Charlie Daniels Comes Down to Georgia
Charlie Daniels comes down to Georgia for a Savannah show Nov. 10. But first he opens up to South on his long career, his unexpected influences, and how his most famous song almost didn’t happen.
When Charlie Daniels takes the stage at Savannah’s Johnny Mercer Theater Nov. 10, you can count on two things. First, you are going to see an amazing show put on by a master of his craft, polished over the course of a 40-plus-year career. And second, you’re going to hear “Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
As synonymous as he’s become with his breakout hit, and as much as he embraces the cowboy- hat-wearing, fiddle-shredding person it came to define, there is far more to Charlie Daniels than “Devil.” His career has seen him behind the boards producing in Nashville, playing guitar for the likes of Bob Dylan, and even writing a few books here and there. And the song that made him famous? It almost didn’t happen.
Daniels has chronicled his life in music, before and after “Devil,” in a new book titled Don’t Look at The Empty Seats. As he prepared for his return to Savannah, South sat down with him to hear a few of the fascinating stories you’ll find in its pages.
South Magazine- Don’t Look at The Empty Seats joins a pretty extensive library of books you’ve either written or edited. How did you get into writing?
Charlie Daniels- It’s a God-given talent that I never really knew I had. Someone called me one time and said, “You write story songs, why don’t you write stories?” So I sat down in a hotel room and wrote “The Story of Uneasy Rider.” Next thing I know I had a book of short stories published and started writing a column on my website. It was just a gradual thing that I’ve always wanted to do. The next natural thing to do was a biography. I’ve been writing on this thing for 20 years. Really good things kept happening in my life and I couldn’t find a good place to “pause” it so I just kept writing it.
SM-After writing it for so long, how does it feel to finish the book and document it all?
CD-It’s been an interesting ride… I’ve been married almost 53 years. I love my son and my grandkids very much. I’ve had a good life. Remembering all that stuff and calling old friends and having them refresh my memory was just fun to do. It’s been a learning experience. I wouldn’t change places with anybody. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my life.
SM-One of the many surprising things people will learn about you in the book is that you’ve spent a great deal of time producing. What was life like on the other side of the recording?
CD-I thought that’s what I was gonna do with my life for a while there. But the only time I’m really happy with something I’ve done is when I walk onstage in front of people. Learning to entertain people is something that I have spent my life trying to do as best I can. That’s where I feel at home. I’ve been firmly convinced that this is what I’m supposed to do. The other stuff, I just ain’t gonna try it no more!
SM-As long as your career has been, and as much as you’ve done, there’s always going to be people who just think of you as “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” How do you even measure the impact that song had on your life?
CD-(Laughs) It has done well. We didn’t really know what we were doing at the time. We had the lyrics written, and the engineer and producer I was working with on the song (John Boylon) got heavily into the whole process. Especially the devil’s part. I had an eight-string violin strung like a mandolin at the time and we brought that thing in there and just went for it. When I broke my arm, we played it on the Grammys and we had Buddy Spicher and Vassar Clements play the song. It’s probably the best, most precise version of the song we’ve ever done.
SM-Did you know when you were recording it that it would blow up like it did?
CD-It’s the song everyone wants me to play and we had a lot of fun in the studio making the song what it became, but we did not know where we were going with the song. We had a lot of great songs already written and rehearsed for the album. This was the last song and we just needed a fiddle song on the album.
SM-The song is very much a genre-bending tune, with maybe the earliest “rap” done in country music.
CD-Let it come out… Whatever is trying to come out, let it out. It’s a little unorthodox but that’s how I do it.
To read more, subscribe now or pick up the October/November issue of South magazine.
To find out more about Daniels' upcoming book or Savannah performance, visit charliedaniels.com