Charlie Daniels scored his biggest, most career-defining hit with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but the song originally began simply because he and his band were lacking a fiddle-oriented song for one of their albums.
“We had rehearsed, written, and recorded the music for our Million Mile Reflections album, and all of the sudden we said, ‘We don’t have a fiddle song,'” Daniels recalled to Songfacts.com in 2007. “I don’t know why we didn’t discover that, but we went out and we took a couple of days’ break from the recording studio, went into a rehearsal studio, I just had this idea: The devil went down to Georgia.”
The uptempo song gives a country twist on an old theme of Satan standing at the crossroads to tune a musician’s guitar and give them a musical gift in return for their soul. In Daniels’ telling, Satan challenges a brash young fiddle player named Johnny to a fiddling contest, promising him, “I’ll bet a fiddle of gold against your soul, ’cause I think I’m better than you.”
“I don’t know where it came from, but it just did,” Daniels reflected. “Well, I think I might know where it came from, it may have come from an old poem called ‘The Mountain Whippoorwill’ that Stephen Vincent Benet wrote many, many years ago, that I had in high school. He didn’t use that line, but I started playing, and the band started playing, and first thing you know we had it down.”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” centers around Daniels’ unique spoken-word delivery, as well as two very different musical interludes in which Daniels performs extended fiddle passages in very different styles to represent Satan and Johnny’s playing. He chose an atonal approach for the Devil’s music, while employing a much more melodic slant to Johnny’s ultimately winning style.
“The Devil’s just blowing smoke,” Daniels explained. “If you listen to that, there’s just a bunch of noise. There’s no melody to it, there’s no nothing. It’s just a bunch of noise. Just confusion and stuff. And of course, Johnny’s saying something. You can’t beat the Devil without the Lord. I didn’t have that in the song, but I should have.”
Johnny taunts the Devil one final time after defeating him in the song, saying, “Devil, just come on back if you ever wanna try again / I done told you once, you son of a b—h, I’m the best there’s ever been!” When the song was released to radio as the lead single from Million Mile Reflections in 1979, the radio edit replaced that with “son of a gun,” and the resulting single went on to score the Charlie Daniels Band a No. 1 hit on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart on Aug. 25, 1979, while also crossing over to land at No. 3 on Billboard‘s all-genre Hot 100.
The song would go on to win the CDB a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group at the 22nd Annual Grammy Awards in 1979, and it’s since become their most-recognized song.
A 1993 sequel to the song called “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia” was included on Mark O’Connor’s Heroes album, featuring Travis Tritt as the Devil, Marty Stuart as Johnny and Johnny Cash as the narrator. Per a note from Daniels’ team on Twitter, Daniels and his band are listed as co-writers only because the song is a derivative of the original. The musical track mostly derives from the original song, with new lyrics describing a rematch between Johnny and Satan ten years after their original fiddle duel.
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