Home Music Music Lists

Charlie Daniels: 10 Definitive Songs

From the PTSD narrative “Still in Saigon” and the jammy “Sweet Louisiana” to the unforgettable “Devil Went Down to Georgia”

Over his Country Music Hall of Fame career, Charlie Daniels sang about soldiers, hippies, and a gambling devil.

Scott Legato/Getty Images

Charlie Daniels may be synonymous with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” arguably one of the earliest examples of country-rap, but his catalog was defined by more than sing-speak recitations and fiddle fire. He dabbled in the jam-band side of Southern rock, experimented with polished Eighties anthems, and notably carried a torch for classic country music — especially its storytelling. The Country Music Hall of Fame member died July 6th at 83, leaving behind songs that, while sonically diverse, were all united by the expert musician’s love of playing.

Play video

Andre Csillag/Shutterstock

“The Devil Went Down to Georgia” (1979)

Daniels put a Southern-fried spin on Faust’s deal with Mephistopheles for what would become his signature song. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” tells the story of a behind-on-his-collections demon who tries to win an easy soul by challenging a simple country boy named Johnny to a fiddle contest. Up for grabs? A fiddle of gold against the kid’s eternal damnation. To achieve the swirling chorus effect of the devil’s solo, Daniels played seven different parts. “We wanted a dark, ominous, intimidating sound and hit on the idea of multiple fiddles,” he wrote in his 2017 memoir. In the end, good triumphs over evil, and Johnny gets the gold — but can’t resist rubbing salt in ol’ Scratch’s wound: “I done told you once you son of a bitch/I’m the best there’s ever been.” J.H.

Play video

Paul Natkin/Getty Images

“Still in Saigon” (1982)

Written by New York folksinger Dan Daley, “Still in Saigon” tells the conflicted tale of a Vietnam War veteran suffering from the lingering effects of combat and trying to figure out where he fits in “normal” life. Unlike “In America,” it doesn’t lean toward the jingoistic. Instead, the drum-heavy song offers a stark, unflinching look at PTSD: “I can’t tell no one, I feel ashamed/afraid someday I’ll go insane,” Daniels shout-sings in the bridge. Remarkably, the song was pitched to both Daniels and Bruce Springsteen. ” At first Charlie Daniels’s people said he wasn’t recording it either,” Daley told The New York Times in 1982. “By the time we found out he had recorded it, he’d already performed it at the CBS records convention and gotten a real powerful response.” J.H.

Play video

Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/ Getty Images

“Mississippi” (1979)

Usually more closely associated with uptempo rock numbers, Daniels scored himself a winning ballad with “Mississippi,” from 1979’s Million Mile Reflections. The follow-up single to “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” it peaked just inside the Top 20 on country radio. With a lush string section reminiscent of Glen Campbell’s sweetly orchestrated country-pop chestnuts, “Mississippi” features a surprisingly tender, aching vocal performance from Daniels, who croons about his longing for a place (or person) he hasn’t seen in a long time. “Like a mist in the morning, from some dream I’ve left behind,” he sings, with no trace of his trademark bluster. J.F.

Play video

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty Images

“Sweet Louisiana” (1976)

Of all the songs in the Charlie Daniels canon, few evoke the jam-band side of Southern rock quite like this track off 1976’s Saddle Tramp. A Daniels solo composition, “Sweet Louisiana” pairs some slippery slide guitar with CDB keyboardist Taz DiGregorio’s barroom piano for a euphoric result. The live version off 1978’s Volunteer Jam III & IV concert album is even more freewheeling, with Daniels and Tommy Crain’s twin guitar leads bringing the jam vibes to a satisfying head. J.H.

Play video

Adam Scull/Photolink.Net/Mediapunch/Shutterstock

“Drinkin’ My Baby Goodbye” (1985)

An outlier in a catalog more often associated with good-ole-white-boy anthems and Southern gothic story-songs, this 1985 Top 10 country hit is a dancing-all-over-your-troubles rave-up. It launches with an electric guitar part that, uh, tinkers with the one in Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” but Daniels quickly commandeers the lick for himself. The hurtling rhythm is roots-rock like something Dave Edmunds might race through, and Daniels charges at his lines like he’s channeling Jerry Lee Lewis: “Pour me another one/I’m finished with the other one!” But it’s Daniels’ delirious fiddle that moves the crowd and tips you off that this drinking cure might just work. D.C.