The Devil Went Down Georgia, But Charlie Daniels Ascended to the Heavens

Remembering a country music icon and Southern rock architect

Charlie Daniels on lead guitar (Art: Ron Hart)

Even those folks who didn’t closely follow the career of Charlie Daniels would be hand pressed to dispute the fact that he was indeed an American musical icon.

A singer, songwriter, fiddle player and guitarist, he literally left his stamp on every outing he was involved with, from his work with Bob Dylan, the Marshall Tucker Band and scores of other collaborations, to his own breakthrough albums that helped defined the state of Southern rock in the ‘70s.  His signature song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” remains, of course, a standard, but Daniels, who died in the early hours of Monday, July 6th from a hemorrhagic stroke, is remembered as much more — an outspoken advocate for veterans of the American military, an irrepressible entertainer, a champion for underprivileged children and others in need, and a kind and gracious gentleman who loved his fans and would patiently wait to sign every autograph after performing a show. 

Likewise, the list of honors he accrued over the course of his career speak to his numerous accomplishments — the Dove Awards he picked up for his gospel albums, his chart topping, CMA Award-winning hits, honors as a BMI Icon, numerous platinum certifications, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Musicians Hall of Fame and induction into the Grand Ole Opry. While there were those who disagreed with him politically — he tended to be unabashedly conservative and a staunch defender of views that were decidedly right of center — he never let that stand between him and his admirers.


VIDEO: Charlie Daniels Band “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”

Ask anyone who worked with him and their responses, whether friend or colleague, is bound to be the same. He was loved like few others in the music world that he so indelibly inhabited. Indeed, the outpouring of emotion from any number of courtly music legends can attest to the affection, admiration and appreciation which he commanded among his peers.

“Charlie Daniels embodied the fire of the South,” Ronnie Milsap noted when he learned of Daniels’ passing. “He blurred lines between rock and country, when rock didn’t think country was cool, and his Volunteer Jams weren’t just legendary, they brought people from both of those worlds together. He was a patriot, a proud American, a world class musician, an incredible showman, as well as a wonderful father, husband, grandpa and friend.”

“If there were a Southern Rock / Country / God fearing Patriot/Good Old Boy on Mt. Rushmore, Charlie Daniels’ likeness would be hammered, chiseled, and blasted onto it,” Larry Gatlin insists. “We would follow him into battle. We would not follow him on stage. We couldn’t… no one else could either…‘nuff said.”

“Charlie was outspoken and larger than life on stage,” John Anderson opined. “Off stage, he was kind, compassionate and helped so many along the way, both in music and beyond. A showman, a patriot, a one-of-a-kind.”

Billy Dean described him as “the John Wayne of Southern Rock, Rhythm and Blues,” before adding, “He always put the love of playing music above the business of music. And one more thing, he loved America!”

Charlie Daniels RIP (Art: Ron Hart)

Then again, Aaron Tippin may have summed him up best: “It’s so hard to put into words what an influence Charlie’s music was on me and on everyone who ever heard it. He was an amazing man, musician, songwriter and entertainer. There was nothing he couldn’t do.”

Daniels got his first major break in 1964 when he cowrote the song “It Hurts Me,” which was later covered by Elvis Presley. However his recognition grew exponentially when he became a first-call session man in Nashville and added his acumen to Dylan Music City sessions (Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning), played on several of Leonard Cohen’s initial efforts (Songs From a Room (1969), Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and Live Songs)  took the producer’s chair for the Youngbloods’ Elephant Mountain album. His profile was elevated even further when he became an ongoing presence on a series of early albums by the Marshall Tucker Band and subsequently released a series of Volunteer Jam LPs the found him at the helm of a band that included any number of guest stars and backed by Barefoot Jerry, a collective that included Nashville’s finest.


VIDEO: Volunteer Jam 1975, B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone”

By the mid ‘70s, Daniels was recording with increasing success under is own aegis, spinning out a series of Southern anthems that gained widespread airplay and an increasing fan following. His songs “The South’s Gonna Do It Again, “Long Haired Country Boy”,” and, of course “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” made him a constant presence on both the pop and country charts and an indelible presence that would ensure his fame for decades to come. Although he arguably hit his peak during that decade, he continued to be a prodigious songwriter, recording artist and a constant on concert stages worldwide. He also contributed to several soundtracks, most notably, Urban Cowboy, and acted in various films — the aforementioned Urban Cowboy, The Fall Guy, The Lone Star Kid — and appeared as a guest on various TV series, including Saturday Night Live, King of the Hill and Murder She Wrote.

Ultimately, it was that indomitable stature that will likely be remembered most — as an influential musician, outspoken political pundit and a man who helped shape the future course of Southern rock during one of its most proficient period. A good man indeed, he never let the devil deter him.


VIDEO: The Charlie Daniels Band at the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, 10/20/79


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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