It was some 30 years ago when I first caught a Charlie Daniels concert. He was the backup to the Marshall Tucker Band at the old Capital Centre outside Washington, D.C., and that night, he stole the show. When he finished his blazing set, the audience erupted and brought him back for an encore. When the Marshall Tucker Band finished their rather good performance, it made no difference -- the capacity crowd roared for yet another performance from Charlie Daniels.
It's a metaphor for his life. At a time when he should deservedly be disappearing into the shadows, he's back -- with the crowd roaring once again. Despite recovering from a stroke and nearing his 74th birthday, Charlie still plays about 100 concerts per year, including Sean Hannity's "Freedom Concerts" to benefit the children of our fallen and disabled U.S. soldiers through Ollie North's Freedom Alliance. So much has Charlie become ingrained in the "Freedom Concerts" (he performed in all eight shows this year) and in the effort to support our military worldwide that he deserves his own tribute. He is America's unsung singing hero.
It would be nice if patriotism were in style in the music industry. It is so in the country music universe, but in other circles, there is no quicker way to become a pop culture pariah than following this path. Months after 9/11, ABC anchor Peter Jennings scratched out country singer Toby Keith from an Independence Day special because his songs were deemed too "mean" in their anger at our attackers. NBC put on country singer Steve Earle to sing sympathetically about American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh and his prayers for martyrdom. The Dixie Chicks publicly declared their embarrassment with President Bush for his declaration of war against terrorism and were hailed by the elites. That's what one does to earn accolades.
In recent years, I've come to know Charlie Daniels personally, enough so that I can say with confidence that this man just isn't looking for tributes. One gets the feeling that at his age, having accomplished so much, he just doesn't need them. He does it because he loves America and wants to honor the military by performing at the "unique and heartwarming" freedom concerts to entertain crowds full of "hard-working, God-fearing patriotic folks, the salt-of-the-earth middle Americans who have fought our wars, raised good citizens and kept the wheels of progress moving forward in this nation for over 200 years."
"Patriotism to me is always in style, but now -- especially now -- we need a little shot in the arm," he says.
He remembers that it can take a catastrophe to make people remember their common national bond: "9/11 was definitely a wakeup call to everybody about our country and about how precious it is -- about what can happen here and what did happen here. It never happened here before, and it showed we're a lot more vulnerable than we used to be. So as we go along, we forget about those pictures of the planes crashing into the trade towers and all the things that went on that day."
In 2006, CBS "Early Show" weatherman Dave Price asked him why at his age he was performing for soldiers in Iraq. Charlie's answer was precious: "I can't carry a gun ... you know, I can't fight, but I can darn sure carry a guitar and pick, so that's why I'm here." On CBS last year, Price recalled, "With all the great acts that are generous enough to give their time, when Charlie Daniels steps in front of these soldiers and sailors and Marines, it's like ... unreal."
The Charlie Daniels Band has performed for U.S. troops all over the world, not just in Iraq, but everywhere from Germany and Bosnia to South Korea to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Their brand-new album, "Land That I Love," underlines a strong theme in Charlie's music. That's a snapshot of his career, an apt description of a love affair with his country that he has expressed in music for over a half-century.
He was welcomed into the Grand Ole Opry Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2009. The Opry honor was announced while he was working for charity again, picking and fiddling for the Christmas for Kids benefit at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Martina McBride walked on stage with a small gift box containing the honor.
But Charlie has brought a much larger basket of gifts to this country and its fighting men and women. He deserves every honor that comes his way. Those of us who can consider Charlie Daniels a friend are honored that way.