For those too young to remember, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” is a classic song penned and performed by the Charlie Daniels Band that spins the tale of a deal between a young fiddle player and the devil, who was “looking for a soul to steal.”
“Not gonna happen in Milwaukee,” Daniels said with a laugh during a recent phone interview. The soul stealing part, that is.
Daniels isn’t yet sure which songs he’ll play on Aug. 21, but he knows why he is on the roster. “We’re there to get their attention, to get them to listen to what Franklin is saying—that’s the crux of the whole thing. Without the preaching and the invitation, nothing else would make any difference. Everything we do has to be pointed at that invitation to Christ—to salvation.”
The music? “Just window dressing,” said Daniels. “The important thing is the sermon, to convince people they need Jesus, and to come down and accept Him. We want them to see the gravity of what that decision means.”
Daniels often tailors his set list to a particular audience’s needs. “We played at Angola Prison with Franklin one time and we had a lot of people there that I knew would not know who we were,” he recalled. “They would not be familiar with our music, with our gospel songs.” So he decided to perform an instrumental song that “would show off the band’s musicianship and get people’s attention, and let them know what we are about.”
Another time, Daniels played during a Franklin Graham Festival and did the “Orange Blossom Special” along with gospel music.
“It kind of depends on the people we will have there in Milwaukee,” Daniels added. “I may do ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘I’ll Fly Away,’ or I may do something else.”
He has noticed that some people have trouble categorizing his music as sacred or secular. “I tell people, ‘Look, Satan’s got enough of the music. He’s not going to get mine. This don’t belong to him.’ So if I play a secular song, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, a joyous thing. The talent and music, it all came from God, every note I play, every note I write and sing.”
A Winding Path
Born on Oct. 28, 1936, in Wilmington, N.C., Daniels was reared in a Christian home. He described his childhood as typical. “I was a rowdy country boy, but I was taught right from wrong in a painstaking, loving way.”
Later in life, though, he got “so far off the path that you wouldn’t have thought I was a believer. I made a commitment to Christ when I was a kid, but I don’t think that I fully understood what Christianity is about. I thought that in order to be a Christian I had to be a legalist and be perfect. Of course, I came to find out quickly that that wasn’t going to happen.”
His return to Christ was gradual. “I never had a Damascus road experience. It was as if Jesus said to me, ‘Charlie, you aren’t doing right. You need to get straightened up.’ There was always that tugging of the Spirit.”
Now Daniels fully grasps that Jesus is the only way to eternal life. “He is the way, the truth and the life. People will take little pieces of the Bible and say, ‘God is love,’ but God is a lot of other things too. He is the Creator, the Almighty, Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent. You either have to believe it or you can lay your Bible in the trash pile. The bottom line for everyone is ‘Do you believe this?'”
A Long History with the Grahams
Playing a part in sharing the Gospel is one reason Daniels is excited about Rock the Lakes; working alongside his friend Franklin Graham is another. “I’ll tell you one thing I’ve noticed about Franklin—he has always been a good speaker but now every time I see him, Franklin is just a little more Spirit filled, a little more into it. He is really speaking well and he’s really doing a good job of getting the Gospel out there.”
Daniels admires how Graham keeps any discussion centered on Jesus. “I called him not long ago and he was on some show and the guy was trying to pin him down, but he just kept getting back to Jesus. What a wonderful thing to stand up for Jesus. He never backs down, no matter who he is talking to or who he is in front of.
“He’s never intimidated, just like Mr. Graham never was intimidated by anybody’s power, or anybody’s prestige or anybody’s fame.”
Daniels has performed alongside father and son, a factoid that still amazes him. “Mr. Graham has been a hero of mine for a long, long time. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Billy Graham as somebody who is just completely sold out to the Lord, who has devoted his whole life and every breath to serving, and to bringing people into the Kingdom. How many people have done that all their lives?
“Billy is a precious man of God,” Daniels added. “I am sure he is going to have a very bright shining crown.”
Daniels remembers fondly the first of eight times he stepped on stage during a Billy Graham Crusade. “It was in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1996. I was just so blown away by being a part of something with a man I admired for so long. To be on stage in front of the people who came to see him preach was a great experience.”
How Sweet the Sound
But performing at Festivals and Crusades is just one chapter in his life story. Raised on a musical diet that included Pentecostal gospel, local bluegrass bands, and the rhythm & blues and country music emanating from Nashville’s WLAC and WSM, Daniels quickly developed into a world-class artist.
When he graduated from high school in 1955, he followed in the footsteps of Elvis Aaron Presley. Already skilled on guitar, fiddle and mandolin, he formed a rock band and hit the road with The Rockets. In 1969, he moved to middle Tennessee to find work as a session guitarist in Nashville.
Daniels broke through on his own with 1973’s “Uneasy Rider.” His anthems, “Long Haired Country Boy” and “The South’s Gonna Do It,” propelled the 1975 album Fire On the Mountain to Double Platinum status.
In 1976, he signed with the Epic Records rock roster in New York. By the summer of 1979, Daniels delivered “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which became a Platinum single that topped both country and pop charts, and earned a Grammy and three Country Music Association trophies.
Daniels’ career has now spanned five decades and crossed multiple genres. In April 2011, he released a special patriotic track called “Let ‘Em Win or Bring ‘Em Home,” available at www.charliedaniels.com. It is part of “Land That I Love,” a 2010 compilation with two cuts released for digital download on July 4, 2010.
Last October, he was honored in New York City with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the T.J. Martell Foundation. In 2008, his life-long dream became a reality when Daniels was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry.
As he often says, “Ain’t God good?”
Charlie Daniels will join Michael W. Smith and Canton Jones on stage at Rock the Lakes on Sunday. Skillet, Lecrae, The Almost and The Afters will perform Saturday. You can see all the bands both days and watch Franklin Graham as he shares the Gospel during our webcast.
Log on to billygraham.org/rockthelakes on Saturday, Aug. 20, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. (ET), 4 to 9:30 p.m. in Milwaukee. Watch on Sunday, Aug. 21, 5 to 8:30 p.m. (ET), 4 to 7:30 p.m. in Milwaukee.
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