(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel's Hot Dish: Cookin' With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT's Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at CMT.com.)
There they stood on the Grand Ole Opry stage at the Ryman Auditorium -- Earl Scruggs and Charlie Daniels -- two North Carolina boys full of pride and bluegrass. That's the first time I'd ever seen Charlie. He looked like a teenager with his bobbed-off hair, blue jeans, snap shirt, boots and a perpetual smile.
It was obvious Charlie was impressed to be there, and I was impressed to be seated on the front pew screaming my head off. Charlie and Earl traded musical breaks and smiles. They knew they were the hottest act on the Grand Opry that Saturday night. The best I remember, it was during the early '70s.
Charlie was born in Wilmington, N.C., and he and I talked about his early life when he visited my kitchen recently to tape an episode of CMT's Southern Fried Flicks.
His family, like mine, were tobacco farmers. They moved north to the Sanford area, where the tobacco farming land was sandy and the plants grew fast and tall. After graduating from high school, he hit the road with his rock 'n' roll band. California must have sounded like heaven to the country boy who'd primed the ripened tobacco leaves in 90-plus degree weather.
Over baked chicken, dressing, green beans, potato salad, chutney and iced brownies, we agreed that pulling tobacco suckers was the meanest and hardest job in the world. (Suckers aren't people who smoke tobacco. It's unwanted growths on the tobacco plants.)
Another tedious job almost as mean and hard as pulling suckers was cutting tops. There was very little feed on the corn stalks above the ears of corn, but still Daddy had us cutting those sorry things. The sun was beating down sticky hot. I was tired and so thirsty, I was spitting cotton. That sharp knife slid off the corn stalk and went for my left hand.
"That's the last top I'll ever cut," I said through salty, hot tears with blood dripping from my fingers. Daddy wrapped my hand in his red handkerchief and drove me to the hospital in Reidsville.
I showed Charlie the scar I still carry across the back of my hand, and we laughed when I told him why my family never cut another top. I might have been only 13, but I wasn't going to take another chance of losing my fingers.
After Charlie moved to Nashville, it didn't take long for word to spread about the hot-picking boy from North Carolina, so Charlie Daniels became a hot A-team session musician. His sessions included three Bob Dylan albums and Ringo Starr's Beaucoups of Blues album.
Charlie and Columbia Records producer and executive Bob Johnston became close buds, so there was plenty of work for him. Besides, he had his own Charlie Daniels Band playing Southern rock alongside the Marshall Tucker Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop Band, Barefoot Jerry and others.
With all these friends. Charlie took his fiddle and guitar and in 1974 organized the first of his many Volunteer Jam concerts that became legendary events that people still talk about in Nashville. Charlie loved the Grand Ole Opry and its artists, so his Volunteer Jams featured country, rock, bluegrass and more acts as diverse as James Brown, Roy Acuff, Little Richard, Bill Monroe, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. And his beloved Southern rockers performed at every concert.
The musicians came from every nook and cranny with fiddles and rock 'n' roll guitars. I'll never forget James Brown walking around in his flashy suit and cape and another time Little Richard took off his shirt -- which was replaced before the next song began. I walked around backstage like I knew what I was doing, but I didn't have a clue.
In 1975, Charlie gained acclaim for "The South's Gonna Do It Again." He was almost a superstar.
After topping every chart known to man with his classic "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," he won awards from CMA and ACM and claimed a Grammy for best country vocal performance in 1979. The world also saw Charlie Daniels playing his fiddle and singing the song in the film, Urban Cowboy. And then he was a superstar.
During the '80s and '90s, Charlie's albums and singles were a constant on the country charts. In 2002, he guest starred as himself on King of the Hill in an episode titled "The Bluegrass Is Always Greener." In 2005, he made a cameo appearance along with Larry the Cable Guy, Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. in Gretchen Wilson's "All Jacked Up" video. Also in 2005, he was honored as a BMI Icon at the performing rights organization's 53rd annual country awards honoring songwriters. Then on Jan. 19, 2008, Marty Stuart and Connie Smith inducted the great Charlie Daniels as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. There wasn't a dry eye in the house that night.
Charlie, his wife of 48 years, Hazel, and their son Charlie Jr. reside on the family ranch east of Nashville near Mount Juliet, Tenn. He raises horses and cattle, writes songs, prays and enjoys his wife's suppertime cooking. I hope he lives to be 100!
Did Kenny Chesney Find Beer in Mexico?
Some people don't know how not to work. Kenny Chesney is one of those.
He must still be tired after all those stadium shows during his Brothers of the Sun tour withTim McGraw, but he won't stop. He headed south of the border this past weekend for longtime friend Sammy Hagar's birthday bash in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. None other than my friend, chef Emeril Lagasse, was scheduled to fix the dinner at Sammy's beachfront house.
After a few days in Mexico with Hagar and some of his rock friends, I pray Kenny makes it back to the good ol' USA.
Jamey Johnson Calls
Jamey Johnson gave me a call last week while he was in New York City to sing on Imus in the Morning. He and Alison Krauss also sang "Make the World Go Away" on Late Show With David Letterman. He's promoting his new album, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, which finally arrives Tuesday (Oct. 16).
To celebrate the album's release, Jamey has invited several of his friends to join him Tuesday night during a sold-out concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. When Jamey called, he mentioned he had just spoken to Willie Nelson. I wonder if that means ...
As usual, I'm plugged in from shore to shore with those who matter.
Kellie Pickler Bounces Back With New Label Deal
Don't you know it's time the real country girl records an album filled with country songs -- the kind of songs the kin and friends from Albemarle, N.C., can pat their feet to and hum along with the music?
I'm talking about Kellie Pickler. She has found a new label home with Black River Entertainment. Doug Johnson is over there as VP of A&R. Craig Morgan is signed there, and so is Sarah Darling, Due West and Glen Templeton.
Despite her youth and stunning beauty, Kellie is not a contemporary artist by any stretch of the imagination. Like Loretta Lynn, she is stone-cold hillbilly country. We need more of that get-to-the-heart kind of music.
Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame to Open in 2013
After all these years of powerful songwriting by Marijohn Wilkin, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran and, God bless her, Maggie Cavender, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame will have a home at the new Music City Center in downtown Nashville in the spring of 2013. Visitors will be walkin' the floor over Ernest Tubb, Bobby Braddock, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and other members' names which will be etched in stone outside the center in a courtyard area called Songwriters Square. But songwriters ain't square, pal.
At the recent Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame banquet, the songwriting community honored this year's Hall of Fame inductees -- Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tony Arata, Larry Henley and Kim Williams. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood celebrated the Hall of Fame inductees by performing some of their songs during the dinner.
Taylor Swift was named the Nashville Songwriters Association International's songwriter-artist of the year. Dallas Davidson was named songwriter of the year. The song of the year, the Dolly Parton-penned "I Will Always Love You," charted following the untimely, sudden passing of the incredible Whitney Houston in February.
Barbra Streisand Releases Larry Gatlin Song -- Finally
Dottie West recorded Larry Gatlin's "Try to Win a Friend" in 1973 and recorded another version in 1982. Barbra Streisand recorded the song in 1977, but it wasn't released. She also sang the song while filming A Star Is Born, but the performance ended up on the cutting room floor.
Gatlin must be out of his mind with joy now that Streisand is finally releasing the song -- and it's a killer version. It's featured on her latest album, Release Me, which includes unreleased recordings from 1963 to 2011.
See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Best Meat Sauce.