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Singer-songwriter Charlie Daniels fused traditional country music with elements of rock and bluegrass for a handful of singles in the 1970s and early 1980s that enjoyed Top 40 status on both pop and country charts, including "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," "The South's Gonna Do It" and "In America." A prolific session player for Columbia Records producer Bob Johnson in the late 1960s, Daniels made inroads towards a solo career in 1971 but found only sporadic success until his chart-topping country hit "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." A hoary but hard-driving ballad about a duel with Satan over a fiddler's soul, the single highlighted Daniels' exceptional fiddling talents while also reaching the southern rock fan base, which boosted the track to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1978. Despite the monster success of that career-making single, Daniels would remain in the mainstream spotlight for only a few years before slipping down the country charts, though he remained both a popular concert attraction and a consistent source of conservative editorializing, most notably over the Iraq War and September 11th terrorist attacks, which spawned his late-inning Top 40 track, "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag" (2001). Political leanings aside, Charlie Daniels' music bridged the gap between rock, blues and country in frequently impressive ways, which ensured his status as one of the most popular country music figures of the late 20th century.
Born Oct. 28, 1936 in Leland, NC, Charles Edward Daniels absorbed a variety of native musical sounds, from bluegrass and Pentecostal gospel to rhythm and blues. He began playing guitar and fiddle in various amateur groups during his teenaged years before leading an instrumental group called the Jaguars, which earned a recording session with Epic Records in 1959 with producer Bob Johnson. Though the Jaguars' efforts came to naught, a Daniels original composition, "It Hurts Me," was recorded by Elvis Presley in 1963. Eventually, Daniels left the group to become a session musician at the suggestion of Johnson, who, after overseeing major albums by Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel and Johnny Cash, had been appointed head of Columbia Records' Nashville office. He contributed to many of Johnson's projects during the late 1960s and early 1970s, including Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline (1969) album and Ringo Starr's country, Beaucoups of Blues (1970) while also serving as part of Cohen's touring band. After producing the Youngbloods' Elephant Mountain album in 1969, Daniels made his debut as a solo artist with an eponymous 1971 LP that failed to generate any chart placement.
In 1973, he scored a No. 9 hit on the Billboard singles chart with "Uneasy Rider," a quasi-novelty song about a hippie's unfortunate stop at a redneck bar in Mississippi. The track's pro-counterculture stance, while in line with the outlaw country movement of the period, would later clash with Daniels' decidedly conservative outlook in the 1980s and beyond, so much so that he would revisit the song in 1988 as "Uneasy Rider '88," which pits its protagonist against the occupants of a gay bar in Texas. In 1972, Daniels moved to Kama Sutra Records, where he recorded several more largely unheard albums before landing in the Top 40 on the Billboard 200 with Fire on the Mountain (1974). Its lead single, "The South's Gonna Do It," announced Daniels' allegiance to the Dixie rock scene by paying tribute to some of its most successful practitioners, including the Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top, which in turn helped the single reach No. 29 on the pop chart. Daniels' next efforts would linger at the lower depths of the Hot 100, though he logged a pair of Top 20 country albums with Saddle Tramp (1976) and High Lonesome (1976).
Two years later, he would score the biggest and most memorable hit of his career with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (1978), a hotwired, up-tempo country ballad about a musical duel between a talented fiddle player and the Prince of Darkness. A stellar showcase for Daniels' own fiddle skills, the single shot to No. 1 on the country charts while reached No. 3 on the pop chart, buoyed in part by its inclusion on the mega-successful "Urban Cowboy" (1980) soundtrack. For the next few years, Daniels maintained a consistent presence in the Top 40 on both the pop and country charts with Full Moon (1980), which featured two hit singles - the über-patriotic "In America" and "The Legend of Wooley Swamp," an effective piece of Southern Gothic-styled folklore - and 1982's Windows, which rose to No. 7 on the country albums chart on the strength of "Still in Saigon," a poignant song about the plight of Vietnam War veterans.
Daniels' music fell out of favor with rock and country listeners in the mid-1980s, though he would roar back to the No. 2 spot on the country albums chart with 1989's Simple Man. The revival was short-lived, and by the 1990s, he had moved to independent labels like Liberty and Sparrow, which lacked the promotional firepower to properly place his singles on the country charts. After his induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999, he enjoyed a period of considerable media coverage for his 2001 single "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag," a hawkish response to the attacks in New York City on September 11th of that year that rose to No. 33 on the country charts. A 2003 book, Ain't No Rag: Freedom, Family and the Flag, outlined his conservative viewpoint on a variety of subjects, a stance that would grow more rigid over the next decade. Between steady releases of holiday, bluegrass and country-rock albums, Daniels' long career was paid tribute with a variety of honors, including his appointment as a BMI Icon at the 2005 BMI Country Awards and induction into the Grand Ole Opry in 2007. Three years later, Daniels suffered a stroke while snowmobiling in Colorado, but recovered quickly and soon returned to his schedule of touring.
By Paul Gaita
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