On July 6, 2020, we lost a Country Music Hall of Famer, Grand Ole Opry star, guitar virtuoso, fiddle playing icon, proud American and my friend.
This year marks my 37th year in broadcasting. Thirty of those years I’ve been solely focused on the world of country music. Currently, I host the Storme Warren Morning Show on SiriusXM. Whenever someone asks me, “How did you get your start?,” one of the very first people I bring up is Charlie Daniels.
Charlie’s influence on my career path began long before the age of 13. The first album I ever spun on a turntable was the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Million Mile Reflections” — the one with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” My brother and I wore that record out and then came “Full Moon,” “Fire on the Mountain” and “Saddle Tramp.” I found myself starting with “Devil” and then working backwards through the Charlie Daniels Band’s catalogue… a process I would later learn is recommended by another great musician and country music historian, Marty Stuart. Marty always tells people, “If you want to learn about music, start with what you like right now, then work backwards” — a cool journey for a 9-year-old.
Charlie’s music didn’t just tell stories, it painted vast landscape portraits, both musically and lyrically. The stories that unfold in the band’s songs are crystal-clear movies — and I’ve watched them all hundreds of times. The bullfighter in “El Toreador.” The island princess in “South Sea Song” (I think I still have a crush on her!). The hapless jailbird in “Trudy.” The longhaired hippie in “Uneasy Rider.” The mischievous gambler in “Midnight Train.” The personification of a violin in “This Old Fiddle.” The scariest song ever written and the first song ever to keep me up nights, “The Legend of Wooley Swamp.” And, of course, the Grammy- and multiple award-winning monster hit, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
It was the first full-length song I ever learned all the lyrics to — a tradition that has continued throughout my life. I told my wife, Allie, that I wouldn’t marry her until she could recite those lyrics. She passed the test before we ever said “I do.” As a reward — because of course Charlie was in on the rite of passage — he recited a rewrite of the song for our wedding: “Allie came down from Jersey, looking for a man to steal.”
As my music tastes expanded and drifted from Southern rock to country, and even from rock to ’80s pop, there was always the Charlie Daniels Band. The music you turn to when you need to get reset. It is my grounding rod. It doesn’t fit in any other genre of music. It is its own genre: CDB.
During high school, I moved from Tulsa to southern California, and the Charlie Daniels Band got stuffed in the back of my record collection. Then came my freshman year of college when one of my two best friends, Brian, pulled out a beat-up cassette tape. It was one of the longest-charting greatest hits albums of all time, one that spent over 620 weeks on the Billboard country album chart: the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Decade of Hits.” That moment reignited my love for CDB music and that album became our soundtrack for the rest of our college days. We played darts to it. We camped with it. It was our music. And it was during those college years when I first met Charlie.
I was working as a studio cameraman for CNN in Los Angeles. CNN had an entertainment show called “Showbiz Today” at the time, and I wanted to become a segment producer for the show. The executive producer learned of my interest — mainly because I constantly reminded him — and he made me a deal: if he provided a cameraman and an editor, I could present a three-minute story on anyone of my choosing. If he liked it, the story would air on the show and he would give me an opportunity to do another one. I knew this could be my only shot. My choice for a subject was simple: the man who had created the soundtrack to my life. I may never get another shot to interview him, let alone meet him. I cold-called Charlie’s office in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. I was transferred to my now longtime friend of over 30 years, Paula Szeigis, who has worked with Charlie’s camp for over 40 years. She heard the letters CNN; I heard the word “yes,” and my interview was set up. It soon became a great lesson in “Be careful what you wish for.”
My interview took place on his bus outside the old Crazy Horse Saloon in Santa Ana. We set up our camera in the front lounge of the bus and waited. The door opened and up walked the most bigger-than-life man I had ever met. “Hey son!” he bellowed, chomping on a piece of gum and shaking my hand. He sat down on the couch, put his own microphone on and asked, “What we gonna talk about?” I was speechless. This was Charlie Freaking Daniels sitting two feet from me. I read the questions from my notepad like I was hiding behind it. And I was. “So… Charlie … you play a really mean fiddle, right?”
But instead of rolling his eyes like he should have, he answered each of my stupid questions like Walter Cronkite was doing the interview. The conversation itself was a blur until I watched the tape back at CNN. That’s when I realized the off-stage art of Charlie Daniels. My questions were worthless, but his answers were pure gold, each one a self-contained nugget of wisdom and information. He gave me my story, and it aired on CNN in spite of my pedestrian efforts. And yes, I got to do another one.
Flash forward two years. The Charlie Daniels Band had another show on the west coast and he was promoting a new album, one of my personal favorites, “Simple Man.” It gave me another chance to interview my idol.
After we were done, Charlie followed me in to the CNN break room looking for a cup of coffee. He stood there, staring at the Hollywood skyline. Then he put his arm over my shoulder and said, “Son, you’re getting pretty good at this. I’ve been coming to L.A. for a long time. I’ve seen it change. This town changes people. It chews people up and spits them out. It doesn’t need you, but you know what? Nashville needs you. Have you ever thought about coming to Nashville?”
Had I thought about it? It was dream. He slapped me on the back and said, “If you need anything from me, just let me know.” I immediately planned my first trip to Nashville.
When I landed, my first stop was Charlie’s log cabin office in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. I was in heaven. Paula had set me up with passes to Fan Fair (or what we now call CMA Fest) and I was picking them up at their office. If there was any question left whether I was going to move here, it was gone in that instant as I stared at the platinum albums on Charlie’s office walls, along with the handwritten notes from Louis L’Amour and Charlie’s other Western heroes. This was paradise.
In the fall of ’93, I made the big move. I had lined up a job as a freelance producer on The Nashville Network’s show “Today’s Country,” which could provide just enough money to get by. Charlie’s wife, Hazel Daniels, even helped me find my first rental house in town.
A few years later my boss pulls me into his office, saying, “I was just cleaning some things out and I thought you might want to have this.” There, laying in front of me on his desk, was a letter signed by Charlie Daniels on his signature cow-skull watermarked stationery. It was a letter of recommendation… unsolicited by me. I had no idea it even existed.
I’ve told this story a few hundred times in my life, and I always have to end it with this disclaimer: I’m not the only one he’s done something for. Charlie truly enjoyed helping people. Especially people who work hard, have goals and are willing to sacrifice anything to reach them. Over the years I’ve heard and personally witnessed dozens of stories about how Charlie has quietly offered a helping hand to anyone who showed him passion enough to deserve it, or to anyone who didn’t have a voice of their own.
Charlie was loyal. His proudest achievement was keeping 40 people gainfully employed over four decades. His band and staff returned that loyalty. His manager David Corlew began working for Charlie as a roadie in the ’70ss. His director of touring, Bebe Evans, his publicist, Paula, and his bass player, Charlie Haywood, all clocked in over 40 years with the organization.
When we launched our own country music news television show, guess who I called to be our surprise guest speaker for the launch event? My life had come full circle. I will never forget listening to Charlie introduce me at our press conference.
As gifted as Charlie Daniels was as a musician, entertainer and poet, it pales in comparison to his gift as a man. He was our military’s best friend having traveled around the world numerous times in support of our troops wherever they were serving. As he always says, God gave him a gift to play music for a living and he felt it was his responsibility to give something back.
He’s the kindest person I ever knew. He’s the most talented entertainer I’ve ever seen. I spent years listening jealously to recordings of his famous all-star Volunteer Jams. Never in my life would I imagine myself hosting a bunch of them. Charlie was also kind enough to invite me to host his annual fund-raising dinner for his “Journey Home Project,” a non-profit that provides education and assistance to our veterans returning home.
Charlie is also the proudest American I ever knew, a patriot by the very definition of the word. His countless trips to military bases both in the U.S. and abroad solidified his commitment to this country and those who stand for it. His faith was as strong as his opinions. And if you followed him on Twitter, you know he has some pretty strong ones. He’d be the first one to tell you he’s allowed to have them, and that we’re all allowed to have them.
What began with a star-struck kid meeting his idol evolved into a 30-plus year relationship I will never be able to replace. To watch him be inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008 and into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016 were two of the greatest nights of my life. He was a hero, my mentor and my friend.
I’d like to share a line from one of my favorite Charlie poems, “Then, Now and Until the End”:
I’m always there, just below the surface
And when the chaff of trend and fad is swept aside
I’m exposed again
Strong, pulsating and very much alive
The winds of change may blow the tree away
But the roots remain, then, now and until the end
(Storme Warren is the host of “The Storme Warren Show” on SiriusXM’s The Highway channel. He previously hosted “Headline Country” on GAC for 12 years and is a frequent on-stage host at the annual CMA Festival in Nashville.)