Charlie Daniels sailed through the morning cold, his eyes pinned on the tractor, walking like a man on a mission. Outside Gulf Coast Tractor & Equipment, where a crowd had gathered to watch, company owner Mike Rowe beamed as he handed over the keys.
"I'ma get on there and crank it up," Daniels said, his face hidden behind shades, a desert-camo hat and a thick white beard. "I don't know about doing no work, but I can sure crank that sucker up."
The tractor — a $30,000 citrus-orange Kubota B3200 front-end loader and backhoe, 32 horsepower, hydrostatic drive, cupholder — was the company's gift to Daniels' favorite charity, the Angelus, a group home and day center for the severely disabled. Workers would use it to move dirt and mulch around the Angelus' 17-acre plot in Hudson, where residents can walk through a "Fantasy Forest" or brush and feed the center's miniature horses, Fuzzles and Poo.
In 1979, the same year Daniels' The Devil Went Down to Georgia secured his hickory stump among the legends of Southern rock, private school teacher Pauline Neri opened the home in St. Petersburg. About a decade later, after the move to Pasco, Daniels began fundraising for the Angelus with what would become an annual benefit.
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Thursday morning marked the beginning of the benefit's 20th year, and Daniels' schedule for the next few days was packed. He would be appearing at golf tournaments, playing in poker games and headlining a concert, alongside country groups Confederate Railroad and Little Texas, on Saturday night at the Dallas Bull.
Yet Daniels, 74 and still recovering from a stroke he suffered while snowmobiling in Colorado, made no signs of slowing as he climbed off the tractor, moving briskly into the showroom, telling fans to "call me Charlie."
After stopping for coffee near a wall of Stihl chain saws, Daniels fortified himself in the office of general manager Kevin Hansut, signing autographs — a fiddle, doors to a toolbox, a framed American flag — shaking hands, and pausing only when he heard his ringtone ("Fire on the mountain, run, boys, run …") alert him to an interview for his show next week in Las Vegas.
Daniels had begun his whirlwind tour on Wednesday, riding the bus from his home in Mount Juliet, Tenn., to his room at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. On Sunday, he would ride on to Fort Lauderdale for a show at Markham Park (a date that greatly peeved him, given he would have to miss the Angelus' church service).
As he left the showroom Thursday, he gave the tractor a last glance ("She's gorgeous," he said) and vanished into a Chevy Suburban, quick as a man half his age.
He needed to get moving, he said. His kids were waiting.
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Past the hand-painted Christmas signs and inflatable snowglobe, past the Ann and Booth and Florence cabins, past the volunteer-built Charlie's Lodge, the Suburban snaked through the Angelus' camp roads and stopped outside the day center.
Daniels entered the cafeteria to the sound of tambourines, a welcome committee of residents smiling at him from their wheelchairs. He moved with speed. He hugged one man, massaged another's head, helped one roll around in a tricycle. A group hand-mixing blueberry and lemon poppyseed muffins near the kitchen craned their necks to watch.
But he couldn't stay. On he rushed next door to the life-skills room, where he listened to men read the Christmas story; into the therapy room, where he lost two bouts of arm wrestling, howling in defeat, "You're too much for me!"; into the art room, where he led counting lessons with Christmas cards; into the computer room, where he read aloud from a gardening book; and finally into the woodshop, where a group was sanding wooden steam engines and bullet trains. Daniels commended them on their craftsmanship.
About 50 "kids," many of them grown adults, were out for activities that morning. Daniels said hi to each one.
As the clock neared noon, and his LongHorn Steakhouse lunch appointment with Pasco Sheriff Bob White came closer, Daniels paused beside Kimberly Pablo, 29. She was reclined in her wheelchair, her hands contorted to her sides. Slowly he helped slip jingle bells onto her wrists.
His handlers yelled for him to join them near the conference room, for a tribute video on the big-screen TV, but Daniels wouldn't budge. Pablo smiled as he leaned down next to her.
"Come on," he said quietly, helping her move her hands. "Let's play a little music."
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or [email protected]