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Charlie Daniels, country fiddler behind ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ dies at 83

Fiddler Charlie Daniels performs “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” at the Country Music Association Awards in Nashville in 2016. (Harrison McClary/Reuters)

Charlie Daniels, a onetime session musician who went on to bridge country and rock as a rowdy, fiddle-playing solo artist, rising to the top of the country charts with his fiery single “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” died July 6 at a hospital in Nashville. He was 83.

The cause was a stroke, according to a statement on his website. Mr. Daniels had previously battled prostate cancer and was treated for a stroke in 2010.

With a Stetson on his head and a fiddle under his chin, Mr. Daniels helped introduce Southern rock into mainstream country in the 1970s, honing a musical style that mixed gospel, folk and Dixie boogie. “He can make a fiddle sound like a rock ’n’ roll guitar, he can make a guitar sound like a country fiddle and he can make a tall tale sound believable,” Washington Post music critic Geoffrey Himes once wrote.

Mr. Daniels was a versatile singer, songwriter, guitarist and blazing-fast fiddler, best known for beating down the devil in his classic 1979 tune. Early on, he was also something of a transgressive figure in country music, singing of getting “stoned in the morning” and “drunk in the afternoon” in songs like “Long Haired Country Boy.”

“Kinda like my old bluetick hound, I like to lay around in the shade,” he sang, “and I ain’t got no money but I damn sure got it made.”

Mr. Daniels spent more than a decade crisscrossing the country as a journeyman musician, performing for several years at clubs in Washington and Maryland, where he had an imposing stage presence at 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds. He eventually settled in Nashville, where he co-wrote “It Hurts Me,” which became a Top 40 hit for Elvis Presley in 1964, and played on Bob Dylan’s acclaimed country album “Nashville Skyline.”

His work on that record made him a sought-after session musician, leading him to record with Leonard Cohen, Pete Seeger, Ringo Starr and bluegrass artists Flatt & Scruggs before establishing himself as a solo artist with “Uneasy Rider.” Sometimes described as a novelty record, the 1973 talking blues song played off the counterculture movie “Easy Rider” and cracked the Top 10, paving the way for the formation of the Charlie Daniels Band.

Modeled after the Allman Brothers Band, the group featured two guitarists and a jam-oriented sound polished through near-constant touring. The band reportedly played 250 concerts a year, in between recording albums like “Fire on the Mountain” (1974) and “Nightrider” (1975).

“Our music represents wide-open spaces and a free-wheelin’ attitude,” Mr. Daniels told Stereo Review magazine in 1980. In a separate interview, he said that his band’s music was neither country nor rock-and-roll, and was written simply for “beer drinkers, dope smokers and hell-raisers — people that live hard.”

It had a special appeal for listeners in the South, who sang along to anthems like “The South’s Gonna Do It,” which name-checked Southern groups such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, ZZ Top, the Marshall Tucker Band and Grinderswitch while expressing pride in the region’s musical history. Its refrain, “the South’s gonna do it again,” was a play on the neo-Confederate rallying cry “the South shall rise again” — and led the song to be taken up by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who used the track in radio commercials promoting white-supremacist rallies in Louisiana.

“I’m damn proud of the South, but I sure as hell ain’t proud of the Ku Klux Klan,” Mr. Daniels told the Nashville Banner in 1975, calling for the Klan to stop using his band’s record. “I’m not a prejudiced person. . . . I wrote it about the land I love and my brothers.”

As “The Dukes of Hazzard” premiered on CBS and “outlaw country” artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings entered the cultural mainstream, Mr. Daniels scored his biggest commercial hit with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the Faustian story of a fiddle duel between the devil and a young musician named Johnny, who risks his soul to win a golden fiddle.

Released with the album “Million Mile Reflections” (1979), the song topped the country charts, reached No. 3 on the pop charts and gained a wider audience after Mr. Daniels performed it in the John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy” (1980).

“I don’t know where the phrase ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ came from or why it entered my mind that day in the rehearsal studio. . . . But when it started coming it came in a gush,” Mr. Daniels wrote in “Never Look at the Empty Seats,” his 2017 memoir. “The band grabbed ahold, and when Taz [DiGregorio] came up with the signature keyboard lick behind the devil’s fiddle part, we knew we were on to something.”

Charles Edward Daniels — his family name was Daniel, but an “s” was accidentally added on the birth certificate — was born in Wilmington, N.C., on Oct. 28, 1936.

His father worked in the lumber trade, leading the family to move between neighboring towns and settle near Goldston, where Mr. Daniels graduated from high school. He grew up listening to Saturday night broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry and singing gospel tunes like “Kneel at the Cross” and “You Are My Sunshine,” and soon took up the guitar and fiddle.

Mr. Daniels worked at a creosote plant in Wilmington, driving to perform at clubs in Jacksonville, N.C., six nights a week, before traveling to Washington to immerse himself in the city’s music scene. He played at honky-tonks — “skull orchards,” as he put it — before moving to Nashville, where he released his self-titled debut in 1970.

Four years later he launched the Volunteer Jam festival, which became an annual concert drawing performers from country and rock to blues and soul, including Roy Acuff, Ray Price, Ted Nugent, James Brown and B.B. King.

With the success of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Mr. Daniels turned increasingly toward country, releasing 1980s singles including “Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” and “Boogie Woogie Fiddle Country Blues.” He also became a conservative firebrand in his later years, dismissing Barack Obama as a “flower child” president in an ad for the National Rifle Association.

Mr. Daniels had performed at the 1977 inauguration of President Jimmy Carter, the former Georgia governor, but increasingly incorporated conservative themes into songs such as “Simple Man” (1989) — in which he suggested hanging dope dealers and using child abusers as alligator bait — and “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (2001), which critics accused of promoting Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But many of his more recent albums had a softer touch and were far from political. He received Dove Awards for his gospel music and formed a record label, Blue Hat, which released albums such as “Off the Grid: Doin’ It Dylan” (2014), a tribute record, and “Songs in the Key of E” (2018), with a new group known as the Beau Weevils.

In 2008, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in 2016 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Hazel Alexander, and a son, Charles W. Daniels. Together, he and his wife lived for many years on a ranch near Nashville, where they raised horses and Corriente cattle.

“What I am is a simple, working-class person,” Mr. Daniels told The Washington Post in 1980. “I came from laboring people, farming stock, people who made a living with their hands, who got up before daylight and worked until dark. I’m proud of that. That’s the people I’m doing my music for.”

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