Charlie Daniels, the longtime celebrator of warts-and-all American life, passed away today at the age of 83.
The singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist enjoyed a musical career spanning six decades, starting with a 1964 songwriting co-credit for Elvis Presley’s “It Hurts Me.”
A native of Wilmington, North Carolina, Daniels suffered a fatal stroke and died at TriStar Summit Medical Center near his current home in Hermitage, Tennessee.
Charlie Daniels is remembered for his eclectic and ever-evolving mix of country, Southern rock, bluegrass, and gospel. He recorded with everyone from Bob Dylan to Travis Tritt to his own Charlie Daniels band.
If there’s a common thread to the many songs Daniels wrote and performed during his long career, it was a spirited, unapologetic Americaness.
Here’s the chorus from his beloved 1975 hit, “Long Haired Country Boy.”
‘Cause I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’
If I can’t get it on my own
If you don’t like the way I’m livin’
You just leave this long haired country boy alone
The most up-voted comment on the YouTube video is from four years ago and it says, “I love this – love Charlie Daniels! Not sure why sooo000 many racists have claimed him for themselves but my Black Grandmother loved him until she passed away. Stop with all the race bullshit and just enjoy some pure American Music! Keep Rocking Mr. Daniels WE LOVE YOU IN NEW ORLEANS!”
Charlie Daniels is loved pretty much everywhere good music is played or performed.
Daniels is probably best known for his 1979 hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which gained him crossover appeal on the rock charts the next year when it was included in the John Travolta movie (and accompanying soundtrack), Urban Cowboy.
But I’ll always remember him as the Man Who Saved the Republic.
Maybe you think I’m indulging in hyperbole, and maybe you’re right. Nevertheless, that’s how I think of Daniels whenever his 1980 song, “In America” comes on.
And in my house and car, it comes on a lot.
But I want you to remember what life in America was like in 1980, when “In America” hit the airwaves in May and stayed there all summer long.
Hostages in Iran. Gas lines. Double-digit inflation. The misery index. Gene Kelly’s last big-screen appearance was in an Olivia Newton-John movie about a roller disco. Skyrocketing crime. John Lennon’s murder in New York City.
Hell, New York City in 1980 was a cautionary tale all its own.
And then there was that dour, miserable, scold of a man “leading” us through it all, Jimmy Carter.
There were very few good things you could say about 1980, aside from the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s Miracle on Ice, The Empire Strikes Back, and some very good music (including but not limited to the impending death of disco).
As a nation, we needed some strong tonic.
Charlie Daniels delivered it in his typically defiant, musical way.
Daniels gave us what we needed, exactly when we needed it most: A reminder that this is a damn fine country filled with an inspiring, impossible mix of people who somehow make it all work.
From The Sound up in Long Island
Out to San Francisco Bay
And everything that’s in between them is our own
And we may have done a little bit
Of fightin’ amongst ourselves
But you outside people best leave us alone
‘Cause we’ll all stick together
And you can take that to the bank
That’s the cowboys and the hippies
And the rebels and the yanks
You just go and lay your hand
On a Pittsburgh Steelers’ fan
And I think you’re gonna finally understand
Without that reminder, who knows — maybe the country would have shrugged and reelected Jimmy Carter to a second term of neverending malaise.
Could the Republic have survived that? Maybe, probably, but not in a way you’d bear much thinking about.
Instead, Charlie Daniels made us feel good about us again, and those were the people who put Ronald Reagan in the White House by an overwhelming majority not seen since.
A mere four years later it was Morning in America, and maybe I’m crazy, but I believe it’s no coincidence that two-thirds of “Morning in America” is “In America.”
Thank you, Charlie Daniels, from the 11-year-old me who 40 years ago couldn’t get enough of this sentiment:
And you never did think
That it ever would happen again (In America, did you?)
You never did think
That we’d ever get together again
(We damn sure fooled you)
Yeah, we’re walkin’ real proud
And we’re talkin’ real loud again (In America)
You never did think
That it ever would happen again
I think it can still happen again, but I’d sure feel better if we still had that long-haired country boy to help show us the way.