I spent the summer of 1979 working at the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. My car was a ’71 Ford Maverick with no air-conditioning and an AM-only radio. In that part of North Carolina I could pull about four stations. If I spent more than four minutes in the hot car I heard “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” by the Charlie Daniels Band on at least one of those stations.
More than a few times, when I was tooling around looking for record shops, I heard it on all four stations consecutively. The record would end on one station and go to a commercial or a song I didn’t like (a VERY common occurrence in 1979 no matter where I was) and I would punch the button and land in the middle of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” Then it would end and I would change stations again and the next station would be playing it and so on. I learned the words a long time before the summer was over.
Today when I found out Charlie had passed, I pulled it up on YouTube and, though I hadn’t heard it in at least twenty years, I hadn’t forgot a thing–including the fall of ’79, when I came home and started watching college football and poor Chris Schenkel was doing a game intro, welcoming the fans to the game of the week and, whichever southern stadium was hosting (Athens? Auburn? Baton Rouge?…the memory hazes) had Charlie for a guest and the network cut to him just as he was substituting “son of a bitch” for “son of a gun.”
Of course there was a lot more to Charlie Daniels than my memories (which stretched back to my sister and me laughing at “Uneasy Rider” on the way home from the mall almost a decade before). He was a top-tier session man and formidable band leader and his big break came writing the greatest record in Elvis’ vast secret catalog (and one of the greatest in his catalog, period):
Later on, in 1982 to be exact, he took the lid off the top 40’s resistance to the damage Viet Nam had left in both individual vet’s lives and the country’s psyche with his cover of Dan Daley’s “Still in Saigon.” Whether that was a makeup for redneck anthems like “Leave This Long Haired Country Boy Alone” and “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” or a continuum of a valid world view is a matter of taste. What is undeniable is that it opened a seam that, on the radio, ran all the way to Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.”
But to tell you the truth, what I remember today is the Summer of ’79, when he was literally the only good thing on the radio…so good they played him on every station, country, rock and pop, all day long, all summer long: