. Is that how you feel when it comes to that time of year?
Daniels: I love Christmastime. I'm a Christian. It's the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It's the most special day of the year to me. It's my favorite time of the year. Christmas Eve is my favorite day of the year, and we celebrate it to the hilt at my house. We go into Christmas mode about ... oh gosh, my wife starts decorating in August! Not really, but I mean early on. She has five Christmas trees -- a regular Christmas tree, a cowboy tree, a special ornament tree, an angel tree. ... I don't even know what the others are, but it's a very, very special time.
How did you get in the Christmas spirit while recording this album?
This album is actually a compilation of other albums that we've done. This is our fourth Christmas album, so this is a compilation rather than one that we went in and recorded. One of those albums we actually did at Christmastime. We came to the studio here in Nashville and came off the road for Christmas. It was cold outside, and there were decorations in the studio and outside. You felt in the Christmas spirit, so that one was pretty easy. The other we did in August or July or something when it was not Christmastime. You walk in the studio and start playing Christmas music, and you're not looking out the windows or anything. So you just naturally get in the Christmas spirit. It's not hard for me.
Is it challenging to put your own stamp on holiday songs without losing their traditional feel?
I don't find it hard. I've been doing this 54, 55 years -- something like that -- and my band's been together for a good little while, so we're a cohesive six-piece band. ... I want them to play what they play. So when you get six people together and they all put their particular personalities into the music, it becomes your sound. Good, bad or indifferent, for whatever it is, it's your sound. So you take a song, and this guy's got an idea, that guy's got an idea, I have an idea. And the first thing you know, we've grabbed a song and kind of made it our own. So I don't really find it that hard. I would find it hard not to put our stamp on it, basically to try and do it in a fashion that was not something that we do.
Do you ever dress up as Santa? With the beard you'd look like him. Just throw on a red suit.
I dressed up as Santa Claus on one of these album covers and something funny happened with that, too. We shot the album cover at Opry Mills. Of course, it was in the mall with people going by and they're shooting photos. I was on the road the next week or so, and this little kid came up and hollered at me and said, "I saw you dressed up like Santa Claus!"
I had to think fast. I said, "He gave me permission. We were doing an album cover, and Santa Claus gave me permission to dress up like him." You don't want to disillusion anyone like that! I mean, this kid was serious, like, "You broke the law! You need to go to jail! I saw you!" ... That's the worst thing that ever happens to them finding out about Santa Claus. They're going to grow out of it soon enough anyway, so I would never disillusion a kid.
Do you have any favorite Christmas memories from when you were growing up?
Yes, I have several, but I'll tell you one that sticks in my mind. I was probably 4 years old on Christmas Eve night. My paternal grandparents lived right down the road from us. It was close in Wilmington, N.C., Carolina Beach Road, and we had gone to their house on Christmas Eve. And when we came back, Santa Claus had come while we were gone and he brought me a drum. I'll never forget that -- a drum. And I proceeded to beat the head out of it. I played and sang "You Are My Sunshine." ... I was just a little kid. That was a special memory. I remember that very well.