Charlie Daniels Celebrates 75th Birthday
Most people prefer to celebrate their birthday by taking a little time off, but then again Charlie Daniels has never been like most people.
“I woke up 75 this morning and I can’t tell you how it is to be that way, because I ain’t had enough experience yet,” Charlie said with a laugh as he started his birthday with a phone call to The Boot.
The veteran entertainer turned 75 on Friday, Oct. 28, and instead of kicking back and taking it easy, he had a full weekend that included a show in Louisville, a special appearance at the Country Music Hall of Fame and a birthday celebration at the Grand Ole Opry.
“I’d much rather be working. That’s what I love to do,” Charlie says. “I thoroughly enjoy getting out here on the road and playing music for people.”
The night before his birthday, Charlie headed to Louisville for his Friday gig. “I came up here last night. I like to go up the night before. I don’t like daytime traveling,” he says. “[My wife] Hazel called me this morning and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to me, and I’ve got calls and emails and good wishes coming in from people. I appreciate all of them.”
Returning to Nashville, Charlie’s birthday weekend was a busy one. On Saturday afternoon, he participated in a panel discussion at the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Brothers & Sisters: The Rise of Southern Rock” was moderated by Michael McCall and included Charlie, Bonnie Bramlett of Delaney and Bonnie, former Capricorn Records publicist Mike Hyland and Ed King, formerly of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The event kicked off with a vintage video of The Charlie Daniels Band performing ‘The South’s Gonna Do It Again’ before the panelists began sharing stories about the songs and artists who have left such an indelible mark on America’s musical landscape. During the discussion, the packed audience in the Ford Theater was treated to rare photos of the CDB, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers and Delaney and Bonnie as well as audio and video clips. The event ended with a Q&A session.
During the panel, Charlie remarked that he never saw Southern rock as a genre of music, but more as a genre of people. “The music people refer to as Southern rock is blues and country-based, which is the gift we have given the country,” Charlie further shared with The Boot. “There happened to be several bands at the same time that were doing the same type of thing and it worked out that somebody put a name on it and called it ‘Southern rock,’ but I’ve never seen it as a genre of music actually. To me, Lynyrd Skynyrd has always been a pure rock band. The Allman Brothers Band was a blues band and Wet Willie was an R&B band. Marshall Tucker had country-leanings, and we were right there in the middle of them. Everybody had their own unique thing.”
After wrapping up the panel at the Hall of Fame, it was time to get ready for the Grand Ole Opry and a birthday celebration Charlie will never forget. The Whites, Clint Black, Little Jimmy Dickens, Lee Greenwood, the Grascals and Gretchen Wilson were among the performers on hand Saturday for Charlie’s big night.
“I’m so completely excited to be here at the Grand Ole Opry tonight playing for Charlie Daniels’ 75th birthday party,” Gretchen told The Boot. “He is such an amazing man, but not only that, he’s such an amazing American. He was the first person to welcome me to Wilson County when I bought my first home, and also he was such a gentleman, he was there at my graduation. He was there to hand me my diploma. I consider Charlie to be the closest thing to a Dad I’ve ever had. I’m just so proud of him and so proud to be here.”
Jeannie Seely welcomed the Charlie Daniels Band to the stage where they began their set with a blistering rendition of ‘Redneck Fiddlin’ Man.’ “I was telling Little Jimmy Dickens backstage he’s the only one older than I am,” Charlie told the crowd.
Before their next song, Charlie wished a happy birthday to CDB guitarist Chris Wormer. Charlie also took a moment to acknowledge the recent passing of the CDB’s legendary keyboard player Joel “Taz” DiGregorio, who was killed in a car accident Oct. 12. “This is the first time this band has played the Grand Ole Opry that he was not sitting back there at that piano,” Charlie told the crowd. “We miss him terribly.”
Charlie then dedicated their emotional performance of ‘Amazing Grace’ to Taz. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Before Charlie and the band launched into their final song, Tennessee National Guard Major General Max Haston took the stage with a special surprise, making Charlie a brigadier general in the Tennessee National Guard, an honor no other country entertainer has ever been given. “I am just flabbergasted,” Charlie said in receiving the honor. As the stage filled with officers from the Tennessee National Guard congratulating Charlie, he told the crowd, “We owe these people an unbelievable debt of gratitude.”
Moments later, Charlie joined friends and family backstage to cut his birthday cake as the celebration continued. “I never thought I’d be on the Opry, much less have my own special night there, so it’s a big deal to me,” Charlie told The Boot.
“Going to the Opry to me is always a social event. I get to see Bill Anderson and Jimmy Dickens, people I have great respect for that I don’t get to see very often. And there’s always people backstage that are coming in from all over the country to see the Opry and they always want to talk to you, which I’m always glad to do. It’s a social event. It’s a happening.”
The Opry holds a special place in Charlie’s heart and he feels there’s no other venue in the world quite like it. “There’s a whole ambience that surrounds the Opry,” he says. “There’s no other place like it. There’s no other backstage like it. There’s no other show that you walk into that has the feel to it the Opry has. People come to the Opry to have a good time. There are people that are going to be in the audience every time you walk out that that’s their first time. They’ve been aware of the Opry for so long, maybe some of them all of their lives, and have been listening to it and wondering what it would be like to actually sit out front and see Little Jimmy Dickens, Vince Gill or Marty Stuart or any number of people. There’s excitement. When that curtain opens, there’s an anticipation there. There’s an appreciation. It’s unlike any place else.”
Charlie thoroughly enjoyed his 75th birthday weekend, but admits his celebrations are usually more low key. “Christmas is our big celebration time,” he says. “I [usually don't] do anything in particular for my birthday. Christmas is a different situation. Hazel decorates the house and puts up several Christmas trees and decorates outside. That’s our special time of the year when we’re celebrating a birthday that’s much, much more important than mine.”
When it comes to memorable gifts during his 75 years, Charlie laughs and recalls a friend in New York giving him a lottery ticket when he played a show on Long Island. He says what he’s always treasured most are the birthday cards from his son, Charlie Jr. “My son has the knack of buying the most thoughtful birthday cards and writing the most thoughtful things in them,” he says proudly. “We keep all the cards he gives us for our birthday. We’ve got them all.”
When asked how he manages to stay so active at 75, Charlie says exercise is the key. “One of the best things I ever did for myself was start regular exercise,” he relates. “I broke my arm bad back in 1980. It’s by the grace of God that I didn’t lose it or lose the use of it. When I got over that and started rehabbing and getting myself back together, I could hardly walk a hundred yards because I sat for four months and didn’t do anything. I said then ‘I’m going to start doing regular exercise, walking and jogging.’ I ride a bike now and walk. I try to do something every day and it’s been one of the best things I’ve done for myself. You don’t have to go to the gym every day, just walking at a brisk pace for an hour or so. It will make a big difference in your life. It’s made a big difference in mine.”
Though he’s traveled the world and seen so many of his dreams come true, Charlie admits there are still a couple things on his bucket list. “I want to kill an eight-point buck and catch a 12 pound large mouth bass,” he says.
Now that he has three quarters of a century of life under his belt, what would say if he were writing a letter to his teenage self. “It would take several volumes, more than just one letter,” he laughs. “I would say ‘Keep your eyes on the Lord. Read your Bible,’ which I didn’t get in the habit of doing for many many years. God’s truths are truths. The Bible says ‘Heaven and earth will pass away but My word will never pass away.’ You can depend on what’s written in that book. And I would say ‘Be true to yourself. Work hard. Be a good friend. Be as good a person as you possibly can.’ The mistakes that I’ve made, I would probably make a lot of them again. Some of them were honest mistakes. Some of them were inadvertent. Some of them I probably knew I was making a mistake at the time I did it, but that’s life.”
He encourages others to recognize opportunities that arise and don’t be afraid to embrace them. “I came home for Christmas one time and I had been gone for a good while,” he recalls. “My folks wanted me to stay with them and Bob Johnson wanted me to come to Nashville and write with him. Rather than stay at home, I went and wrote and we wrote an Elvis Presley song. If I had not taken that trip, if I had not done that, who knows?
“Opportunities pop up and you have to recognize them. They don’t last long. They are like a rainbow. It’s only there for a little while. If you don’t see a rainbow when its there you miss it. If you don’t grab an opportunity while it’s there, it’s gone.”
After wrapping a busy weekend, Charlie was looking forward to a special trip. On Tuesday (Nov. 1), Charlie and Hazel will be leaving Nashville for a visit to Israel with their pastor and friends from church. “We’ll tour Israel and go be where the Lord was,” Charlie says. “It’s a neat place. We’ll be in the country for nine days.”
When he returns, Charlie and the band will continue to tour in November and December with shows in Iowa, Minnesota, Texas, Florida and Las Vegas as well as their annual Christmas for Kids benefit at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Nov. 21. At the present time, Charlie has no plans to hire another keyboard player. “I’m not going to be able to replace him,” he says of Taz. “We’ll put somebody over there, but I’m not quite ready to do that yet so we’ll just play with five pieces. The hard part is looking over there at that big bald spot on the right hand side of the stage where he’s been. He was a part of my life for 40 years and it’s not the same. It definitely is not, but life goes on and I’m sure Taz would not want me to do anything but mourn for him for a while and then get on with the business at hand so that’s what we’re doing.”
Life goes on and at 75, so does Charlie Daniels. “I’m looking at it as a milestone, but not a wall that stops me from anything,” he says of his 75th. “It’s just another stone that I step on and keep on going. I intend to be doing this as long as it’s the good Lord’s will for me to do it. Jimmy Dickens is 90 and he’s still [performing]. I would like to think if it’s God’s will for me to live that long and I got to be 90, I’d still be doing it.”