Charlie Daniels crafted Wednesday night’s 20th installment of his long-running Volunteer Jam as a celebration of himself and who can blame him? The Country Music Hall of Fame member will turn 82 in October, and he’s been taking stock of what he’s accomplished, both through a memoir – Never Look at the Empty Seats, published last October – and through this star-studded concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, where Don Was acts as the music director for a band anchored by longtime Daniels friend, Rolling Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell.
Together, Daniels and Was assembled an impressive collection of guests for the Jam, which is being filmed to air on AXS TV this summer: ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (making his first-ever appearance at a Volunteer Jam), Bobby Bare, Alabama, Blackberry Smoke, Ricky Skaggs, the Oak Ridge Boys, Chris Janson, Brent Cobb, Justin Moore, Lee Brice, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss and Lynyrd Skynyrd, among them. This is a roster that snags headlines, but it’s the presence of Was – an accomplished musical omnivore who is known for his refined taste – that underscores how this particular Volunteer Jam is designed to offer a reminder of the far-ranging musical accomplishments of Daniels, something that can sometimes get overshadowed by his noisy political declarations on Twitter.
And there really is no better showcase for Charlie Daniels or his namesake Band than the Volunteer Jam, the musical carnival that Daniels has kept going since its inception in 1974. That year, he was riding high on the success of “Uneasy Rider” – a single that went into the Top 10 on Billboard’s Top 40 but couldn’t get past Number 67 on their country charts – and found a home in the Southern-rock zeitgeist surging beneath the Mason-Dixon line in the Seventies.
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The Charlie Daniels Band wasn’t the first Southern rock band – that honor belongs to the Allman Brothers Band – nor were they the most popular, but they were the Southern rock band that endured. Their peers split, died or faded away, but after achieving cruising altitude in the early Eighties, the CDB kept going all the way into the 21st century, and the Volunteer Jam played a crucial part in that ongoing success.
The Volunteer Jam didn’t merely become an institution, it reflected how Charlie Daniels thought about his music. The bands on the very first Jam in 1974 – held that October at Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium, a venue that seated just 2,400 people – signaled how the Charlie Daniels Band pledged allegiance to the swampy jams of the Marshall Tucker Band and the Allman Brothers Band. It’s not just the presence of these two groups – Dickey Betts represented the Allmans that inaugural year – that confirms this assessment: portions of CDB’s set at the first Volunteer Jam can be heard on Fire on the Mountain, the 1974 LP that set the Charlie Daniels Band on the path to stardom.
Fire on the Mountain also contained “The South’s Gonna Do It,” a song whose title may have winked at the Confederacy but whose content saluted the rise of the New South. Upon its release, the song was indeed interpreted as a sign that the South was to put its conflicted past behind – not for nothing Jimmy Carter used the song as a campaign anthem during his primary run in 1976 – but it eventually would calcify as an old-fashioned rebel call. Still, it would take many moons for either the song or Charlie Daniels to turn to tradition. During the late Seventies – the salad days of the Volunteer Jam – they were feeding upon the energy of a revitalized South, and the earliest Volunteer Jams crackled with that sense of discovery.
Daniels understood how to capitalize on this burgeoning scene. A year after the first Volunteer Jam, he decamped to the Murphy Center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a venue that allowed him to have thousands more watch him jam with the Marshall Tucker Band, along with members of the Allmans, Wet Willie and Grinderswitch. It was a spectacle demanding a document, which it received via a feature film called Volunteer Jam: The Movie, billed as “The First Full-Length Southern Rock Motion Picture.”
Momentum was in Daniels’ favor and in 1977 he laid claim to Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium as the Volunteer Jam’s regular home for the next nine years. King Biscuit aired a special featuring this show, doing the same thing for the fourth Volunteer Jam. Epic, Daniels’ label, released Volunteer Jam III and IV as a double-LP in 1978, with Charlie Daniels taking up the first side and Willie Nelson the third – a savvy way of elevating Daniels to the level of Nelson in the heady heyday of Outlaw Country, a move that benefitted Daniels more than Nelson, since in the late Seventies he was languishing in a netherworld where he could sell tickets but never scored hits.
That changed in 1979, when “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” became an international crossover hit, turning Charlie Daniels into a household name. At that point, it was hard to classify Daniels – his hit was a canny blend of rock, disco and country – and the Jam lineups in the early Eighties reflected this amorphous musicality. Daniels invited soul singer Dobie Grey, fiddler Papa John Creach, soul titan Rufus Thomas, laconic country singer Bobby Bare, hard-rocker Ted Nugent and pop superstar Billy Joel, all of them sitting alongside old hands Grinderswitch and Wet Willie. By 1987, he had hosted Roy Acuff, James Brown, Duane Eddy, Crystal Gayle, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dwight Yoakam, Tommy Shaw, Vince Gill, Little Richard, Great White and Quarterflash – a collection of artists that touched so many different sounds, styles and generations, they didn’t seem to belong, yet they indicated the broadness of Daniels’ tastes.
Daniels eased away from the annual Volunteer Jam celebrations in 1987, when he was still scoring country hits but his commercial decline was well within sight. He never ignored shifting trends – once Southern Rock began to wane, he hitched his wagon to the country charts – and this instinct helped him navigate the difficult waters of the 1990s and 2000s, when he was inching toward living legend status.
Daniels held a pair of Volunteer Jams in the early Nineties, but following a show in 1996 – one that celebrated his 60th birthday – he quietly pulled the plug on these old-school festivals. He took the bash out on the road in 1999, traveling the U.S. with the Marshall Tucker and Molly Hatchet, veterans from 20 years earlier. The Charlie Daniels Band kept up this roving Volunteer Jam for a couple of years, but during the 2000s, the tradition was hibernating. Daniels revived the Volunteer Jam Tour in 2007 and 2008 – the first year featured the Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws, the next featured 38 Special and Shooter Jennings – before taking a six- year hiatus.
Following an unofficial show in Colorado in 2014, Charlie Daniels held the first of what’s turned out to be three big celebratory bashes. A 40th Anniversary Jam in 2015 leaned heavily on old pals like the Oak Ridge Boys, Nugent and Travis Tritt. His 80th Birthday Volunteer Jam in 2016 highlighted his conservative connections with Kid Rock, Larry the Cable Guy and 3 Doors Down (along with young hotshots Luke Bryan and Chris Stapleton). And now this year’s 20th Volunteer Jam, which in contrast, features a deep and diverse lineup, filled with rockers, folk singers, country pickers, superstars and up-and-comers. It’s a revue that makes it plain that Daniels isn’t quite country and isn’t quite rock: rather, he’s developed his own hybrid of these two distinctly American sounds, a fusion so seamless that audience may need a reminder of all of its multi-faceted roots.
Years of playing to a conservative base – both in the political and musical senses – have created a caricature of Daniels, but he remains a much more complex musical figure. He’s spent his career floating between genres, playing rock & roll in dive bars, bringing country to the masses and figuring out what sells without ever making it seem like he gives a damn about the charts. The 20th Volunteer Jam celebrates all these sides of Charlie Daniels, but most importantly reaffirms his pivotal role as a bridge between both musical genres and generations.
A previous version of this story incorrectly included Kenny Aronoff in the house band.