By Levi King
(September 2005) The Charlie Daniels Band and NASCAR have a thing or two in common both were born in North Carolina, expanded across the South into Texas, and eventually became international sensations.
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Like Daniels, NASCAR became popular in the Southeast during the 1960s and gained national popularity in the 1970s. A major breakthrough came for NASCAR in 1979 with the first fully televised auto race, the Daytona 500. That same year, the Charlie Daniels Band rocketed to worldwide fame with The Devil Went Down to Georgia.
Arguably, NASCAR and the Charlie Daniels Band grew up together. Its no surprise then that Daniels feels such kinship with racing fans. He expressed his excitement to perform for what he calls the shirtless faithful during an Aug. 12 telephone interview from the road in upstate New York.
The legendary band will play prior to the NASCAR AutoZone Elite Division Southeast Series Bluegrass 150 on Sept. 10 at the Kentucky Speedway. The weekend is being marketed by speedway officials with the band at the forefront and under the name, The Charlie Daniels Band Fall Classic. The band will take the B-105 Country Sound Stage at 6 p.m. The Bluegrass 150 race follows at 8 p.m. The afternoon will also include a USAC Ford Focus Midget Car Series race at 3:15 p.m.
I like a lot of racing, especially NASCAR, Daniels said. I keep such a busy schedule that I dont get to watch often, so Im glad to be playing this race.
With a schedule of four to five concerts on the road each week, the boys of CDB have little time for much of anything. Weve got a lot of irons in the fire right now. Were as busy as weve ever been, said Daniels, 68.
One of those irons is a CD of new material that the band hopes to release next year. A DVD is also in the works that will include performances as well as an inside look at the band.
Daniels learned to play bluegrass music as a teenager in the 1950s. His curiosity led him to play with various rock and roll bands, and he explored R&B and jazz in a band called the Jaguars in the early 1960s. A breakthrough came in 1964 when his song, It Hurts Me, was recorded by Elvis Presley. Daniels soon found work as a studio musician in Nashville, Tenn., and performed on Bob Dylans Nashville Skyline album as well as recordings by Ringo Starr and Marty Robbins. Daniels went on to form his own band and hasnt slowed down since.
After 50 years on the road, some might expect the fiddler to be ready to park the tour bus. I cant imagine my life without this band and without this music, he said.
In fact, Daniels hardly takes time to check the rearview mirror.
Of his more than 40 records, three books, world tours and numerous awards including two Grammys and five CMAs, the feat Daniels most appreciates is far less glamorous. Im most proud of keeping 25 people steadily and gainfully employed for over 30 years, he said.
Two of those people are bassist Charlie Hayward and keyboardist Taz DiGregorio, who along with Daniels on fiddle and guitar, comprise the core of the Charlie Daniels Band. The band formed in 1970, and while Daniels has consistently refused to categorize his music, songs from the CDB got airplay alongside early Southern rock groups.
Members from two of these groups, the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers Band, joined the CDB for a live concert recording in 1974. Staged in Nashville, the concert became known as Volunteer Jam. The event became a hallmark for the band and continued almost annually until 1987, with lineups including Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Roy Acuff, Alabama, James Brown, Little Richard, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Ted Nugent. Volunteer Jam returned in 1991, and B.B. King, Steppenwolf and Tanya Tucker all joined the CDB for performances. The most recent jam was in 2001, but Daniels said he would like to organize another.
When we first started the Volunteer Jam, it was unique. There was nothing like it, he said. Now everybody does it, and its hard to get a meaningful roster of talent together. Its a tremendous undertaking, but wed like to do it. If we can get a meaningful lineup, well have another Jam.
Daniels consistency may be the basis of the bands success. Whether live or in the studio, his quick fiddle and hearty vocals provide instant recognition. What everybody else is doing has very little impact on what we do. We dont follow trends or fads, Daniels said. Every musician evolves. For us, its been very natural.
Daniels attributes his narrative style, evident in songs like The Legend of Wooley Swamp and Uneasy Rider, to his youth.
I never saw a TV until I was 15, Daniels said. In those days, everything was radio, whether music or radio shows, and a good storyteller was much revered for entertainment value. To some degree, younger generations are losing out on that.
While he admitted to paying little attention to new artists due to his busy schedule, Daniels believes that countrys popularity is good for the music. Popularity brings more people in and creates a lot more latitude. Country music is like its always been, like any other music some of its good and some its bad, he explained. Every few years, youll notice a blues revival. When rock goes out on a limb and theres nowhere else to go, it goes back to blues, because thats where it started. The same thing happens with country it goes back to traditional. So we dont pay it too much mind. We just do what we do.
Daniels recorded a traditional album himself this year. Songs from the Longleaf Pines: A Gospel Bluegrass Collection includes guest performances by Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs and earned rave reviews. On the album, Daniels explores his roots with traditional cuts like Ill Fly Away and Softly and Tenderly.
In February, the Super Bowl pregame show paired the CDB with country sensation Gretchen Wilson. Fans saw Daniels brandish his trademark black fiddle on stage with the Redneck Woman for a boisterous performance.
In early April, the band made a nine-day tour through Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, and Germany, performing for American troops. Daniels said the trip was his way of giving back to the soldiers. Were hoping to go back next year, but its hard to arrange those trips since conditions are always changing, he said.