In the spring of 1975, a high school classmate and I headed to St. Louis for a “kite-flying” contest in Forest Park. It was called that because the sponsor, radio station KSHE, could only get a permit for a concert if it were called a kite-flying contest. More than 50,000 people enjoyed the concert that year, including my classmate and I, who were right in front of the stage.

A local band opened the show, then a trio from Canada performed one of its first gigs in the United States. It would be one of the last times Rush opened for another band.

We were there, like most of the other 49,998 people, to hear and see the Charlie Daniels Band. We both loved what was known as Southern Rock, though Daniels himself didn’t like that term, I found out three decades later.

Daniels, a native of North Carolina, died last week at age 83 in Tennessee, where he lived the past half-century.

Fast-forward from 1975 to 2006 and I’m living in El Dorado. I arrange an interview with none other than Charlie Daniels, whose band has been booked to play at the city’s annual Musicfest, a downtown celebration of music, the arts and more.

I had interviewed hundreds of people in the music business, but when I heard on the phone, “Rod, this is Charlie Daniels,” it was a genuine thrill.

I told Daniels about seeing him at Forest Park 31 years before. He spoke about it as if it were a week ago. I got to meet Daniels backstage before his show in El Dorado. I also got to chat with longtime bass player Charlie Hayward, who recalled the Forest Park gig as one of his first with the band. I met Daniels’ legendary keyboards player Joel “Taz” Di Gregorio, who passed away a few years ago.

While on the phone, Daniels and I spoke about the St. Louis gig, his influence on both rock and country performers, the spiritual faith he carried with him on the road, and his love for this country. He lost many friends and fellow musicians along the way, and when he spoke about them he did so with respect and love.

In 1964, Daniels and Bob Johnston co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” which Elvis Presley recorded as a single.

Daniels struck gold five years later when, as a studio musician in Nashville, Tenn., he was heard by Bob Dylan, who wanted him to play on the album he was recording. Daniels played on “Nashville Skyline” and two other Dylan works, “Self Portrait” and “New Morning.”

“I don’t want another guitar player. I want him,” Daniels would recall Dylan saying in 1969.

Daniels in 1971 formed The Charlie Daniels Band or CDB, some of the tightest, most talented musicians from across the south. In 1974 they released “Fire On The Mountain,” which featured classics such as the instrumental “Caballo Diablo,” “Long Haired Country Boy,” “Trudy,” “The South’s Gonna Do It” and the fiery bluegrass song “Orange Blossom Special.” Back then, when the CDB came to town you knew it: there were three or four buses and about that many 18-wheeler trucks as part of the show. 

In addition to his singing, Daniels was prolific on guitar and fiddle. He would sell more than 13.5 million records, from rock-influenced country to gospel to live performances in the Middle East, where he played for military troops. Though best known for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia,” he was so much more than that. He began hosting his “Volunteer Jam” live concerts in 1974, which continued for nearly 50 years.

Daniels and the CDB performed with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, Elvin Bishop and others, logging millions of miles on the road and through the air. The Tennessean newspaper wrote, “Daniels would forge a reputation among his peers as a scorching live player who bridged his steadfast country-rock to bluegrass and blues music.”

Daniels about six years ago formed the “Journey Home Project,” which raised more than $1 million for veterans and veterans-related programs. It took until Daniels was 70, but that’s when he was invited to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry. Four years ago he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He was a special musician, songwriter, singer and performer.

More than that, Charlie Daniels was a special man.