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Story by Wendy Newcomer • Photo by Tim Campbell

He's been in the company of presidents, star athletes, Hollywood royalty and legendary musicians of every genre. So when Charlie Daniels needed to fill up his new museum in downtown Nashville, he wasn't lacking in memorabilia and awards. "We just cleaned my mantelpiece off," jokes Charlie, walking by one display case after another.

Charlie stops at the first exhibit and points to a National steel-body guitar. "We did a tour with the Lynyrd Skynyrd band back in 1975 or '76," explains Charlie. "Just before we went onstage that night, Ronnie Van Zant walked into the dressing room and gave this guitar to me. It's a memento of the tour, but it's also a memento of our friendship."

"Ronnie and I were pretty close," says Charlie of Lynyrd Skynyrd's late lead singer. "That guitar's not ever going to be for sale as long as I live. We've used it on recordings, but when we put the museum together I thought it might be something people would enjoy seeing. It's a very special treasure."

Treasures abound at Charlie's museum. There's the certificate heralding his induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. There's the Western exhibit, featuring a cherished rope, hat box, spurs, boots and reins surrounding a photo of Charlie with Western author Louis L'Amour.

Then there's the framed check from Elvis Presley Music dated 1963. "That's a binder check for a song I wrote called 'It Hurts Me,' " says Charlie. "They sent it for five dollars, and of course I never cashed it because it had Elvis' picture on it. I wonder how many of those five-dollar checks they sent out that nobody ever cashed?"

In the corner of the museum is a "presidential" area filled with pictures of the entertainer with former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush. Never one to mince words when it comes to politics, Charlie admits President Carter was his favorite.

"I've flown on Air Force One with Jimmy Carter," notes Charlie. "He's an incredibly wonderful person. He came into office at a very tumultuous time and brought some honor back to an office that had been downgraded by Richard Nixon, unfortunately. The country very much distrusted politics. But the press could not understand Mr. Carter because he didn't hide behind innuendo and say one thing and do another."

Charlie spots a picture of himself with the late Dale Earnhardt. "I met Dale at the Talladega race one year," he declares. "I was so taken with him because he was getting ready to run out on the track and drive 185 miles an hour - and he made time to stop and talk to me. I almost felt funny saying anything other than 'Hi, how are you?' But he stood there and made conversation. He was a truly fine, nice guy."

There's a special place in Charlie's heart for his military exhibit. "I'm a huge supporter of the military," admits Charlie, whose current single, "This Ain't No Rag, It's A Flag," follows in the patriotic footsteps of his other songs, "In America" and "Still In Saigon."

"Without the military there would be no America," he states. "See, I came up during the Second World War. Everybody was patriotic. I felt really bad about the guys who came back from Vietnam and the way they were treated. So I've tried to do everything I can for them."

Charlie's selfless spirit and unabashed love for music have endeared him to his fans all over the globe. He still tours regularly and says he has no plans to retire. And last fall Charlie and his band released their first all-live album, The Live Record.

With a museum full of awards and accolades, there's a lot to be proud of in his 30-year career. But his proudest accomplishment comes from humble origins.

"What means the most to me is that I've kept a bunch of people steadily employed for over 20 years," he confides. "I've never missed a paycheck. One guy in the band has been with me for over 30 years. We're like a family. I take very much to heart what happens to these people."

Charlie surveys the museum. It's a jolting reminder of the life he's lived - and is still living. "I forget about this body of work we've done until I come in here. It's pretty mind-boggling. I've played billions of licks on my guitar and fiddle and I've sung thousands of songs.

"But the wonderful part is, I'm still doing it," he adds with a smile. "I'm still making stuff that's going to go up on these walls one of these days.

"I'm still making memories."