Charlie Daniels, country star who sang The Devil Went Down to Georgia, dies at 83

Daniels had a brash, down-home persona and his songs featured blazing fiddle work

US singer Charlie Daniels performs at the Super Bowl in 2005. He has died aged 83. Photograph: Rhona Wise/EPA

US singer Charlie Daniels performs at the Super Bowl in 2005. He has died aged 83. Photograph: Rhona Wise/EPA

 

Charlie Daniels, the singer, songwriter and bandleader who was a force in both country and rock for decades, bringing a brash, down-home persona and blazing fiddle work to hits like The Devil Went Down to Georgia, died on Monday in Nashville. He was 83.

His publicist announced the death at Summit Medical Center in the Hermitage section of the city, saying the cause was a haemorrhagic stroke. Daniels made his first mark as a session musician in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, playing guitar, bass, fiddle and banjo on Nashville recordings by Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Leonard Cohen. He also produced albums for the Youngbloods, including the group’s 1969 folk-rock touchstone, Elephant Mountain.

His greatest acclaim came as the leader of the Charlie Daniels Band, a country-rock ensemble that hosted the Volunteer Jam, the freewheeling Southern music festival, established in 1974, that featured Roy Acuff, Stevie Ray Vaughn, James Brown and the Marshall Tucker Band.

Modelled after the Allman Brothers, another regular act at the Jam, Daniels’ band used dual lead guitarists and dual drummers in the service of an expansive improvisational sound that included elements of country, blues, bluegrass, rock and Western swing.

Formed in 1971, the Charlie Daniels Band earned a reputation early on for recording material of an outspoken countercultural bent, much of it written by Daniels. “I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothin’/If I can’t get it on my own,” Daniels asserted in a gruff drawl on the chorus of Long Haired Country Boy (1975), which unabashedly extolled the virtues of free speech and marijuana. “If you don’t like the way I’m livin’/You just leave this long haired country boy alone.”

Other early hits included The South’s Gonna Do It, a pop Top 40 entry in which he sang the praises of his fellow Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top, among others; and Uneasy Rider, a talking bluegrass number that reached the pop Top 10 in 1973.

His plucky attitude reached new heights in The Devil Went Down to Georgia, a No 1 country single and Top 10 pop hit from 1979 in which Daniels’ protagonist goes head-to-head with Satan in a fiddle contest, and prevails. The recording appeared on the multiplatinum-selling album Million Mile Reflections and won a Grammy Award for best country vocal.

His championing the underdog, coupled with his band’s constant touring, won Daniels a following, which included former US president Jimmy Carter, who invited the Charlie Daniels Band to perform at his 1977 inaugural ball. But as the 1970s gave way to the ‘80s, Daniels’ politics became increasingly right-wing and his songs more strident, beginning with In America, a Top 20 pop hit written in response to the Iran hostage crisis of 1980. Simple Man, a No 2 country single in 1990, called for the lynching of drug dealers and sex offenders, while (What the World Needs Is) A Few More Rednecks, also from 1990, ran counter to the hippie nonconformity of his early hits.

You people need to get out of Hollywood once in a while and get out into the real world

“If I come across an issue, or something I feel strongly about, and I happen to think of a song that would go in that direction, then I do it,” Daniels said, discussing how he came to write Simple Man, in an online interview. “But that’s not what I start out, necessarily, to do.”

Such disavowals notwithstanding, Daniels proved to be anything but reluctant to share his increasingly right-wing views, especially on the Soap Box section of the Charles Daniels Band website, where he would pontificate on the Second Amendment, patriotism and other issues, and in his 1993 book, “Ain’t No Rag: Freedom, Family and the Flag.”

In 2003, he published An Open Letter to the Hollywood Bunch in defence of former US president George W Bush’s Iraq policy. “You people need to get out of Hollywood once in a while and get out into the real world,” he wrote. “You’d be surprised at the hostility you would find out here. Stop in at a truck stop and tell an overworked, long distance truck driver that you don’t think Saddam Hussein is doing anything wrong.”

Daniels’ band used dual lead guitarists and dual drummers in the service of an expansive improvisational sound that included elements of country, blues, bluegrass, rock and Western swing. Here he performs in Atlanta, Georgia in 2014. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Daniels’ band used dual lead guitarists and dual drummers in the service of an expansive improvisational sound that included elements of country, blues, bluegrass, rock and Western swing. Here he performs in Atlanta, Georgia in 2014. Photograph: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Charles Edward Daniels was born on October 28th, 1936, in Wilmington, North Carolina. His mother, LaRue (Hammonds) Daniels, was a homemaker, and his father, William Carlton Daniels, was a lumberjack who played fiddle and guitar. Charlie Daniels followed suit, learning to play both instruments while in school before forming his own group, the Jaguars, in the late 1950s. He had begun writing songs by this point, including It Hurts Me, a collaboration with Joy Byers that was the B-side of Elvis Presley’s Top 40 hit Kissin’ Cousins in 1964.

His numerous honours included the Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music in 1998 and the BMI Icon Award at the 53rd annual Country Music Awards in 2005. He joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 2008, the same year he celebrated his 50th anniversary in the music business. In 2016, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Hazel Juanita Alexander Daniels; their son, Charles William Daniels; and two grandchildren. – New York Times