HEADIN' TO HEAVEN

Charlie Daniels has a clean bill of health, a new gospel album and faith that he's 'goin' home'

I'm a mediocre talented, extremely farsighted, chubby guy from North Carolina," declares Charlie Daniels in a modest self-description that belies his impact on American music and culture.

"I know what it's like to get up before the sun and work all day long," he continues. "And my efforts tend to focus on people from that same mindset -- people who get up in the morning, go out in all kinds of weather, bring home a paycheck, send their children to school and take 'em to church. You know, Middle America.

"People who don't depend on nobody. Nobody but God."

Charlie's depended on the Man Upstairs for as long as he can remember. Through more than 30 years with the Charlie Daniels Band and over 40 albums -- including his latest, How Sweet The Sound: 25 Favorite Hymns And Gospel Greats -- his faith has been a constant source of strength. Never was it more important than during Charlie's recent battle with prostate cancer, a battle he's happy to say he -- and God -- won.

"The doctor does the treatment, but God does the healing," declares Charlie with a smile. "That's the thing. You put your faith in the right place, and go ahead and get it done."

And that's what Charlie did Nov. 20 when doctors removed his prostate at Nashville's Vanderbilt Hospital.

"Cancer is a scary word," declares Charlie solemnly. "When I was a kid -- 'course, I'm 65 years old -- but when I was a kid, being told you had cancer was tantamount to a death sentence. Because they knew nothing about it."

Fortunately, times have changed and Charlie's cancer was treatable. But he still had some initial apprehension about the surgery. And he knew where to find help.

"I had to turn it over to God," he recalls quietly. "And I proceeded to try to do that. I had the greatest peace in the operating room.

"The doctors had said, 'If this thing's contained in the prostate' -- which thank God it was -- 'when you take it out, it's 100 percent curable.' And it's gone.

"The blood work came back good, so praise the Lord, I'm there!"

Charlie's not only saying "praise the Lord," he's singing it -- on the new album that contains some favorite hymns from his childhood.

"I've always loved the old hymns," he recalls fondly, "and nobody hardly sings 'em anymore. Let's do 'The Old Rugged Cross' or 'What A Friend We Have In Jesus.' I wanted to record those because I love those old songs."

And with Charlie, old-time gospel hymns are a family tradition.

"I remember at my grandmother's house on Sunday afternoon after everybody had dinner -- it was breakfast, dinner and supper in my part of the country," he laughs. "There'd be a whole gang of people there. And invariably, one of the women would sit down at the piano and they'd start singing. My daddy loved to sing. They'd sing the old hymns we sang in church back then. I just developed a real love for those songs. And I wanted to do an album of my favorites."

And he has -- everything from "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art" to "I'll Fly Away" and "Kneel At The Cross."

"I wanted to do songs that people could understand," explains Charlie. "The cross is there, Jesus is there and the blood is there. You just have to accept it. That's the message I wanted to get across."

The result is an album that brings a smile to Charlie's face.

"I'm as happy with it or maybe happier than with any other album we've ever done," he says warmly.

With a clean bill of health, a new album of tunes he loves and a recently released live album, Charlie hit the road in late March for a military tour before beginning his regular "make-a-living" tour.

First stop: Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Reports have it that troops loved the lyric change in his classic "The Devil Went Down To Georgia." In the revised version, Charlie sings that the devil went down to Gitmo / He was looking for some Taliban! Charlie takes every opportunity to show his support of our troops and offer his opinions about the military and other topics of passionate interest to him, often on his website's "soap box" at www.charliedaniels.com. He doesn't shy away from any issue, including the death penalty (pro), abortion (anti), the American Civil Liberties Union (strongly anti) and the media (they're biased to the left).

"I tell you what, man, the ACLU and the press that's supportin' them have the loudest voices in the country. And when you say somethin' against one of their groups, boy, they're very vocal and they write about you. Course, that don't bother me. Heck, I've been written about for years. People know what I stand for and what I am."

People do know Charlie, and his enduring popularity tells him what they think of him. But what does he think of Charlie Daniels?

In spite of a slew of hit records, two Grammys, five CMAs and other accomplishments, Charlie insists he's just like everyone else.

"I'm just a guy that God has blessed beyond my dreams," he declares. "And, thank God, I can make a living doing something I enjoy so much."

True to form, he doesn't worry about what's said about him after he's gone.

"Whatever they write or don't write," says Charlie, "my main thing is my relationship with God and where I'm gonna spend eternity. Once it gets to that point, my job's done."

"I want to go to heaven," he says firmly, "and I want to take as many people with me as I possibly can."

-- David Scarlett

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