Devil’s Woes Mean Chart Gold for Charlie Daniels’ Band
Let's say you're the Devil, and you're a few souls shy of making your quota when you decide to check out backwoods Georgia and challenge a young fiddle ace named Johnny, betting him a fiddle of gold against his soul.
For Satan--as the song lyrics demonstrate--it was a terrible career move. But for the Charlie Daniels Band (this year's Sunday headliner at the Beartrap Summer Festival), quite the opposite. Daniels' biggest country chart-topper ever, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" took on a second life after it was chosen for the hit movie "Urban Cowboy" and climbed the rock and roll charts all over again.
Daniels told a reporter on the recent 35th anniversary of "The Devil" about his theory of the song's appeal: “Well, for one thing it’s a story that doesn’t change. It’s not frozen in reflecting the climate of the times or anything like that; it means the same thing tonight as back in 1979 when we recorded it. It’s a song that is multi-generational in that the young folks like it and the older folks like it.
"It’s just easy to understand. I think the fiddle parts give it a novelty element. It’s just a mass appeal song. I wish I knew how to do it every time out of the box, but unfortunately I don’t. It’s just one of those tunes that becomes your signature song.”
But the hit wasn't Daniels' first experience with chart success. Six years earlier a counterculture anthem named "Uneasy Rider" reached No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. It's a spoken-word song about a long-haired marijuana smoker passing through Jackson, Mississippi in his Chevrolet with "peace sign, mag wheels, and four on the floor;" the driver gets crossways with some locals at a redneck bar and has to flee for his life, not even slowing down "till I was almost to Arkansas."
The title is a play on words of the dark 1969 Dennis Hopper film "Easy Rider" about the growing violent divisions in American life. The impetus for "Uneasy Rider" came about at a music festival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Daniels recalls:
"It was one of those big three-day affairs where everybody in the world played. And that day I think it was the Youngbloods and the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane, and I don't know who else.
"And all these people were there at the motel. And they were these long-haired hippie-type people. The movie 'Easy Rider' had not been out very long, and here we were sitting in Baton Rouge, with all these long-haired people, and I think a lot of them had the impression that if they were to get 2 blocks away, that somebody was going to run out with a pair of shears and cut their hair and threaten their life.
"I was born in the South, and to me this attitude was just kind of funny, and that's where the idea came from. I just took a guy and put him in a fictitious situation, and extricated him. But of course there's no truth to it other than just being around people that kind of had a fear of redneck bars."
Although Daniels has decades of material from which to create a set list, he says it's anything but an afterthought, especially for a local music festival:
“If I did a show and didn’t do the familiar music I’d feel like I cheated people--and I would have cheated people. I don’t like to go hear a band play and them spend the night trying to sell you their new album and belittle the stuff you came to hear ‘em play. So, we do the obvious stuff. We do ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia, we do ‘Legend of Woolly Swamp,’ we do the songs that people have a perfect right to expect us to play,” Daniels says. “But we’ve got some surprises for you, we’ve got some songs you never heard us play.
"Entertaining, that is my whole thing, entertaining people. That’s what we’re there for; we’re there for people’s entertainment. We do it the way the music is sequenced, we do it with the climate of the show, and we do it with things it took me decades to learn. So that, you know, it’s an entertaining night. That’s what it’s all about.”