By Matt White
Charlie Daniels was best known for a song about going down to Georgia, but his own trip into musical history traces to the Chatham town of Gulf, just outside Goldston. A mural on a Goldston restaurant commemorates Charlie’s place in the class of 1955 at the since-closed Goldston High School, and a plaque outside JR Moore & Son general store in Gulf marks the spot that Charlie cited in his autobiography as his first paying musical gig with his best friend, Russell Palmer.
Russell still lives in Gulf and confirms the story, but wants to make one thing clear: “I didn’t teach Charlie to play the fiddle,” he says. “Just guitar.”
The two were practicing on the store’s porch – Charlie on fiddle, Russell on guitar – when a car stopped and two couples got out. “Play something,” one of the women said. Russell shot back: “You got any money?” The woman gave them four dimes, and suddenly Charlie Daniels and – for a moment, at least – Russell Palmer were professional musicians.
The two met in the early 1950s when Charlie’s family moved to Chatham with the timber industry. Charlie would later write that his life changed forever the day he saw Russell playing an old Stella guitar and insisted Russell teach him the “two-and-a-half” chords Russell says he knew.
They soon formed the Misty Mountain Boys and promptly failed an audition at a Sanford radio station. But their practice sessions at JR Moore’s led to the 40-cent payday and a lifelong friendship. The two often talked, and the singer would visit Gulf when touring brought him close enough. When Charlie was inducted to the Grand Ole Opry, he brought Russell onstage.
“He called me and asked how long it had been since I played,” Russell says. “I said, ‘about 40 years.’” Charlie asked Russell to play banjo for the occasion, but after an hour of practice, Russell said he wasn’t up for it. Instead, the friends from Gulf played the Grand Ole Opry just as they had on the porch at JR Moore’s: Charlie on fiddle, Russell on guitar.
“I just strummed along,” Russell says.
This article first appeared in Chatham Magazine‘s June/July 2019 issue.