American music lost one of its cornerstones today with the passing of Charlie Daniels at the age of 83. Though best known for his 1979 chart-topping hit “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the country superstar’s discography runs much deeper.
The North Carolina native grew up listening to the country sounds coming out of Nashville’s WSM, home of The Grand Ole Opry – unaware that he would one day be invited to join that esteemed body. He also devoured bluegrass, gospel, and rhythm and blues, elements of all of which would join the burgeoning sound of rock-and-roll to inform his own music. By the time he graduated high school, he was already a gifted multi-instrumentalist playing guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and more. He moved from North Carolina to Tennessee, finding his way to Nashville. With his friend Bob Johnston (writing under his wife’s name Joy Byers) – whom he met when they both were performing in Texas clubs in 1959 – Daniels co-wrote Elvis Presley’s 1964 single “It Hurts Me.” For Johnston and other producers working in Music City, he became a key member of the loose aggregation of Nashville Cats, i.e. the top session musicians who played on countless records. Daniels made key contributions to Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and then Self Portrait and New Morning. As Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles Volume One, “When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions.”
Daniels played with Leonard Cohen, The Youngbloods, and The Marshall Tucker Band (just to name three), and recorded his first solo album in 1971. Three years later, he launched The Charlie Daniels Band with the Fire on the Mountain LP; the same year he staged his first Volunteer Jam mega-concert in which his group would be joined by other country luminaries. The annual shows continue to this very day, with a tribute to Daniels scheduled for this fall. Attesting to Daniels’ universal approach to music, having hosted such diverse stars as Billy Joel, Bill Medley, B.B. King, James Brown, The Allman Brothers Band, Little Richard, John Prine, B.J. Thomas, and Dobie Gray as well as country legends like The Oak Ridge Boys, Eddie Rabbitt, Ronnie Milsap, Roy Acuff, and Tammy Wynette. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” wasn’t Daniels’ first crossover hit, but was his most successful. It anticipated such other successes on the Country and/or Pop charts as “In America,” “The Legend of Wooley Swamp,” “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye,” and “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues.” He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2008 and The Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
In recent years, his politics tended to overshadow his music, but Daniels was undoubtedly a complex figure who found himself caught between country and the counterculture in his hit “Uneasy Rider,” supported President Jimmy Carter, and passionately advocated for veterans’ rights including as chairman of The Journey Home Project and founder of Operation Heartstrings which has donated over 13,000 musical instruments to deployed service members.
He was likely too modest to say so except in song, but when it came to guitar-slinging, fiddle-playing country-rock heroes, Charlie Daniels was certainly one of the best that’s ever been.