An Opry-sized payback

 
by Jonathan Owens of the Sanford Herald  

GULF — Not everyone can say he taught a legend the seeds of a craft that would bring him fortune and fame.

Gulf native Russell Palmer can.

In 1951, as a teenager, Palmer befriended a newcomer to Chatham County named Charlie Daniels. One day the pair were sitting around Palmer’s home, and he brought out an old guitar and began playing the two chords he knew.
Daniels became intrigued with the instrument and made Palmer teach him the chords. The rest is country music history.

 


 
   

 

“Well, he says I taught him how to play on an old Stella guitar,” Palmer said. “I don’t know that I taught him, but I’ll take credit for it.” Daniels was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry’s Hall of Fame Saturday. The induction was the pinnacle of a career that included platinum records and even a gig at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration in 1977.

Daniels paid Palmer back by inviting him to play in his band as Daniels received the induction.
Palmer played guitar on one of Daniels’ most famous songs — “Long Haired Country Boy” — in front of a capacity crowd at the event.
Since the Opry announced that Daniels would be honored, Palmer had planned to attend the event. But just a few weeks ago, he received a call from his friend asking if he wanted to play alongside the legend on stage, which Palmer graciously accepted.

Palmer called the event “quite exciting, really,” adding he met several celebrities such as Jim Ed Brown, Marty Stuart and Trace Adkins, while at the show and reception honoring his friend.

“It was total chaos backstage, though,” he said. “I don’t know how they get anything done there, but they did. On his Web site this week, Daniels recalled his first meeting with Palmer, saying his friend knew how to play “about two-and-a-half chords and I immediately started pestering him to show them to me.”

“I certainly didn’t realize it that day, but that old Stella guitar with the rusty strings and a neck about the size of half a fence post was going to change my life,” Daniels stated. “I guess Russell and myself motivated each other, because we set about learning to play with a passion. And woe be to anybody who happened by who knew a chord we hadn’t learned, because we got really good at badgering people to teach us.””

While in school at Goldston High in the mid-1950s, Palmer, Daniels and couple of others formed a bluegrass band called the Misty Mountain Boys. Palmer and Daniels also made their first trip to the Opry in 1954 as part of an excursion to Nashville which included stops at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and a couple of other shows.

It was the first of several trips to the country music Mecca the pair made together —including the one Saturday night.

“Back then, they would have two shows in one day,” he said. “But we bought one ticket and stayed for both of them. We never got caught, either.”

   

Though Daniels moved back to Wilmington in 1956 and continued in the music business, Palmer stayed in central North Carolina and went into the funeral business. But the pair remained friends over the years, he said.

“We still talk quite frequently,” he said.

Now 71 years old, Daniels made 110 tour stops last year. He has a new album, “Deuces,” in stores now featuring duets with guest artists like Travis Tritt, Gretchen Wilson, Vince Gill, Earl, Gary and Randy Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Darius Rucker and Brad Paisley.
He said he owes much of his success to his friend in Gulf, who is a couple years younger than Daniels.

“It is an honor that I can’t begin to articulate,” Daniels stated of the induction. “There is no way I can express what it means to me. And to make it special, I will be joined on stage by Russell Palmer, the man who taught me my first guitar chords all those years ago.”

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but Palmer, who is the funeral director at Bridges-Cameron Funeral Home in Sanford, said those first guitar lessons were free.

“I don’t know that it was payback,” Palmer said. “He doesn’t owe me anything.”