Thirty years ago, the Devil challenged Charlie Daniels to a duel, fiddle vs. fiddle for bow-slinging supremacy throughout the universe. Daniels never blinked, and "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" became a country music anthem that took him -- and the country format -- from the Southland all the way to New Zealand and, ultimately, Los Angeles and a Grammy Award.
People still dare Daniels often. At least that's how he views it. And he still doesn't blink. He's as outspoken about politics as any celebrity, particularly through Twitter, where he has no qualms opening calling out the Obama administration. He has a penchant for ruffling feathers with staunch political convictions. And he doesn't much care what you think about it.
Daniels, too, loves NASCAR, and the country music icon will whip that famous bow across the strings Sunday in a prerace concert at Bristol Motor Speedway. It's his first trip to what he called a "bucket list track."
I spent a few minutes with Daniels to discuss our deep mutual passions for NASCAR and country music, during which time I learned about his impactful meeting with Dale Earnhardt, his admiration for Dale Jr. and his take on the greatest country music song of all time.
Marty Smith: What's the best story you can share with me about you and a race car driver?
Charlie Daniels: It was the last time Dale Sr. raced at Talladega. I was down there. Somebody took me to the drivers introductions, and I'd never met Dale. And here was this legend, that was fixin' to go out onto the track and drive 195 miles an hour, and somebody said, 'Dale, this is Charlie Daniels.' And he stopped. And he talked. And I don't just mean, 'Hey, how you doing?' I'm talking about he stopped. He was conversational. He was warm. It was an experience I will never, ever forget. We had a picture made. And he went on to win that race that day. I was very well aware of The Intimidator. That was very special to me, and will always probably be my special NASCAR moment, meeting Dale. What a nice, truly, genuinely nice guy he was. It was not a long conversation, maybe five minutes. I don't remember what we talked about it. But it wasn't a brush-off, ya know? It was such a special time to spend five minutes with such an incredible man. I am impressed with the things people do and their accomplishments. But being impressed with a person is an entirely different thing. I've met some people who've accomplished a lot. But when you meet people who've accomplished a lot -- and along with that they're a truly nice person -- then they make a very special memory. That's what happened to me that day with Dale.
MS: What's your most memorable NASCAR moment for you as a fan?
CD: When the Hendrick race team gave me a racing helmet signed by all four of their drivers. Rick Hendrick gave it to me at their Christmas party last year, which we played. That was very special. I've got a racing helmet. I don't know what I'm going to do with it yet, but I've got it, anyway. It's in my vault where I keep my guitars. It's the kind of thing -- especially with those four signatures on it from four of the best-known drivers in NASCAR: Junior and Kasey and Jimmie and Jeff -- somebody will pick that right up and walk off with it. So I've got it locked up.
MS: Which country music artist do you think is the most influential of all time?
CD: I'd like to put three people in here, as far as having a lasting influence without going way back to the early roots: I'd say Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and George Jones, in so far as leaving a lasting influence on the business and the music itself. George Jones, a lot of people forget, was a successful writer before he became a really successful singer. He goes way back. He's doing his last day here in Nashville on Nov. 22, so I'm going to go down and join a bunch of other people down there. I think Garth's [Brooks] coming in. I don't know who all is coming. He was such an influence on so many people.
And then, of course, Johnny Cash. You think about Johnny Cash as 12 feet tall. He came off that way in his music and he came off that way as a person -- bigger than life. You think about him like you think about John Henry, the Steel Driving Man -- this bigger-than-life person.
And Hank Williams personified the singer-songwriter. He really got that started, a guy that wrote his own songs and sang his own songs in his own style, and he has influenced other people to do that for so long.
MS: What's your coolest Johnny Cash story?
CD: Johnny and June presented a Grammy to us for "Devil Went Down to Georgia" in 1980. I had my arm broken; it was up in a sling. We went out to L.A., and they happened to be presenting that particular award; it was country song of the year or something like that. I'll never forget that. It was so great to have two legends present me the first Grammy I ever won. That was very special to me.
MS: What sense of validation is that for an artist, when a musician you just said is one of the most influential of all time is presenting you the most esteemed award in music?
CD: It's about all the good adjectives you could possibly put to it. The award would have meant the same thing had it been presented by anybody. But to have it presented by somebody that I had so much admiration for and so much respect for made it special. I will remember who gave us that Grammy as much I remember the Grammy. That presentation was special. There's nobody I have more respect for than Johnny Cash, so to have him present that Grammy to me and the whole band was a wonderful thing.
MS: Dale Earnhardt still carries this mythical aura to me. And as a kid, Momma and Daddy played Waylon and Willie and you and Johnny Cash and the Judds and Reba all the time, every day in my house. I'm of the mind that the mystique of Dale Earnhardt is the mystique of Johnny Cash. How would you compare their impact on their fans in the respective professions?
CD: Everybody loved both of them. Everybody in country music loves Johnny Cash. Everybody in NASCAR racing loves Dale. I have never seen anybody Listen, after Dale was killed in Daytona, it was like the president died or something. I really like Twitter and I get on Twitter, and to this very day people very quickly tell you he was the best and that racing will never be the same since he's gone. The respect, admiration and love for Dale Sr. was something that you've got to earn. That's not given. It's got to do with who you are, what you are and how you comport yourself.
And I want to tell you I love Dale Jr. I'm a big Dale Jr. fan. I picked him to win [at Bristol].
MS: I saw that. What is it about Junior that you enjoy?
CD: I like Junior, for one thing. I like him personally. I like the way he drives. I like the name he carries. That's a lot to live up to. You drive out on a racetrack in a race car and have the name Earnhardt, and everybody expects you to lead the pack all the time. That's not possible for anybody to do. It's like a tremendous pair of shoes that people think he ought to be stepping into. But he's not Dale. He's Dale Junior. He's got his own set of shoes to walk around in that are big enough. He's a great driver. It looks to me like he's starting off with a pretty doggoned good year this year, and I'm all for him. I'd love to see him win the Cup this year. That'd be a great thing.
MS: How often do you pick winners?
CD: I just pick drivers off the top of my head, regardless of where the race happens to be that week. I just pick one out of thin air. I think I picked three or four right last year out of the whole circuit, so I'm not doing too good. I don't think they'll be calling me in Vegas to make odds on the races anytime soon.
Back to Junior a minute. People love him. They like some drivers, admire some drivers. But they literally love Junior. There's a difference. It's the same thing in the music business. There are some artists -- Duane Allman was just loved. Ronnie Van Zant was just loved. Toy Caldwell, people loved him. These people were loved. They meant more than just somebody who played the guitar. It's the same with Junior. He means more to people than just somebody who gets in a race car and makes left-hand turns all day long. People literally love him. I can tell by the people I correspond with, there's a feeling for Junior out there that very few other NASCAR drivers have. I don't know if people feel like they know him. I don't know if people feel like he's their friend. I can't put it into words. It's a special bond between Junior and his fans that a lot of drivers don't have.
MS: "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is your signature. What's an example of how that song changed your life and how does it continue to impact your life?
CD: It took us up another level. We had hit records before Devil. We had hit albums before Devil. But it just was not anything on the level of what that took us to. It was like going into high gear. It's like shooting to space on a rocket. It took us international. That song was a hit in places they don't even speak English. We had toured Europe before, but we went back in a way bigger way after that. We played more places, played Australia and New Zealand. Internationally, we were much more successful. And in this country, too.
MS: Tough one, here. What's the greatest, most applicable country music song of all time?
CD: "He Stopped Loving Her Today" [by George Jones]. If I had to personify country music in one song, it would probably be that one. There would be some close seconds with Hank Williams -- "Your Cheatin' Heart," etc. But it's hard to get around that song if you're trying to come up with the greatest country music song of all time. It's got it all. The performance George Jones put on in that song, it's just one of the greatest of all times. The song itself has all the country stuff: the heartbreak, the melody. It's all there. All things told, the arrangement, the performance, the singing, the music, the song itself and the way George did it just perfectly personifies country music. I feel the same way about "Layla" with Eric Clapton in a certain era of rock music. That song personifies [that part of the] '70s better than any other song I can think of.
MS: I saw last year on Twitter that you noted you wanted to see a football game at Green Bay, a NASCAR race at Martinsville and two other things I don't recall.
CD: Oh! Probably that I want to catch a 10-pound largemouth bass and shoot an 8-point buck (laughing). Bristol's one of my bucket list tracks, too. This is my first trip to Bristol. I love the short tracks. I want to see Bristol and Martinsville. This is two must-sees to me. I've played a concert at Martinsville, and to look at that sucker and imagine those guys out there with those little bitty pit stalls, I've just got to see that. If I had to pick two tracks to see, that's them.