Eighteen years after his first Crusade with Billy Graham, Charlie Daniels is joining Mr. Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, for the Three Rivers Festival of Hope in Pittsburgh, Pa., this August. The music legend has a long history with BGEA and isn’t shy about the faith in Christ that led him to perform at some of the organization’s events.
“Billy Graham is one of my heroes and has been for a long time,” Charlie Daniels said with a well-worn Southern twang. “I have the utmost respect not only for him but for the entire Graham family.”
That’s one reason the music icon is excited for the Franklin Graham Festival next month—but there’s more to it than that.
Daniels was born in Wilmington, N.C., in 1936. Growing up just hours from the Grahams, he often heard about the evangelist just as Mr. Graham’s ministry was getting started. But it wasn’t until the Charlotte Crusade in 1996—when Mr. Graham preached in his hometown—that Daniels joined him onstage.
“It’s just incredible to sit on that stage and watch all those people who accept the Lord coming down,” Daniels said, recalling Mr. Graham’s invitation to receive Jesus at the end of the Crusade. “It’s almost like liquid draining down a big bowl, watching these people coming down from every direction, from all sides of the stadium, to confirm their acceptance of the Lord.”
Daniels called it an honor to be involved in the Crusade—as well as several Crusades after that—and said he has always admired Mr. Graham’s humility and devotion to God.
“He’s all the things you can expect a really nice guy to be,” he said. “Nothing other than a Carolina country boy.”
You might call Daniels a bit of a country boy himself. Rarely seen without his cowboy hat and bull rider belt buckle, this full-bearded country/rock/Gospel singer is probably most famous for his 1979 song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” about an impressive fiddle contest between the devil and a down-home Southern boy named Johnny who ultimately wins. The song topped country and pop charts, won a GRAMMY, and the single went Platinum.
Yet some of Daniels’ other songs might better describe his priorities in life.
“My priorities are God, family, country and work,” he said. “I don’t always succeed, but I try to keep those as my most important things in my life.”
He is particularly passionate about the first three.
Daniels remembers when prayer was taken out of schools decades ago and said “if it had stopped right there, that would’ve been bad enough.” But now, he continued, he has seen so many examples of people removing God from their lives that he fears where the nation is headed.
“If America don’t get God back into our daily lives and into our politics and into everything we do, we ain’t gonna make it. We’ve gone too far in the other direction,” he said. “We’ve tried everything else. We’ve tried every kind of sensual satisfaction. … We’ve tried following people who we thought had the answer.” But in the end, he said, “God is the only real help we’ve got.”
Throughout his career, Daniels has given God the glory for the opportunities and success he’s found along the way. Some of his songs mention the Bible and church, and he’s recorded many Gospel favorites from “I Saw the Light” and “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” to “I’ll Fly Away” and “Nothing But the Blood.”
Daniels calls forgiveness the cornerstone of Christianity:
“The Bible says all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So where do we go from there?” he said. “We need to be forgiven.”
Although Daniels was brought up in a Christian home and asked Christ into his life as a child, he said he got off track later in life. Thanks to a tug from the Holy Spirit, he said, he gradually found his way back.
Today, the opinionated singer/songwriter lives in a quiet log home near Nashville, Tenn., and still keeps a full tour schedule with the Charlie Daniels Band. Over the years, he has recorded with Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Ringo Starr, and has attracted fans like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. His songs have been recorded by Elvis Presley and Tammy Wynette. And in 2008, he was inducted as a member into the Grand Ole Opry.
Yet all of that pales in comparison to his priceless relationship with Christ, the one who has sustained him, guided him and blessed him beyond measure.
Now 77, the polite, matter-of-fact performer said he has changed some of his song lyrics to ones he is more comfortable with—ones that might be more in line with his walk with God. It’s a walk that, during the tough times, has given Daniels “tenacity and determination and the will to go on in the face of adversity, in the face of disappointment.”
One lesson Daniels has learned is that there are just some things beyond his control—like the stroke he suffered several years ago while snowmobiling in Colorado. He calls his recovery “a God story,” a time to relinquish control and hand the reins back to his Creator.
Daniels isn’t shy about much, especially his faith. And he isn’t afraid to share it on the road. In fact, he’s memorized Psalm 91 about God’s protection as a prayer for his family when they travel. The Psalm begins:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”
Daniels has experienced the peace that comes from trusting Christ, he said, and hopes those who attend the Pittsburgh Festival next month experience the same thing. His band plans to perform some Gospel songs to set the stage for the Gospel message Franklin Graham will deliver at the event. (The entire two-day event can be watched live online at BillyGraham.org/Live).
“I want to see people understanding the Gospel message,” he said. “I think sometimes the reason they don’t is because of the simplicity. There’s nothing you can do but repent and believe. You can’t earn it. You can’t be good enough. … (Salvation) is a free gift. I think that’s really hard for us to understand.”
For more on who’s performing at the Three Rivers Festival of Hope Aug. 15-17, click here.