Thursday, November 29, 2007
Any self-respectin’ Southerner worth a sip of Tennessee sour mash knows The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The ridiculously fun story song finds none other than Satan going head to head with a Georgian kid named Johnny in a fiddle contest. The stakes in the competition are high: If Johnny loses, the devil gets to take his soul. The climax of the number comes when Johnny lets loose with a fiddle solo so hot that it could peel the paint off a barn. So the King of Darkness himself admits defeat, and Johnny even gets to keep a fiddle made out of gold as a prize.
The song is the Southern rock and country outfit The Charlie Daniels Band’s defining moment. Back in 1979, when the song first was released, it raced to the top of the country charts faster than a runaway steer. Then the song hopped a fence and climbed far up the pop charts. It also secured a 1979 Grammy for best country performance by a duo or group with vocals.
Since then, the number has been covered by a wide range of artists, including Blues Traveler, Primus and even the popular puppet team known as the Muppets. (It also seems to be a major influence on the Tenacious D joke rock song “Tribute,” where the comic duo has a rock-off bout against Satan.) But, there’s no one who has played the tune more than Daniels himself.
Even though he has performed the number an absurd amount of times with his group, the Southern gentleman has not tired of his signature song. “I get a chance to play it better tonight than last night,” he says from a tour stop in Mississippi. “I’ve never played it perfect.”
While “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is Daniels’ biggest hit, his Charlie Daniels Band has a string of other classic rock and country crossover songs. There’s another highly entertaining story song titled “Uneasy Rider” that describes a somewhat countercultural narrator—long hair, dope smoker, peace sticker on car—drawing some heat in a redneck bar. The story is told over some fine acoustic pickin.’ Another memorable Daniels smash is “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” a country rock song with generous helpings of fiddle and rollicking piano that goes down as easy as a batch of hush puppies baptized in a puddle of melted butter.
Before starting the Charlie Daniels Band in 1972, Daniels had an impressive career as a Nashville session musician. He played on a handful of Bob Dylan’s late ‘60s recordings, including the underrated country opus Nashville Skyline. Daniels still looks back in awe at the way Dylan played with musicians in the studio. “Dylan was one of the great people to work with,” he says. “He wanted you to do what you did.”
When Daniels formed his group in the early ‘70s, he saw it as a way to meld different genres of music like other artists at the time were doing, including the Allman Brothers. “There was such a freedom about the music of those days,” he says.
While most of the Charlie Daniels Band’s memorable work came from the ‘70s, he hit gold in 1989 with Simple Man, an album that included “(What This World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks.” Over the past year, Daniels has been as active as a Tennessee hound: he released two CDs: Live From Iraq and Deuces.
Live From Iraq is a two-disc set of The Charlie Daniels Band entertaining the troops in places such as Baghdad and Fallujah. It also includes a bonus documentary DVD of an Easter service at the House of Abraham.
“We weren’t looking for bad news,” Daniels says of making the DVD. “We were looking for human—interest things.”
On the other hand, Deuces is something all country artists feel they have to put out: a collection of duets. The disc kicks off with Travis Tritt joining The Charlie Daniels Band for a roadhouse version of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” with plenty of tasty slide guitar. Elsewhere, Daniels transforms Dylan’s electric romp “Maggie’s Farm” into a bluegrass stomp with some help from famed banjo picker Earl Scruggs, and intertwines his voice with Dolly Parton’s beautiful instrument on her “Daddy’s Old Fiddle.” The end of the record finds Daniels covering his own work with the help of friends Marty Stuart, Montgomery Gentry and Brooks & Dunn.
Now, Daniels is prepping another CD that he describes as being progressive but not a country album. Failing to explain what he means by progressive, the longtime Southern icon lays the album’s purpose out there as clear as a bottle of Smoky Mountain moonshine. “I think I have the best band I’ve ever had,” he says. “I want to show everyone what we got here.”