“And he said, My name’s Johnny and it might be a sin . . .”
Even though I’m well aware of how old I am now, it’s still hard to believe that it has been forty years since America first got to hear songs from my childhood like The Charlie Daniel Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler.” I was only a five-year-old kindergartner in 1979 and ’80, but I remember those songs playing on the radio in the car. They were the first ones I remember knowing the words to and singing along with— those and Jerry Reed’s anthem “East Bound and Down,” Eddie Rabbitt’s “Every Which Way But Loose,” Waylon Jennings’ theme song for The Dukes of Hazzard, and Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.”
The late ’70s and early ’80s were a good time for country music. The films Every Which Way But Loose in 1978 and Urban Cowboy in 1980 raised the genre’s profile a bit. Dolly Parton was the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year in 1978, and Willie Nelson took the honor in 1979. Waylon Jennings’ “I’ve Always Been Crazy” was released in 1978, and the band Alabama had a string of number-one hits in the early ’80s.
But it was Charlie Daniel’s dark and surly “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that caught our attention most. Here we were, little-boy Baptists in Alabama, and here was Charlie Daniels, a barrel-chested singer and fiddle player with a big beard and a hat shading his eyes, and he was singing about . . . the Devil. And nobody seemed to mind. As a matter of fact, they seemed to like it. So did we.
Though I’m an avid music fan with eclectic taste, I’ve never heard anything like “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” The song’s mixture of country and bluegrass with rock that gets a little funky creates a shape-shifting style that allows a story to unfold. That unmistakable fiddle intro leads into Charlie Daniels’ swaggering sing-talking narrative about the Devil being desperate to bag a few souls down in the Deep South when he finds a “boy” playing his fiddle on a stump. Certainly, the Devil must’ve been thinking that this hayseed would be easy to beat, especially since Johnny’s arrogant reply is to accept the wager, knowing he will win it. As church-going children, we knew by the first verse that Johnny was making a dangerous decision: if he won, he got a golden fiddle, which was pretty cool, even though it was made by the Devil, but if he lost, he would go to Hell forever. Yet, we also knew why Johnny entered into this fateful bargain. The Devil doesn’t just tell Johnny that he’ll beat him in a fiddling contest, he adds something else that no Southern man will stand for: “‘Cause I think I’m better’n you.” Them’s fightin’ words, especially after calling Johnny a “boy”— twice.
I don’t care how many times I listen, I’m always sucked-in by that point. I don’t know if it’s the music or Daniels’ voice or the story itself, but I’m hooked. Even as a kid I was. At my house, we didn’t hear gritty music like this. My parents’ record collection consisted mostly of John Denver, Helen Reddy, Johnny Mathis, and also a few Beatles albums from my mom’s high school years. My older brother was only about ten at this point, so his musical tastes, which would later revolve around Van Halen and KISS, hadn’t evolved yet either.
After that enticing dare from the Devil, Johnny then answers: Yeah, I’ll take you on, and I’m fixin’ to whip you. And the music breaks into a furious segue, reminding us of what Johnny has just done. We think early in the song that this will be a cautionary tale, that Johnny has screwed up pretty bad. But that’s not what’s in store. The tempo then slows again, and here comes Daniels’ deep-voiced drawl to explain that the Devil will go first. His fiddle makes an “evil hiss,” and out of nowhere, “a band of demons joins in and it sounded something like this . . .” The music changes again into something dark and ominous, with a prominent bass line and a driving electric guitar. When the Devil breaks into his solo, it is chaotic and wild. To little boys in Alabama, it sounded exactly like what the Devil playing fiddle would sound like.
But Johnny is not impressed. His reply lacks respect, and he writes the Devil off by calling him “old son” and telling him to sit down and learn something. “He played . . .” pause . . . “Fire on the mountain! Run, boys, run! Devil’s in the house of the rising sun!” It comes through like triumph: the triumph of old-time traditional country music over new-style acid rock with its untamed instrumental solos, the triumph of a good ol’ boy who was minding his own business over an evil power that comes from elsewhere, the triumph of an Everyman over the Father of Lies. Back in those days, without Google to look up the lyrics, you better believe we struggled in discerning what Daniels sped through next: “Chicken in the bread pan pickin’ out dough / Granny, does your dog bite? No, child, no.” I can’t even imagine how many weird interpretations we came up with, but the point was: this was cool. It was cool. We didn’t know why it was. But it was, and that was enough.
But the most scandalous part was still to come. After Johnny beats the Devil in the fiddling contest, the Devil is ashamed, and not only gives over the golden fiddle but puts it humbly at Johnny’s feet. This is the Devil who just called Johnny “boy” and told him “I’m better’n you.” Now, he’s just a loser. In victory as he was in the challenge itself, Johnny is not swayed to compassion or respect: “I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I’m the best they’s ever been.” He said a cuss word! We couldn’t believe it. We were both shocked by the fact of it and filled with joy by the mischief of it. That man said a cuss word . . . and it wasn’t bleeped out. But Daniels quickly moves on, and he ends his opus by repeating that triumphant verse: “Fire on the mountain! Run, boys, run!”
We don’t know what happens to Johnny next, but that doesn’t matter. He is the hero, who has slain the monster and won the treasure. We also don’t know what happens to the Devil, but we kind of do. He moves on, in search of more souls. He was still out there looking when I was a kid in the 1980s, and he’s still out there today.
As a comparison, the song’s story flies in the face of the old blues myth where the Devil’s bargains are trades, not wagers: gaining musical skill or worldly success for the price of one’s soul. No, Johnny already had the skill and a fiddle. In this one, a common man beats the Devil on his own terms, toe-to-toe, and sends Old Scratch off to find someone less savvy.
These narratives about strength, power, and manhood populated our boyish consciousness back then and provided much fodder for discussion. We understood from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that Johnny was daring and arrogant but also that he was victorious because the Devil must be faced down, beaten, and sent away empty-handed. It might be a sin to take on the Devil in a wager for your soul, but in some cases, that’s just what’s got to happen when he’s standing in front of you. And a similar lesson is what had to be learned by a young man named Tommy in the song “Coward of the County.”
Long before the plastic surgery, even before he was the king of roasted chicken, Kenny Rogers was the cool old dude for my generation. Rogers was about the age I am now in the early ’80s, but that brushed-back gray beard and feathered hair, and the crow’s feet next to his eyes gave him that perfect combination of friendly and weathered. He looked like the kind of guy who’d say, “Hey, kid,” and flip you a quarter to buy some candy. Rogers’ career had actually begun much earlier, with the hits “Just Dropped In” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” but those were before our time, as were the hits “Laura” in 1976 and “Lucille” in 1977. We knew him from the early ’80s hits, “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler.” I believe in my heart that just about any Southerner over thirty-five could pick it up if you just walked up to him and sang, “You got to know when to hold ’em . . .”
“Coward of the County” tells an ugly, brutal story, though the package it’s delivered in is the sugar that helps the medicine go down. The song’s calm, mellow mood softens a story about an orphan named Tommy whose girlfriend-maybe-wife is gang-raped, an act that drives him to abandon his nonviolent attitude and go for some Walking Tall-style revenge. We meet Tommy after first hearing that “everyone considered him the coward of the county,” a fact made more bleak by the speaker explaining that he is the uncle who raised the boy after his father died in prison. And it is that deceased father who gave Tommy this fateful advice:
Promise me, son, not to do the things I’ve done.
Walk away from trouble if you can.
It won’t mean you’re weak if you turn the other cheek.
I hope you’re old enough to understand . . .
Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man.
By the end of the first verse here too, we know that this was going to be a problem. Just like it was a bad idea for Johnny to take on the Devil, telling a ten-year-old boy to walk away from fights is going to leave him flapping in the wind. And then we meet Becky, the woman that Tommy is in love with, the woman who loves him, too. And then we are introduced to the Gatlin Boys, who come while Tommy is at work. Kenny Rogers didn’t need to be graphic or vulgar when he sings, “They took turns at Becky,” then with a lowered voice, “and there was three of them.”
Unlike “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” this song’s tempo, style, and feel all remain constant throughout this song, from the sad, sympathetic intro to the story’s setup, from the addition of Becky to her role in Tommy’s newfound manhood. When Tommy comes home to find the love of his life in a “torn dress” with a “shattered look,” everything must change. Of course, those Gatlin boys laugh at Tommy and call him “Yellow” when he comes to find them in the bar, but “you could’ve heard a pin drop as Tommy stopped and locked the door.” The way Rogers sings it, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck. In a different way than Johnny, whose manhood was challenged by a Devil who calls him “boy,” Tommy has reached his breaking point after shrugging off such name-calling for years. Here is a man who has never fought in his life, and he’s now mad enough to beat the hell out of three brothers all at once. After the last Gatlin boy is beat down, the chorus evolves from his father’s advice to the theme we must learn from the tale: “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.”
Both Johnny and Tommy were young men facing quandaries that allowed only one way out: straight ahead. There’s no out-talking the Devil, and there’s end-around when three men rape your wife.
For those who want to treat country music as wisdom literature, as “three chords and the truth,” Kenny Rogers’ life lessons from the early ’80s also included the mystical tale of “The Gambler,” a midnight rambler who dies after giving the tricky advice that “you got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” It may be true that hanging in there can be brave and that “sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man,” but other times it’s wisest to haul booty! These songs, which we loved when I was growing up, taught us what life was teaching us: that nothing is ever simple, that there are people out there who’ll try to hurt you, and that dealing with them is part of it. We needed to know that the Devil was out there looking for dummies and that the Gatlin boys were everywhere. Dealing with them wouldn’t be easy . . . but not dealing with them would be much, much worse.