Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
As Bill C. Malone states in Country Music U.S.A., “It is one of the givens of cultural history that youth the world over have fueled the revolution in popular music, shattering traditional forms and contributing to the rise of innovative styles.” As this feature moves throughout the ‘70s to discuss country music’s biggest crossover hits, the spirit of that quote lives in those songs.
It took catalysts like Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, John Fogerty, Leon Russell, Elvis Costello, Linda Ronstadt and Chris Hillman to break down the resistance to country music among young fans of the time. These musicians, despite identifying mostly with rock ‘n’ roll, exhibited an unexpected knowledge of country songs and harmonies and a talent for steel guitars, fiddles, mandolins and five-string banjos.
High points in the merger of youth and country music came through in the following: the 1972 recording of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken, a marathon recording session of country music’s best, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis and more, all wrapped in a triple-disc set that served as a literal piece of history for country’s roots; the rise of Gram Parsons, who made it his mission to combine country and rock ‘n’ roll as the misunderstood kid wearing nudie suits; and the conversion of Parson’s protégé Emmylou Harris from folk to country, among others.
But whereas all of those aforementioned performers came to country music from rock, some artists moved in the opposite direction, in a niche known as “southern rock.” Stylistically, the music was just rock music performed by southern musicians, with the differences coming down to a heavier reliance on borrowing from blues and country and a heavier, more aggressive tone.
Of all the musicians who identified with it, Charlie Daniels bore the closest relation to country music. On one hand, he acknowledged his kinship with his fellow southern rockers on tracks like “The South’s Gonna Do It Again,” but the fiddling was heavily indebted to western swing; Daniels was also an outspoken character, for better or worse. For him and his band, however, his biggest hit would come from doing what other musicians of the decade had done – bridging the gap between rock and country.
Daniels drew inspiration for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” from a 1920s poem by Stephen Vincent Benét titled “Mountain Whippoorwill.” While the Charlie Daniels Band recorded 1979’s Million Mile Reflections, the group realized they didn’t have a fiddle tune on the album, so Daniels went to work drawing inspiration for one from that poem. While the band members were impressed with what Daniels had come up with, no one, not even Daniels himself, thought the tune had any commercial value.
As Daniels says about the song, “Fired up by Benét’s poem, I wrote a lyric about a kid named Johnny who was a great fiddler. But I needed something more exciting than an ordinary contest. The stakes had to be higher.”
“So I had the Devil go down to Georgia to challenge Johnny. If Johnny won, he’d get the Devil’s gold fiddle. But if he lost, the Devil would get his soul. Johnny accepts the challenge.”
The trope can be likened to blues musician Robert Johnson’s long-rumored trip to the crossroads, and Daniels does, indeed, reference Benét’s poem when he declares that “Hell’s broke loose in Georgia.” Some analyze the song as a product of its time – the actual Devil contaminating musical boundaries by introducing mountain folks to rock ‘n’ roll; meanwhile, Johnny, the youth, proves why the everlasting appeal of old time fiddle ballads reigns supreme.
Whatever one’s takeaway of the song is, it was the song that broke the Charlie Daniels Band through to country music markets and beyond, reaching No. 1 on Billboard’s country charts and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. Daniels, too, would go on to have success in country music through other means, playing fiddle on Hank Williams Jr.’s “Family Tradition,” Johnny Lee’s “Cherokee Fiddle,” and more. One year later, the film Urban Cowboy would not only reintroduce that song to the general public, but also country music in general. Join me next time on ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ where we’ll discuss why Eddie Rabbitt loves a rainy night.
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
– Quote attribution for Bill C. Malone comes from Country Music U.S.A., specifically “Country Music, 1972-1984,” (pg. 453)
– Quote attribution for Charlie Daniels comes from an interview he did with the Wall Street Journal, written by Marc Myers
– Basic information about the Charlie Daniels Band was taken from Rick Marschall’s The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music
– Perhaps this is cheating, but I also lifted some information about the country-rock movement from this piece I wrote with Shore2Shore Country