Charlie Daniels accomplished something few other musicians did: he made the leap from session musician to superstar. The song that made him famous was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a roaring country-disco fusion that became an international smash in 1979. It wasn’t Daniels’ first hit — that would be “Uneasy Rider,” a sideways social satire that became a Top Ten novelty smash in 1973 — nor was it a song that showcased the full-throttled attack of the Charlie Daniels Band, his roving band of Southern rockers who pledged allegiance to the gospel of the Allman Brothers Band. Despite this, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is the song that defined Daniels, introducing him to millions of listeners and giving him a career that spanned decades. In its wake, Daniels quietly shifted his emphasis from Southern rock to country, eventually embracing a role as a conservative commentator, transitions that obscured his considerable influence as a Southern rocker and sideman. In both roles, he helped shape the sound of country-rock. His big breakthrough came when he played on Bob Dylan‘s 1969 LP Nashville Skyline, a credit that opened the doors for the multi-instrumentalist to play with Leonard Cohen and Ringo Starr. Daniels parlayed this behind-the-scenes success into fronting his own band. Along with the Allmans and the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band fused rock, country, blues, and jazz into a distinctly Southern blend, and they prized improvisations — not for nothing did Daniels launch a series of concerts called Volunteer Jam. Beginning in 1974, these Volunteer Jams ran into the 2010s and their endurance, combined with his 2016 induction into the Country Hall of Fame, are the clearest signs that Daniels weathered fashions, trends, and politics to become a beloved American music institution.
Daniels was born and raised in North Carolina, playing fiddle and guitar in several bands during his teenage years. At the age of 21, he decided to become a professional musician, assembling an instrumental rock & roll combo called the Jaguars. The group landed a recording session for Epic Records in 1959 with Bob Johnson, who would later become Columbia Records‘ leading folk and country producer. The record didn’t receive much attention, but the band continued to play, and Daniels continued to write songs. One of his originals, “It Hurts Me,” was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1963. By the late ’60s, it had become clear that the Jaguars weren’t going to hit the big time, so Johnson recommended to Daniels that he move to Nashville to become a session musician. Daniels followed the advice and became one of the most popular fiddlers in Nashville. He played on several Bob Dylan albums — Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait, New Morning, and Dylan — as well as Ringo Starr‘s 1970 record Beaucoups of Blues. He also became part of Leonard Cohen‘s touring band in the late ’60s and produced the Youngbloods‘ Elephant Mountain album around the same time.
Daniels cut an album for Capitol Records in the early ’70s that was ignored. In 1972, he formed the Charlie Daniels Band, using the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers as a blueprint. The band comprised Daniels (lead guitar, vocals, fiddle), lead guitarist Don Murray, bassist Charlie Hayward, drummer James W. Marshall, and keyboardist Joe DiGregorio. The formula worked, and in 1973 they had a minor hit with “Uneasy Rider,” which was released on Kama Sutra Records. In 1974, they released Fire on the Mountain, which became a gold record within months of its release; the album would eventually go platinum. Its successor, 1975’s Nightrider, did even better, thanks to the Top 40 country hit “Texas.” Saddle Tramp, released in 1976, became his first country Top Ten album, going gold.
Throughout the mid-’70s, the Charlie Daniels Band pursued a Southern rock direction. They were moderately successful, but they never had a breakthrough hit either on the pop or the country charts. By the late ’70s, Daniels sensed that the audience for Southern rock was evaporating, so he refashioned his group as a more straightforward country band. The change paid off in 1979 when the single “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” became a number one hit, crossing over into the pop charts, where it hit number three. The song was named the Country Music Association’s Single of the Year and helped its accompanying album, Million Mile Reflections, become a multi-platinum success.
Daniels wasn’t able to follow “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” with another blockbuster single on the country charts but, ironically, he had several rock crossover successes in the years following the success of Million Mile Reflections: Full Moon (1980) went platinum and Windows (1982) went gold. Although he continued to sell respectably throughout the ’80s, he didn’t have a big hit until 1989’s Simple Man, which went gold. In the ’90s, his records failed to chart well, although he remained a popular concert draw, a trend that continued into the 21st century.
During the first decade of the new millennium, Daniels quietly transitioned from major labels to independents, releasing records on Blue Hat and Audium, garnering some headlines in 2003 with his pro-Iraq War anthem “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” a song popular enough to launch a spin-off book, Ain’t No Rag. Two years later, Daniels established a long-running relationship with Koch in 2005 with Songs from the Longleaf Pines. Daniels’ albums for Koch ran the gamut from bluegrass to bluesy country-rock, punctuated with holiday collections and live records, or thematic compilations like 2010’s patriotic The Land That I Love. Daniels was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007.
Over the next decade, he played regular concerts and delivered new albums every few years, including 2013’s Hits of the South and 2014’s Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan. In 2016, Daniels released Night Hawk — a loose concept album celebrating cowboys — and was also inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The next year, he published his memoir, Never Look at the Cheap Seats. In 2018, Daniels debuted Beau Weevils — a band he formed with James Stroud — through the release of their debut album, Songs in the Key of E.
Daniels stayed on the road — and stayed online — through 2018 and 2019, playing the 20th edition of his Volunteer Jam in March 2018. He planned to do another Volunteer Jam in 2020, but it was pushed back to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks after the announcement of the rescheduling, Charlie Daniels died of a massive hemorrhagic stroke on July 6, 2020. He was 83 years old. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Rovi