NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Country music singer and part-time La Plata County resident Charlie Daniels, who had a hit with “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” has died at age 83.
A statement from his publicist said the Country Music Hall of Famer died Monday at a hospital in Hermitage, Tennessee, after doctors said he had a stroke.
He had suffered what was described as a mild stroke in January 2010 while snowmobiling northeast of Bayfield, and had a heart pacemaker implanted in 2013 but continued to perform.
Daniels owned a home in the La Plata Canyon area, where he typically spent a couple of months each year after Christmas. He enjoyed socializing, snowmobiling and playing an occasional gig in the Durango area.
“He loved being in Durango,” said Jim Foster, a local friend. “He just was one of the most generous people you could imagine, both with his time and giving gifts to people that he liked. He was always a lot of laughs when we could get together. He’ll be sorely missed by me and by many others in town.”
As an author, Daniels was never shy about expressing his political and cultural viewpoints. Just last weekend, Daniels had a letter to the editor published in The Durango Herald throwing his support behind the Clark family, who own Toh-Atin Gallery and the controversial “Chief” mascot in front of the business in downtown Durango.
“There is nothing disrespectful about the signage; in fact, nobody on planet Earth has more respect for or has been a better friend to Native Americans than the Clark family, who have dealt honestly with them for three generations, a testimony in itself to the relationship,” he wrote. “The sign is a landmark, not an insult and offends no one. Long may it stand.”
Jackson Clark, owner of Toh-Atin Gallery, said Daniels called his mother five days ago to sing happy birthday to her. He mentioned last weekend was the first Fourth of July he could remember that he didn’t have a show to play.
“The COVID thing was just driving him nuts,” Clark said. “He practiced every day and worked on his writing and things like that. But he loved being out in front of an audience. Absolutely loved making people happy and enjoy themselves.”
One might expect someone with Daniels’ national fame to talk about himself on occasion, but Daniels was more interested in those around him and their families, Clark said.
“He was just that kind of a guy,” Clark said. “He cared about you. ... He was the real thing.”
Daniels, a singer, guitarist and fiddler, started out as a session musician, even playing on Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” sessions. Beginning in the early 1970s, his five-piece band toured endlessly, sometimes doing 250 shows a year.
“I can ask people where they are from, and if they say ‘Waukegan,’ I can say I’ve played there. If they say ‘Baton Rouge,’ I can say I’ve played there. There’s not a city we haven’t played in,” Daniels said in 1998.
Daniels performed at the White House, at the Super Bowl, throughout Europe and often for troops in the Middle East.
He played himself in the 1980 John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy” and was closely identified with the rise of country music generated by that film. He also made guest appearances with the Bar D Wranglers, who perform regularly at the Bar D Chuckwagon north of Durango.
“I’ve kept people employed for over 20 years and never missed a payroll,” Daniels said in 1998. That same year, he received the Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music.
In the 1990s Daniels softened some of his lyrics from his earlier days when he often was embroiled in controversy.
In “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” a 1979 song about a fiddling duel between the devil and a whippersnapper named Johnny, Daniels originally called the devil a “son of a bitch,” but changed it to “son of a gun.”
In his 1980 hit “Long Haired Country Boy,” he used to sing about being “stoned in the morning” and “drunk in the afternoon.” Daniels changed it to “I get up in the morning. I get down in the afternoon.”
“I guess I’ve mellowed in my old age,” Daniels said in 1998.
Otherwise, though, he rarely backed down from in-your-face lyrics.
His “Simple Man” in 1990 suggested lynching drug dealers and using child abusers as alligator bait.
His “In America” in 1980 told this country’s enemies to “go straight to hell.”
Such tough talk earned him guest spots on “Politically Incorrect,” the G. Gordon Liddy radio show and on C-Span taking comments from viewers.
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” was No. 1 on the country charts in 1979 and No. 3 on the pop charts. It was voted single of the year by the Country Music Association.
In the climactic verse, Daniels sang:
“The devil bowed his head because he knew that he’d been beat.
“He laid that golden fiddle on the ground at Johnny’s feet.
“Johnny said, ‘Devil just come on back if you ever want to try again.
“I told you once you son of a gun, I’m the best that’s ever been.’”
He hosted regular Volunteer Jam concerts in Nashville in which the performers usually were not announced in advance. Entertainers at these shows included Don Henley, Amy Grant, James Brown, Pat Boone, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band, Alabama, Billy Joel, Little Richard, B.B. King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eugene Fodor and Woody Herman.
Foster, who met Daniels through mutual friends, said the entertainer was the same person off stage as he was onstage – even in his 80s he brought a high level of energy to every performance. Foster also said Daniels was lamenting that this was one of the first Fourth of Julys in memory that he didn’t play a gig, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“He was getting board with being at home all the time,” Foster said.
Foster recalled seeing Daniels in Southwest Sound, a former music store on Main Avenue in Durango, before having met him. Foster, a lover of classical music, noticed Daniels bought some record.
“When he left, I asked the clerk, ‘What did Charlie buy.’ He said mostly Mozart. I said to myself, ‘You know, I better buy some Charlie Daniels then.’”
Daniels suffered a stroke while snowmobiling in 2010 in Beaver Meadows east of Bayfield. He was treated at Mercy Regional Medical Center before being flown to a Denver-area hospital. Daniels was snowmobiling with Cy and Jeanne Scarborough of Durango. Cy Scarborough, who died in May at age 93, was founder of the Bar D Wranglers.
Daniels, a native of Wilmington, N.C., played on several Bob Dylan albums as a Nashville recording session guitarist in the late 1960s, including “New Morning” and “Self-Portrait.”
Eventually, at the age of 71, he was invited to join the epitome of Nashville’s music establishment, the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2016.
He said in 1998 that he kept touring so much because “I have never played those notes perfectly. I’ve never sung every song perfectly. I’m in competition to be better tonight than I was last night and to be better tomorrow than tonight.”
Daniels said his favorite place to play was “anywhere with a good crowd and a good paycheck.”
Herald Deputy Editor Shane Benjamin contributed to this report.