The Genre-Free Rise of the Charlie Daniels Band’s Pop Culture Standard ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’
Imagine stocking a record store in 1979, the year when Epic Records first issued the Charlie Daniels Band's “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as a single. Is the song or the album it's from, Million Mile Reflections, country? Is it Southern rock? Is it bluegrass? Over 40 years later, those questions remain unresolved for one of the most unavoidable and unlikely roots-based songs to transcend genre labels and become part of popular culture.
A CliffsNotes version on how Daniels came about “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” begins in 1975. That year, Daniels played guitar on fiddle legend Vassar Clements’ self-titled LP. An instrumental jam from the album titled “Lonesome Fiddle Blues” just happens to sound a lot like a lower-octave version of the future Daniels hit. Per Clements, his song dates back to 1948.
Older standards evolving into something new is part of country music tradition, with examples over time ranging from “The Great Rock Island Route” becoming “Wabash Cannonball” to “Highwayman” becoming “Highwomen.” So, think of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as a homage to a bluegrass great, not the sort of rip-off that lands some of today’s pop artists in court.
Daniels went well beyond speeding up someone else’s song: His band wrote lyrics pointing back to stories of the Devil at the Crossroads — a legend associated with, but not limited to, blues icon Robert Johnson — and the South’s more recent and real fixation with fiddling contests.
Beyond Clements’ song, Daniels acknowledges a prior work indebted to competitive fiddling as an inspiration. The poet Stephen Vincent Benet wrote “The Mountain Whippoorwill” in 1925, about the type of contest that could “fiddle all Georgia crazy.” Satan didn’t compete this time around, but Benet did incorporate the familiar line “Hell’s broke loose in Georgia.”
Daniels’ lyrics also nod three Appalachian folk standards: “Fire on the Mountain,” “Granny Will Your Dog Bite?” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” Another popular song inspired by traditional tunes, Bob Wills’ “Ida Red,” likely provided the line “chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough.”
The homage to fiddlers, poets and morality tales became the band’s biggest hit, topping the country charts and reaching the third spot on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100. Within a year, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" appeared on the soundtrack to Urban Cowboy: an important film in the early ‘80s' growth of danceable, pop-accessible country music.
From there, the song stayed relevant in the face of changing times. Bluegrass and Southern rock losing steam into the ‘80s and the always-fickle country charts could’ve easily killed interest in Daniels’ biggest hit. Yet both the original recording that spells out “S.O.B.” and its "son of a gun" radio edit never really went away.
Daniels' masterwork reached an unprecedented audience during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when 14-year-old Dominique Moceanu, a member of the famed “Magnificent Seven” team of American gymnasts, performed her floor routine to the song. In the United States alone, tens of millions watched the NBC broadcast. Not a bad platform for a “hillbilly” song without a clear genre home.
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