He bravely put his soul on the line to slay the devil down in Georgia, emerging victorious as the most famous violinist in the history of country, bluegrass and southern-rock music.
This Sunday, Charlie Daniels brings his golden fiddle to the Weinberg Center in historic Frederick, Maryland, proving once again, you son of a gun, he’s the best that’s ever been.
“People come to a show to hear the songs they’ve heard on the radio,” Daniels told WTOP. “When you don’t play those songs, I feel like you don’t give them their money’s worth, so we always do those songs: ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ ‘Long-Haired Country Boy,’ ‘In America.’ … Then we have a few new things you haven’t heard us play, that’s the growth part of it, but you still gotta stick with the tried-and-true proven ones, so we always do those first.”
Born in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1936, Daniels grew up learning to play guitar at age 14.
“I first started playing guitar by a friend of mine,” Daniels said. “I said, ‘Man, you gotta show me that! I’ve always wanted to play guitar.’ He started showing me the few things he knew, then we started bugging anybody we could find that knew another chord. Later on, I started fooling with the mandolin … and the fingerboard on the mandolin and the fiddle are the same, so one day somebody showed up with a fiddle and I had to get my hand on it.”
He admits it was a rocky start in the early days playing the fiddle around the house.
“I picked up the fiddle and started squeaking and squawking on it — it was a pretty hard thing for my parents to go through,” Daniels said. “One of the kids I went to school with said that when I played the fiddle it sounded like somebody stepped on a cat! It was that bad to start. But I stuck with it and kind of went on and it became a very prominent instrument for me.”
His first big break came in 1963 when Elvis Presley recorded a song he co-wrote, “It Hurts Me.”
“Oh gosh, that’s hard to even articulate,” Daniels said. “I had never had anything at all like that happen to me. I’d never had any kind of success at all at that time, and the first success you’ve ever had that way, to have the top artist in the world do it, it was pretty special.”
He moved to Nashville as a session musician, playing behind Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
“It was wonderful,” Daniels said. “I was a big Dylan fan and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to end up on ‘Nashville Skyline.’ A lot of people think ‘Nashville Skyline’ was the first album Dylan ever did in Nashville. It was not, it was the third. … They put a band together for him … and the guitar player who was supposed to play was already booked. … I was supposed to play the first session, then I would leave … but for some odd reason, Dylan liked what I was doing and wanted me to stick around and I was really glad to oblige him.”
As a result, Daniels played on Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline,” “Self Portrait” and “New Morning.”
“He was always nice enough to put the names of the studio musicians on the back of his albums in the liner notes,” Daniels said. “He was the kind of artist that people actually read the liner notes, so when you had your name on the back of a Bob Dylan album, a lot of people saw it. It was a point of recognition and publicity that would take me a long time to patent the other way, so I’ve always felt beholden to Bob Dylan for that.”
Daniels recorded his self-titled solo debut album in 1971, but his breakthrough came with his third album, “Honey in the Rock” (1973). It featured the No. 9 hit single “Uneasy Rider,” which follows a counterculture narrator who outsmarts a group of bullies outside of a honky-tonk.
“It was during the time that the ‘Easy Rider’ movie came out,” Daniels said. “I was producing a group called The Youngbloods. We did a live album called ‘Ride the Wind’ [in] Baton Rouge … and all the long-haired people from San Francisco were there and they were nervous about being in the South. I guess they were afraid somebody was gonna bother them or something, but I’m from the South and I thought their attitude was funny. That’s what got me to thinking — and I just put a long-haired hippie guy in a dilemma and had him get out by his brains.”
Around the same time, Charlie Daniels Band began collaborating with Marshall Tucker Band.
“We got put together on some packages and just really enjoyed working together and to this day enjoy working together,” Daniels said. “They called me up and said, ‘We’re going to do an album. Would you come down and play some fiddle on it?’ … We used to jam a lot. Tucker Band and C.D.B. jammed more than any two bands I know. … We’d end the night with two drummers, guitar pickers, fiddles. We’d put both bands on stage and the crowd loved it.”
Success continued when his fifth album “Fire on the Mountain” (1975) featured a pair of hits in “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It,” a salute to fellow Southern musicians like Dicky Betts, Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee Lewis.
“When the Allman Brothers started turning eyes toward the South, that was a big deal,” Daniels said. “There was a genre of music that was Southern music, it was ours, it belonged to us, it was what we were raised with and what we did. … Those bands I just admired so much. I admired Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Willie and all those bands that came from the Southern part of the country, so I just decided to write a tribute to them.”
His most legendary hit came in 1979 when “The Devil Down to Georgia” reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and won the Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance. It featured the genius premise of Satan challenging a young boy to a fiddle-playing contest for his soul.
“We had written and rehearsed a whole album’s worth of material … when we came to the realization we did not have a fiddle tune. So, we took a break from the recording studio, moved the instruments to a rehearsal studio, and I had this one line in mind, ‘The devil went down to Georgia.’ I started goofing with it, saying, ‘Try this, try that.’ Then [keyboardist] Taz [DiGregorio] came up with that genius ‘da da da da’ line. We put the song together, I went off and finished the lyrics and we went back into the studio to record it, and the rest is history.”
Where does the highly quotable yet lyrically bizarre chorus come from?
“That is an old square dance line,” Daniels said. “Years ago when people square danced, they had what they called a ‘caller.’ … It was done in rhythm like a place keeper between figures: ‘First couple up to the left, join hands and swing, lady on the left do it once again.’ … Then it would be ‘chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough, granny does your dog bite, no child no, fire on the mountain, run boys run,’ just keepin’ time. I’d heard that from the old square dances on the Grand Ole Opry. … It just seemed like a natural fit with the song, so I used it.”
He notes there’s a distinct difference from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” (1968).
“Ain’t no sympathy for the devil in this one,” Daniels joked. “He always loses.”
In 1980, he responded to the Iran hostage crisis with “In America,” saying, “We’ll all stick together, you can take that to the bank, the cowboys, the hippies, the rebels and the yanks.”
By the turn of the millennium, he was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, followed by the Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum in 2009 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
Today, countless artists continue to reference his iconic tunes, including Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” where she claims she “knows all the words to every Charlie Daniels song.”
“It’s an honor,” Daniels said. “Anytime someone pays me a compliment or an accolade comes along, I never take it lightly. I’m always very appreciative. … I’ve been at this a long time, son.”
Learn more on the Weinberg Center website. Hear WTOP’s full chat with Charlie Daniels below:
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