Chicken in the What?
Charlie Daniels, Still Sawin’ on a Fiddle and Playin’ it Hot at 83
Whether they appreciate him for his early career work as a studio musician for Bob Dylan, his defining hit that blares on classic rock airwaves, or his current role as an outspoken patriot, you can just about sell the whole family on the music of Charlie Daniels.
No wonder Daniels got selected to play the inaugural Travis Tritt Thanksgiving Homecoming Concert. Paulding County’s favorite son and his talented daughter, Tyler Reese Tritt, join Daniels on Sat., Nov. 23 at an important spot in Lynyrd Skynyrd lore: the fabulous Fox Theatre.
“It’s a very special package to me, and I’m glad to be a part of it because it’s kind of a homecoming for Travis,” Daniels says. “We’re old friends. We’ve been touring together since Travis started out with ‘Country Club’ many years ago.”
One’s a Vol and the other’s a Dawg. Otherwise, it’s easy to assume that Daniels and Tritt agree on most things as outspoken Southern gentlemen with plenty to say about the state of our country and country music. When told that he’s cut from the same cloth as his longtime friend, Daniels interjects, “I’m just cut from more cloth than he is. I’m a lot bigger than he is.”
Before moving on from the Thanksgiving show, notice that it’s the weekend after the ATLive events at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The Nov. 15 and 17 concerts bring some of the biggest mainstream country stars, including Tritt-endorsed hitmaker Luke Combs and home state duo Sugarland, to town for a massive fundraising effort for Johnny Mac Soldier’s Fund and Quest Community Development.
For folks more drawn to Daniels for his Southern rock reputation, the weekend after Tritt’s Thanksgiving bash features Blackberry Smoke’s annual Brothers and Sisters Holiday Homecoming at the Tabernacle. Suffice it to say, three consecutive November weekends offer a huge show in Atlanta for pretty much any country music fan of any age.
Beginning in the 1960’s, Daniels worked as one of Nashville’s world-class session musicians – a gig that positioned him to play bass and guitar for Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Like Wrecking Crew member turned country star Glen Campbell, Daniels eventually claimed his own piece of the pop culture spotlight as a solo performer and, soon after, the leader of the Charlie Daniels Band.
Although Daniels’ name still gets associated with white-hot fiddle playing, the real reason behind his sustained relevance and rightful place in the Country Music Hall of Fame lies in his brilliance as a songwriter.
Per Daniels’ own description of his songwriting technique, he’s always been a hoarder of riffs and verses.
“I’ve got a guitar and fiddle close to me wherever I am,” he says. “I’m sitting on my bus right now, and I’ve got one across from me I can grab ahold of. I’ve got one at home I can grab ahold of at any time. If I come across something I feel good about, that I think I ought to keep, I’ll get my wife to turn my phone on and record it for me. Then I’ll just leave it and come back to it later on. I found out a long time ago you never throw anything good away. I’ve kept pieces and bits of songs in my mind for as long as 14 years before they would finally reach fruition. Stop worrying if something’s good. Eventually, you’re going to use it.”
Daniels’ best-known song, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” became part of popular culture in the late ’70s and got a second run of success shortly after as part of the Urban Cowboy soundtrack. On a local note, American gymnast Dominique Moceanu performed her floor routine to the song during the 1996 Olympics. In the process, she introduced a crossover hit to a global audience during a fiscally successful decade for country music.
There’s even a lesser-known sequel, 1993’s “The Devil Comes Back to Georgia,” teaming Daniels with fiddler Mark O’Connor, narrator Johnny Cash and two close friends cast as the lead characters: Tritt as the devil and Marty Stuart as Johnny.
“When I recorded it, I thought it’d be a good song for us, but thinking about if we’d be talking about it 40 years after the fact? I had no idea,” Daniels says of the original version. “It truly has been a blessing. It has been a wonderful blessing to us. And of course, it’s a song we do every night. It’s one everyone wants to hear.”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” deserves mention over something newer or less obvious because it establishes Daniels’ grasp of old-time music and his love of Southern culture. In addition, it helps explain why Daniels remained popular long enough for something like the fantastic 1989 album Simple Man to make a mainstream impact.
As one of Daniels’ most derivative works, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” doubles as a cultural history lesson. Its melody is an octave-higher version of the legendary Vassar Clements’ “Lonesome Fiddle Blues,” and its fiddling contest theme bares more than a slight resemblance to the Stephen Vincent Benét poem “The Mountain Whippoorwill.” In addition, the lyrics namedrop the old fiddle tunes “Ida Red” and “Fire on the Mountain,” and Daniels’ recited lines owe more to square dance calling than typical country storytelling.
“People who live up in the Northern part of the country are like, ‘What is this chicken in a bread pan? What does that mean?’ Well, it’s just an old square dance refrain. It’s a way to keep time in a square dance,” Daniels says. “It took them years to figure out what I was saying, you know. ‘Chicken in the what? Granny what?’ So, I’ve had to explain it to quite a few people. It just seemed to fit the song so well when I was doing it. I just stuck it in there without thinking about if anybody couldn’t understand it. It didn’t make a difference. They got into it anyway, so I’m happy about that.”
Even in a time when the internet makes music and culture more homogenized than ever, Daniels always appreciates chances to entertain folks in the Cotton Belt.
“People ask me where I like to play, and I tell them anyplace I can get grits for breakfast,” he adds. “That’s who I am, that’s where I come from and it will always be my favorite place. My part of the country, the Southeast… I was born there. I was raised there. All of my life, my lifestyle, what I am, the food I like, the people I enjoy being around, that sort of thing, is old Dixie. I like people from other places. I don’t mean to make it sound like that. But I feel more at home in places where people can understand what I have to say without me having to repeat it.”
By the time Nov. 23 rolls around, Daniels’ name will be attached to at least one new song. He appears on Shenandoah’s recent Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute, “Freebird in the Wind.”
The song honors the victims and survivors of the Oct. 27, 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of Skynyrd singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backup singer Cassie Gaines. It begins with Daniels reciting a poem carved onto a stone bench at Van Zant’s gravesite.
“Everyone knows Charlie Daniels plays a pivotal role in the Southern rock genre,” explains Shenandoah singer Marty Raybon in a press release. “He also has a friendship with Lynyrd Skynyrd that goes back nearly four decades including a close relationship with Ronnie (Van Zant) before he passed away. With the connection he has to the history behind the song, we felt he would be perfect to have on this record, and we were honored when he said yes.”
All proceeds from “Freebird in the Wind” go directly to the Lynyrd Skynyrd Foundation, the band’s official charity.
Whether he’s confusing yankees with “Granny, does your dog bite?” or sharing stages with two generations of Tritts, Daniels relishes every moment of a career that stretches back to the 1950’s and continues at age 83.
“Any time I get on stage, I just thank God I can do something I enjoy so very much,” he says. “And any time I get on stage, I’m having a ball.”