Charlie Daniels Jr.: Southern Rockers: A Dying Breed, but With Some Hope

By Charlie Daniels Jr. | October 2, 2020 | 4:47pm EDT
Charlie Daniels' decorated career as a singer, song writer, guitarist, and fiddler spanned several decades. (Photo credit: Erika Goldring/WireImage)
Charlie Daniels' decorated career as a singer, song writer, guitarist, and fiddler spanned several decades. (Photo credit: Erika Goldring/WireImage)

Dad’s funeral was July 10th, and I saw many old friends of dad’s that I had not seen in many years.

One of them was Doug Gray, the lead singer for The Marshall Tucker Band, and only original member. Just to clarify, there are original members still alive, but no longer with the band.

But I saw Doug, and hugged him -- masks on, of course -- and I told him that there weren’t but a handful of guys like him left. At the time I thought of just Dickey Betts, Doug Gray, and Gary Rossington as a few of the survivors of the main southern rock bands of the 70s.

There are of course more than that; Billy Gibbons, Dusty Hill, and Frank Beard from ZZ Top are still alive and kicking, Henry Paul from The Outlaws, the incomparable Jimmy Hall from Wet Willie, and others from bands that weren’t as well-known outside the hardcore southern rock fans.

Not to mention other members of The CDB like Tommy Crain, and of course, Taz DiGregorio, who both passed away in 2011. One other member who also passed away was Earl Grigsby, who played bass with The CDB in the early 70s.

But with dad’s passing, another road dog joined the heavenly band, and there was one less here on Earth keeping the Southern rock flame alive.

Dad always said that that Southern rock was less of a “movement” than it was a brotherhood of bands who had completely distinctive sounds, but shared a common upbringing and outlook on life coming from the South.

Road brothers.

The CDB toured with Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band heavily in the early and mid-‘70s, and the bands bonded. Doug recently held a tribute to dad and mentioned that they first met when MTB was playing in Nashville, and dad showed up at their dressing room and said “are there any southern redneck boys from Spartanburg, South Carolina in here?” almost sounding like he was trying to start a fight, but it was in jest, of course, and they became good friends.

Dad told the story about how tough things were when they were starting out, opening shows for Skynyrd and Tucker, and The CDB was having to stay at the cheapest motels they could find. Tommy Caldwell from Tucker showed up in The CDB dressing room and asked dad how come they weren’t staying at the same motel as the MTB. Dad had to tell him that they simply couldn’t afford it. Tommy reached into his boot and pulled out a thousand dollars in cash and told dad to pay it back when he could, and if he couldn’t, not to worry about it, but he wanted them all to stay at the same motels. Dad did, of course, pay Tommy back.

But that was the way it was back then. Everyone looked out for one another.

Tommy passed away in 1980 on my 15th birthday while I was on spring break and on the road with dad for a couple of weeks. We were in California where dad had just recorded “In America,” when we had to head to Spartanburg for Tommy’s funeral.

Tommy’s brother Toy, who wrote all of the first two Tucker albums and sang several of their hits including “Can’t You See,” passed away in 1993 after everyone but Doug had already left the band.

George McCorkle from MTB also left us back in 2007. He wrote the band’s highest-charting single, “Fire on the Mountain," and I was proud to call him my friend.

Dickey Betts and Jaimoe became the last surviving original members of The Allman Brothers Band after Gregg Allman passed away in 2017, joining his brother, Duane, who died in a motorcycle crash in 1971.

Then, of course, there was Ronnie Van Zant.

Ronnie and dad were very close, and he was the first road brother that dad was really close to who passed away. Duane Allman died before The CDB had gotten established, so I’m not even sure they got to know each other, but Ronnie’s death hit dad hard.

On Oct. 20, 1977, the Lynyrd Skynyrd band’s plane crashed near Gillsburg, Miss. Dad and the band were getting ready to take the stage when someone came into the dressing room and said that there was a rumor that everyone in the band had died in a plane crash. The CDB prayed before they went on with the show, and dedicated their set to the Lynyrd Skynyrd band.

News traveled more slowly back then, so it wasn’t until the next day that the details were confirmed. Roadie Dean Kilpatrick, guitarist Steve Gaines, and his sister Cassie, who was one of the backup singers -- The Honkettes -- both pilots and dad’s friend, Ronnie Van Zant.

The press wanted a statement from dad, so he wrote a poem, and that was the only statement he would give. It also became the dedication to the Million Mile Reflections album.

“A brief candle, both ends burning,

An endless mile, a bus wheel turning,

A friend to share a lonesome time,

A handshake and a sip of wine.

Say it loud and let it ring

That we're all part of everything,

The future, present and the past,

Fly on, proud bird, you’re free at last.”

Dad also wrote a song called “Reflections,” which is a tribute to Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Ronnie. Each verse signified an artist who was representative of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and the ‘70s, with Ronnie representing the ‘70s.

“It was October in St. Louis town,

When we heard that the Free Bird had fell to the ground.

We all said a prayer before we went down to play

And Ronnie, my buddy, above all the rest.

I miss you the most and I loved you the best

And now that you’re gone, I thank God I was blessed

Just to know you.”

Dad performed that song live for the first time at Volunteer Jam V – which was also the debut of a little song called “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I remember sitting on one of the road cases, watching dad sing that song live. Dad did his best, but he struggled to get through the “Ronnie my buddy…” and subsequent lyrics. Dad was crying and at 13 years old, it hit me if dad was that emotional about losing someone, he must have been really close and it must really hurt, then I started crying.

I don’t remember ever meeting Ronnie. It’s possible when I was really young, but it’s also possible that I wasn’t on the road when they had shows together; I wish I had the opportunity.

When dad turned 80, I was on a mission to find a photograph of dad and Ronnie together, but I was having no luck. I reached out to the Skynyrd camp, to Ronnie’s brother, Donnie, to the band’s management, Ronnie’s widow, all to no avail.

Well, a former MCA Records promotion guy posted some old photos from a show in Jacksonville, from what became known as “The Torture Tour.” One was a photo of dad talking to Gary Rossington and the band’s former gym coach and namesake, Leonard Skinner, with Ronnie walking by in the foreground. The other one is Ronnie talking to dad, but largely obscured by Gary, but they were good enough. We actually had the photos drop into our laps via social media. I was able to get them blown up and framed for dad for his 82nd birthday and Christmas in 2018.

It was like finding the Holy Grail, or rather having the Holy Grail tweeted to you.

So, dad and Ronnie were reunited in a photo, now they’re reunited, along with many of their road brothers.

To quote one more line from “Reflections":

“Heaven should be proud.”

So, with dad and those already mentioned, we’ve also lost Billy Powell, Steve Gaines, Leon Wilkerson, Ed King, Bob Burns, and Allen Collins from Skynyrd.

The original torchbearers of Southern rock are indeed a dying breed, but the flame isn’t extinguished quite yet, and here are some bands that are doing their best to keep it burning. There’s Blackberry SmokeThe Cadillac Three, and a new duo with a pretty good southern rock pedigree known as The Allman Betts Band.

Check them out.

What do you think?

Pray for our troops, our police, our country and the peace of Jerusalem.

God Bless America!

— Charlie Daniels, Jr.

Charlie Daniels, Jr. is the son of legendary American singer, song writer, guitarist, and fiddler Charlie Daniels.

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