Milledgeville is home to many musicians. Whether self-proclaimed at-home practitioners, local bar giggers or someone who’s "the best there’s ever been,” music runs through Milledgeville’s blood.
Now, the later is a little harder to come by because being "the best there’s ever been” is quite frankly, a huge feat.
That’s not a self-proclaimed title either — it comes with hard work, acknowledgement and just a little bit of fame. The little bit is to be read with a tinge of sarcasm because if a great like the late Charlie Daniels recognizes and is inspired by you, it’s pretty safe to say, there’s bound to be a bit of fame to follow.
Even Alison Krauss called Milledgeville’s Randy Howard “simply one of the best fiddle players that has ever lived.”
His name is renown in the country music world. With the recent passing of Charlie Daniels, Howard’s name has resurfaced to the forefront of many locals’ minds. It’s legend that when Charlie Daniels sat down to write his hit song, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," he was inspired by Howard’s fiddle playing.
Randy Newton, from The 120/80 Band, remembered the story.
“There are two stories on how Charlie came up with the idea for the song. Randy [Howard] and I had a band together called Cheyenne. Roger Smith was our bass player and he loved Charlie Daniels. He was approached more than once mistaken for Charlie. Charlie was on Tom Snyder's late night show called ‘Tomorrow.’ Roger taped it. On that show when asked about the inspiration of that song this is what was said: Charlie was on tour and was at an airport and was calling home to his wife. While on the phone he asked, ‘Oh by the way who won the fiddle contest at Union Grove this past weekend?’ She told him she didn't know but they had made a big thing about it being the first time anyone from Georgia had won it.’ Sitting on the airplane, he began thinking and wrote the song.”
If Daniels really did use that Union Grove fiddle contest winner as inspiration, Randy Howard would have indeed been that muse because in 1979, at age 18, Howard won the World Fiddling Championship at Union Grove, N.C. The Charlie Daniels Band released arguably their biggest hit later in 1979. However, some say this story is just a tall tale.
“Now I've personally heard him [Daniels] tell another inspiration for it,” Newton said. “Roger has passed away and it was recorded on an old beta recorder. If someone could track down that show it would settle the argument.”
Whether or not Howard was the Johnny who bet the devil is up for question it seems, however, his talent is undisputed. Howard won the fiddle World Championship in 1979, won the Grand Master Championship on the fiddle in 1985, was an eight-time national champion and a four-time Tennessee Old Time Fiddler.
Howard learned to play music from his father, Floyd Howard. Floyd was a musical therapist at Central State Hospital and taught Randy the basics of various instruments as he was growing up. Before he was 10, Howard new basic techniques of several of the instruments he would go on to strum when he was older.
As he realized his love for music, and after winning several competitions, Howard realized that Nashville suited him and his talents. So, he moved to the starry-eyed city and became a studio musician. Howard contributed fiddle to albums for Chet Atkins, Shelby Lynn, Garth Brooks, J.D. Crowe, Vince Gill, and others. He also recorded two solo albums: “I Rest My Case” and his debut, “Survival of the Fiddlest.”
Either way you look at him — as the late Charlie Daniels’ inspiration for ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia,’ or just a fiddle-playin’ fool, Howard was a humble Milledgeville legend.
Milledgeville resident John Cotten contributed to this story.