Charlie Daniels Band and released on their 1979 album Million Mile Reflections.
The song is written in the key of D minor. Vassar Clements originally wrote the basic melody an octave lower, in a tune called "Lonesome Fiddle Blues". The Charlie Daniels Band moved it up an octave and put words to it. The song's verses are closer to being spoken rather than sung (i.e. chant or Sprechstimme), and tell the story of a boy named Johnny, in a variant on the classic deal with the Devil. The performances of Satan and Johnny are played as instrumental bridges. The song was the band's biggest hit, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100. It is featured in the 1980 movie Urban Cowboy, whose choreographer, Patsy Swayze, claims that she set the song's tempo. "How fast can you dance it?" Daniels asked. "How fast can you play it?" Swayze replied.
The song is a country music ballad about the Devil's failed attempt to "steal" a young man's soul through a fiddle-playing contest that involved enticing the young man's participation using a worldly prize. The song begins with a disappointed Devil arriving in Georgia, having stolen far fewer souls than expected, when he comes upon a fiddle-playing young man named Johnny. At that moment, Johnny happens to be playing his fiddle impressively "hot." Out of desperation, the Devil, who as it turns out also plays the fiddle, offers Johnny the wager which involves challenging the young man to a fiddle-playing contest. The Devil offers to give Johnny a golden fiddle if the young man plays better than he does; otherwise, the Devil will gain Johnny's soul. Although Johnny believes taking the Devil's bet might be a sin, he wagers his soul without fear, confidently boasting he is "the best that's ever been."
The Devil plays his fiddle first, to a contemporary, harsh rock music theme with the backing of demon musicians. When the Devil's performance ends, Johnny compliments him and responds by playing four songs (see the section that follows). Two are traditional songs of Appalachia -- "Fire on the Mountain" and "Granny Does Your Dog Bite?" (the latter traditionally known as "Granny Will Your Dog Bite?"). The third is an unnamed square dance melody that includes the patter, "Chicken in the bread pan pickin' out dough." The last is a traditional American southern folk song "The House of the Rising Sun." The four songs are not performed but are only mentioned by reference. The Devil is impressed, admits defeat, and lays a golden fiddle at Johnny's feet. Johnny repeats his claim to be the best player ever and dares the Devil to a rematch in the future.
Johnny's final boast was originally written as, "I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been" but was initially recorded as "'Cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I'm the best that's ever been" for airplay on country music radio. Thus, Johnny maintains his virtue, keeping his soul from the Devil, by displaying his musical virtuosity in performing traditional songs of America's South.
The ballad's story is a derivative of the traditional deal with the Devil motif. Charlie Daniels has stated in interviews, "I don’t know where it came from, but it just did. Well, I think I might know where it came from, it may have come from an old poem called 'The Mountain Whippoorwill' that Stephen Vincent Benét wrote many, many years ago (1925), that I had in high school. Either that or Jersey."
The songs Johnny plays are mentioned in the lyrics by reference only. In the order presented in the lyrics they are as follows:
- "Fire on the mountain, run boys run" is from "Fire on the Mountain", a traditional bluegrass fiddle tune dating to at least the early 19th century. According to the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center Traditional Music and Spoken Word Catalog, "The tune seems to be associated with a cluster of playful rhymes and jingles used in children's songs, play-party songs, and courting songs across the early frontier."
- "The devil's in the house of the rising sun" refers to "The House of the Rising Sun", a traditional American southern folk song.
- "Chicken in the bread pan pickin' out dough" refers to a well-known square dance patter that can be followed by another rhyming patter such as "Big pig rootin' up a little tater row." The patter logically belongs to an unnamed square dance song Johnny played.
- "Granny does your dog bite? No, child, no" is a corruption of an old folk rhyme that starts "Granny will your dog bite? / Your hen peck, your rooster fight, / Your turkey walk a fence rail? / No child, no." Like "Fire on the Mountain", "Granny Does Your Dog Bite?" is a traditional folk song recorded as early as 1938.
The original version of the song spent fourteen weeks on the Hot Country Singles charts in 1979, peaking at number 1 and holding the position for one week. It spent two weeks at a peak of number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Since it became available as download in the digital era, it has sold 1.9 million digital copies in the US as of October 2013.
In June 1998, Epic Records re-released the song to country radio, but accidentally sent out the version in which the line "son of a bitch" was uncensored. This error was quickly corrected, and the song re-entered the country charts at number 62 for the chart dated June 20, 1998.It spent seven weeks on the chart and peaked at number 60.