I was a kid when I saw Charlie Daniels play. At least I think it was him. I could be mistaken. I remember sitting in the cheap seats of the dim Nashville auditorium to see the Grand Ole Opry.
My father was whistling, two-fingered. That’s the funny thing about the Opry. Even though it was a place for seeing a show, it wasn’t a place where people were quiet.
No sir. An Opry man didn’t merely applaud the Statler Brothers, Grandpa Jones, or the immortal Sarah Cannon. This was a place where a man put both fingers into his own mouth and whistled like he was calling horses.
That night my father was eating something. Peanuts I think. But he still managed to whistle between every song, and after every joke. Fingers in the mouth.
The irony is that he was a bad whistler. Some whistlers could shatter glass, but my father sounded like an asthmatic jug player.
That night, I was so enamored with the guy playing a fiddle onstage that I tried a two-finger whistle, just to show my support. I managed to spray spit all over the lady in front of me.
She gave me a dirty look and I apologized, but she was not buying it.
The guy with the violin was large. Big brown beard. Sunglasses. He looked like a Pentecostal deacon wearing a silverbelly cattleman’s hat, and a belt buckle bigger than a hub from a Studebaker.
Looking back, I hope it was Charlie Daniels because Charlie played a tune that became an American fixture in those days. It was a song that everyone’s daddy listened to while changing the oil or fixing the bathroom sink.
I am of course talking about a song that involves the Devil going down to Georgia, looking for a soul to steal.
It was a country song that my Bible-slapping mother hated so much that she would have gladly held all-night prayer vigils to have it banned from North America.
And here we were! Seeing him live!
You should have heard the crowd cheer. They howled harder than they would have yelled for the Oakridge Boys.
And that was saying something. I have seen the Oakridge Boys several times throughout the years. And it never fails. Each time they do “Elvira,” the audience has a major spiritual experience. People scream, tremble, eyes roll back into heads, there are seizures. And you always find yourself singing along:
“Giddy up! Ah-ooom poppa ooom poppa mow mow…!”
This Opry crowd was even louder than that.
My father had both pinkies between his lips, whistling to beat the band. Literally. So I tried to whistle once more. I was transformed into a human lawn sprinkler.
The lady in front of me looked like she was going to slap me. My father made me apologize, which I did, wholeheartedly.
I even offered to let her use my bandana.
I have another memory connected with that devilish song:
In this one I am a young man. Sixteen. Several of us snuck into a beer joint across the county. That night, I was the blind date for one Sheila Branson, who apparently thought I was as appealing as ditch water.
The place was the kind of phony cowboy joint where customers wore ten-gallon hats and tight jeans even though they were young professionals who took tennis lessons. Think: Disney World for anyone who liked Alan Jackson.
My friend, Sammy, brought this girl who—according to Sheila—acted like she was better than the rest of us. The girl’s boots probably cost $3,900, and her hairdo cost even more. At least that’s what Sheila told me. None of the other date-girls liked Sammy’s new friend.
When the band started playing “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” everyone in the place flipped out. Sammy’s boot-wearing date took to the dance floor and started clogging. All by herself. She was really showboating, too, kicking her heels. She was actually pretty good.
The whole place cheered. Meanwhile, my date watched from afar with the other girl-dates. They were all taking turns saying things like: “Big deal, so she can dance.”
“Her top doesn’t match those fancy boots Daddy Warbucks bought her.”
“My aunt Myrtle can clog.”
But the story gets better because something happened on the dance floor. The girl was in the middle of her clogging routine when her boot slipped.
Sammy’s date fell to the ground. She started crying. The music stopped. Fifty men practically fistfought among themselves to come to her aid. And it turned out that she had nearly broken her ankle and we all had to go home.
Sheila said she had a lovely evening.
Anyway, I know I’m not a child anymore. And I know a lot has changed in my life over the years. I haven’t been to the Opry in a millennium, I have a two-car garage, and one back surgery.
But every time I hear that song, I go back to a different period. I think of earlier days, sitting in cheap auditorium seats next to a man who looked just like me, only older. A time in life when things were simpler, when country music was about twin fiddle intros, not about headset microphones. When I was someone’s son.
I still think about the voices of all those people shouting, crammed into that theater, cheering for a guy with a fiddle. I remember it all so clearly that I wish I could whistle to show my appreciation for the music.
But I never did learn how.
So I’m afraid this will have to do, Charlie.