These days, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum could almost amend its name with the add-on “featuring Charlie Daniels.” The respectful and humble-hearted star would likely be quick to dismiss that suggestion, but in recent months the institution has been a regular stop on a jam-packed itinerary that might prove challenging to a man 20 years his junior. When the Hall opened its currently-running Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats exhibit in March of 2015, Charlie treated the media and VIP crowd to a brief performance of Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” before hastily hitting the road for a gig. A few months later, with the bus again idling nearby, he hit the 5th Avenue outdoor stage for the Hall’s tribute concert to the original cast of 1960s/’70s Music Row session “cats.” Not only was Daniels a noted member of that elite cadre of game-changing studio musicians, he’s one of only two (Jerry Reed being the other) who went from behind-the-scenes musical royalty to worldwide mainstream acclaim.
His most memorable appearance there is yet to take place; on Oct. 16, just days before his 80th birthday, the golden-fingered fiddler will be inducted into the hallowed hall. But a nearly equally momentous occasion inside the Hall of Fame took place last night (Sept. 20), just a few days before the official opening of the Hall’s newest exhibit, Charlie Daniels: Million Mile Reflections. The exhibit is slated to run through early March of next year.
Addressing an intimate crowd of longtime friends and associates, local media and Hall of Fame staffers, Daniels began his brief, prepared speech disarmingly: “I’m readin’ this—I hope you don’t mind. I don’t have a teleprompter.” Amid a sprinkling of friendly laughter from those in attendance, Daniels proceeded. “To think that artifacts and accolades, symbols, relics and souvenirs of my life are going to be on display here, at the crossroads of country music, is a sobering fact for a chubby fiddle player that came to town with a dream and a twenty-dollar bill.”
Sure, the average person probably knows Charlie Daniels as the “chubby fiddle player” to which he referred, but the Million Mile Reflections exhibit, even with its relatively compact size, stands as a reminder that Charlie Daniels is far more than that. A sampling of guitars tells viewers that he made his mark in Nashville studios as a versatile multi-instrumentalist, fiddle being only one of his specialties. Of course, he’s a unique-voiced songwriter whose best-known work has netted him half a dozen BMI Country Awards. But folks who can recite the whole of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” might be surprised to see his name on the framed royalty check from Elvis Presley Music, Inc. Alongside it is the original sheet music to “It Hurts Me,” the 1964 Top 30 Presley hit Daniels co-wrote, flanked by handbills for local gigs he played around his North Carolina hometown in the 1950s.
Late and lamented Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant’s faded, tangerine-colored T-shirt touting a Skynyrd/Charlie Daniels Band tour speaks to Daniels’ pivotal role in the Southern-rock genre and his highly uncommon breadth of appeal. Below that ’70s artifact, over to the right, is Daniels’ Academy of Country Music Pioneer Award, and quite rightly so. Think about it: bona fide, Nashville-honoring country stars whose recordings continue to be heard daily on classic rock radio are so rare you can count ’em on one fiddle string.
Other items on hand include a U.S. flag-adorned Gibson guitar commissioned to commemorate the 9/11 attacks, a 1980 letter from President Jimmy Carter and a selection of ornate-handled canes signifying the miles Daniels continues to chalk up as he enters his seventh decade of a life dedicated to music. Viewed across his lengthy career, Charlie Daniels is a conundrum of sorts whose songs form a plainspoken, no-nonsense mosaic in which long-haired country boys, impassioned patriots, hell-raising rebels, God-fearing citizens and more find a place to somehow coexist. If nowhere else, they all find the possibility of agreement in the consistency and originality of his potent musical hybrid. Within it, America—not just the South—is a place where they can all gather ’round, be loud and be proud.