Originally released in 1980, Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Legend of Wooley Swamp” has now been a spine-tingling crowd-pleaser for 35 years — and if that sounds hard to believe, you’re not alone. Even Daniels is surprised that his tale of a greedy old hermit and a gruesome murder has lasted so long.
“You just sing it every night and don’t think about it,” Daniels tells Rolling Stone Country. “All of a sudden my son let me know it’s been 35 years and it’s like, ‘Wow, where’d the time go?’ But the good feeling about it is people still want to hear it after 35 years.”
“The Legend of Wooley Swamp” is one of many standouts on Daniels’ new Live at Billy Bob’s Texas CD/DVD set. According to Daniels the live album is one of his best in years, showing off a tight, country-rock band who let their individual personalities shine through — just like back in the old days when guitarist Tommy Crain and keys man Taz DiGregorio, a fixture of the CDB until his death in 2011, played with flair.
“It was that way then, and it’s that way now,” he says.
But killer band aside, it’s the song’s spooky plot and Daniels’ intense delivery that have kept fans of “Wooley Swamp” on the edge of their seat for so long. And it all started when the icon decided to write a ghost story. He wanted to follow in the cinematic vein of masterpieces like his own “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and Marshall Tucker Band’s “Fire on the Mountain,” which had come out only a few years earlier.
“I started casting around looking for an old mountain legend or an old Indian legend or something, and I never could find anything I felt could fit in the bounds of the song,” Daniels explains. “I happened to think about this old swamp down in North Carolina — called the Wooley Swamp — I used to hunt in when I was a boy that was a real spooky place. We ‘coon hunted, so we hunted there at night and it was all overgrown with briars and brambles and all kinds of stuff. It just seemed like the kind of place a story like that could happen.”
In true campfire fashion, Daniels describes a creepy old man who hoards money all over the swamp, taking it out to admire only when the moon is right. A group of local no-goods decide to kill and rob the hermit, but get swallowed by quicksand as they try to escape. Daniels says the whole thing is fiction, of course — there are no alligators in North Carolina and he’s not sure where the name of the old man, Lucius Clay, came from — but the terror of a swamp at night is all too real.
“I come from the coast of North Carolina, and we’re loaded down with swamps,” he says. “I’m familiar with them and spent quite a bit of time in them — hunting and logging and that sort of stuff — and especially at night, they take on a whole other look. Daytime is one thing, but when you go at night it’s just a whole different world.”
Charlie Daniels Band: Live at Billy Bob’s Texas is available now. His 2015 tour will wrap up next month in California, but not before the country legend rides into Las Vegas for performances at the National Finals Rodeo December 11th and 12th. Along with “The Legend of Wooley Swamp,” he’ll be performing his latest song, an adrenaline-pumping theme he wrote for the event called “It Don’t Get No Better Than That.”