Southern rock and country music legend Charlie Daniels may have been best known for the platinum top five hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," but he spent decades supporting military veterans through charity work and his music.
Daniels, who died this week at age 83 after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, recorded a sometimes controversial string of songs that aimed to support the troops, the flag and the United States of America.
He lived many musical lives over a 60-year career, and the young Daniels might be unrecognizable to the fans he won later in life. Charlie got his big break as a session musician on Bob Dylan's 1969 LP "Nashville Skyline" and went on to play on records by Leonard Cohen, Ringo Starr, Marty Robbins, Pete Seeger and Flatt & Scruggs.
Daniels had his first top 10 hit with the pro-hippie talking blues "Uneasy Rider" about a long-hair who has to talk his way out of trouble in a redneck bar. He supported the legalization of marijuana and played fundraising concerts for future President Jimmy Carter.
By the early '80s, the flag-waving Charlie we now know so well had started to emerge. He played for the troops, both at home and abroad, and started The Journey Home Project charity to support the families of veterans.
Patriotic songs became a big part of Charlie's appeal over the years. Let's look at some of the most memorable.
1. "In America" (1980)
Written in response to the Iran hostage crisis, Daniels used his then-considerable clout with his label to make sure this was its first big single push after "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Charlie was looking for unity then, declaring, "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."
The song reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 13 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
2. "Still in Saigon" (1982)
Charlie, still selling tons of records, made sure Dan Daley's song "Still in Saigon" was the lead single off his next album, "Windows." Narrated in the first person, Daniels portrays a young soldier who's drafted into the war and struggles with PTSD after his return, reflecting that he's "still in Saigon in my mind."
"Still in Saigon" was one of the pop culture attempts to address what Ronald Reagan called "Vietnam Syndrome," coming before Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" and the movies "Rambo: First Blood" and "Uncommon Valor."
The song reached No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100.
3. "M.I.A." (1985)
The Charlie Daniels Band, like many of their southern rock contemporaries, may have struggled to make the transition to the synthesizer-and-drum-machine '80s, but that didn't reduce our man's commitment to the veterans.
"M.I.A." may have been an album cut on their "Me and the Boys" LP, but it's full of fire about the forgotten missing in action. Check out these blistering opening lines: "While we're sittin' home in our places / Stuffin' goodies in our faces / Bitchin' 'bout the television news and the price of gasoline / There's a man who was your neighbor / Somewhere in Southeast Asia / Living in a bamboo cage / And wondering what happened to the U.S.A."
4. "Let Freedom Ring" (1991)
On his final album for Epic Records, Charlie closes out his label career with a stirring track that promises the spread of freedom around the world.
5. "America, I Believe in You" (1993)
With his first LP for a new label, Daniels records a title song that expresses his faith in the country in spite of our troubles. He also was a decade too early in declaring the defeat of Saddam Hussein, but that's understandable when you consider how quickly the first Gulf War had ended. He's also not a fan of the NAFTA treaty.
Charlie does love the military. "Well we got the best dang farmers in the whole wide world. / The fastest horses and the prettiest girls. /We got the Army, the Navy, Air Force, and Marines, / the mightiest fightin' force the world's ever seen."
The new label and producer didn't quite get the band's career back on track. The single peaked at No. 73 and the album at No. 75 on the country music charts.
6. "This Ain't No Rag, It's A Flag" (2001)
Written in those feverish days after 9/11, Charlie makes it absolutely clear what he thinks America should do about the terrorists. The song earned notoriety when the CMT channel refused to let the band perform it on the Oct. 23, 2001, broadcast of a Country Freedom Concert from Nashville.
The song was the group's biggest hit in over a decade, reaching No. 33 on the country music charts. Fans agreed with his aggressive take on world events: "This ain't no rag, it's a flag / And we don't wear it on our heads / It's a symbol of the land where the good guys live."
7. "Ragged Old Flag" (2017)
Flag as rag: bad. Raggedy flag: OK, if you have the right story. Charlie teams up with Benghazi warrior and former Marine Mark "Oz" Geist to record a version of a Johnny Cash song that the Man in Black wrote at the tail end of the Vietnam War.
Some might be shocked that Cash (and now Daniels and Geist) include Confederate generals Lee, Beauregard and Bragg on the (historically correct) list of enemies who've tried to destroy the flag, but Cash knew that reverence for the American flag imposes some rules, and he damn sure followed them when he wrote "Ragged Old Flag."
Veterans might want to take a moment to remember Charlie Daniels and thank him for his support over these last decades. Let's hope he really was the best that ever was, and the devil won't be waiting around to collect on that fiddle bet.
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