Alabama’s 14th consecutive number-one hit on country charts opens with the line “If you’re gonna play in Texas/You gotta have a fiddle in the band.” The song may have forever linked the Lone Star State with the four unforgiving strings stretched across a narrow bridge, but before winds carried the scratch and strain of fiddle music from the Gulf to the pan handle, before historians debated whether Davy Crockett played a funeral serenade at dawn the day the Alamo fell, Virginians picked up the instrument.
Virginians like to pride themselves on having born a good chunk of the country’s history and culture. The state did, after all, support the first permanent English settlement, produce more presidents than any other state, cultivate the tobacco industry, invent the mechanical reaper and generate literary icons like Edgar Allan Poe and Tom Wolfe.
My father will also tell you that Virginia created Texas. He has a point: Sam Houston was a native of my own Augusta County. His family’s westward migration fits patly into settlement patterns of the Old Southwest when economic struggles and worn out soil plucked previously prosperous Virginians from their homes. In 1836, 11 Virginians marked the Texas Declaration of Independence with their squiggle.
As a native of the state that created the one where a band must have a fiddle, I’d like to claim to know a decent fiddle performance when I hear one. The standard for judgement? Charlie Daniels’ Grammy-winning “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” By the end of the ballad, fast-twitch muscles should be jittering of their own accord, friction should have shredded bow strings and beads of nervous sweat should glisten on the brow. To play it right is a hard ask.
Recently, I listened to a live rendition of the song at Rock Creek State Park in Kellogg. For once, my ears weren’t pricked to catch deviations from Daniels’ perfect trills of demisemiquavers: I was listening to the voice behind the cadenzas sliding from strings of the fiddle.
The sheer speed the song demands of a vocalist rivals the finger gymnastics required for “The Devil Went Down To Georgia.” A singer’s abdominal muscles must clench into steel knots as they brace for the breath control. The whole feat flies in the face of the slow, syllable-adding Southern voice.
As I listened to an Iowan pop the consonants in “the devil jumped up on a hickory stump” from his lips, the words sounded slower than they do when a Southerner spits them into a microphone. Does the surprise of hearing a Southern voice so quickly jump through the tongue-twisters that describe hissing fiddles and pecking chickens trick us into believing that the words reach our ears more quickly?
If optical illusions exist, certainly audible illusions might, and I pondered the possibility until the band started sawing away at the stanza just before the devil plays. The lyrics of this stanza ring with more imagery than entire songs. At this point, the devil, surrounded by a ball of flames, stretches his bony, arthritic fingers before he opens his case and plucks out his golden fiddle. A hot little blue-flame demon band gyrates at his feet. Critically, “fire blew from his fingertips as he rosined up his bow.”
When Daniels sings it, he stretches out “fire,” the distinct, harsh Appalachian “R” cuts off the extended long “I” that sounds more like opening your mouth at the dentist and saying, “ah.” The “R” reappears in “fingertips” and again in “rosined.” The amalgamation of those noises is a textbook, A-plus interpretation of the Appalachian accent. Daniels, a native of the eastern half of North Carolina, must have tuned his ear and stretched his vocal chords to it by playing with bluegrass artists early in his career.
When the line emanated from the mouth of an Iowan, it came out flat, like no one in Georgia could have cared the devil was about to consume poor, naive, gangly limbed Johnny in a ball of flames and send his soul to eternal damnation with one stroke of his bow. When Daniels sings it, he makes it sound like the event of the century, like Georgia’s Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian preachers are going to sermonize about Johnny defeating the devil for a month of Sundays. The best line of the song, possibly one of the top ten lines in the history of country music, lost all the drama that qualified it.
The adage, “it’s not so much what you say, it’s how you say it,” holds true for country music. Even if a fiddler somehow manages to dance his bow through the entirety of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in a flawless jig, that’s only half the equation. The lyrics scream for dialect. Listening to the song without an ounce of the flippant twang is like sitting in a French cafe and listening to Mick Jagger. If you’re gonna play the fiddle, you gotta have a Southerner in the band … or at least someone who can plausibly imitate the accent.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at